Trends come and go but karaoke (pronounced ka-ra-ohkay) has been a fixture of Japan's culture for decades. It doesn't matter if you're a good singer or not, as long as you've got heart.
Where did karaoke come from?
For those who understand Japanese, the word "karaoke" itself may give you a clue as to its origins: it’s a portmanteau of two words: kara (the Japanese word for "empty"), and orchestra. Though the word choice may strike modern audiences as odd, in the early decades of the 1900s when backing music to singers’ performances were usually played live by a band or an orchestra, “karaoke” gave the impression of a lone singer and empty seats where the other musicians should be.
In other words, “karaoke” meant that a singer would perform to a recorded backing track, negating the need for an orchestra. In its early days, karaoke was used exclusively by professional performers. However, towards the tail end of the 1960s, the practice was adapted for the public, and amateur singers could now belt out tunes on a microphone hooked up to an amp at their favorite bars.
Nowadays karaoke boxes are the go-to place for many in Japan looking for an hour or two of entertainment. These soundproof rooms fitted with a karaoke machine, TV and even flashing lights emerged in the late 1980s to early 1990s, taking the karaoke machine out of smoky bars and making it a family-friendly activity for any time of day.
What's the karaoke scene like in Japan today?
In Japan, karaoke is usually sung in private rooms with friends, at establishments called karaoke boxes. A typical karaoke box has multiple floors with dozens of rooms of varying sizes. All major cities have them, in entertainment districts or around major train stations. Smaller cities often have one near the main train station, and it just might be the only after-dark entertainment option around.
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How do I book a karaoke box?
You enter a karaoke box as you do a hotel, heading first to the counter in the lobby. Reservations aren't required, though occasionally you may have to wait for a room to open up. Some chains may require a nominal membership, which someone in the group will have to sign up for, so make sure at least one person has an ID. Otherwise, the first step is to tell the staff the size of your party.
Then you need to work out how long you want to rent a room. Most places charge admission per person per 30 minutes, with a one-hour minimum. If you're not sure how long you want to commit, you can book the initial hour and then choose to extend by 30 minutes or an hour indefinitely (so long as no one is waiting on an empty room and it's not yet closing time). Pricing varies by day and time of day, being most expensive on Friday and Saturday nights – around ¥500 (US$4) per 30 minutes – and cheapest on weekend afternoons – around ¥150 ($1) per 30 minutes.
Alternatively, most establishments offer various packages, which may include unlimited drinks (nomihodai) and/or room rental for a set number of hours (often called "free time"). These packages are usually a much better deal than ordering drinks and food a la carte and paying by the hour.
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When you're inside your room, locate the console, which you'll use to select songs. In most chains, it's possible to switch the console into English and search songs alphabetically. If there's no English function, check the room (or ask staff ) for a songbook – a huge paper directory of all the songs – that will list English-language songs in English (you enter the song code into the console). English songs will play with the lyrics in English on the screen.
Pro tip: Queue up several songs so that you don't waste precious karaoke time mulling over what to sing next.
You can order food and drink via the telephone in the room. Staff will ring you around 10 minutes before your session is due to expire; you can extend or decide to call it a night. When your time is up, return to the lobby – taking the tab with you if there's one in the room – to pay.
Karaoke boxes are where friends, family, and coworkers go to party to their favorite hits, but the thing about karaoke is that it isn't really about singing – it's about bonding. It's why beyond the dark rooms of karaoke boxes, the song machines are also found in bars, hotels and even on a Ferris wheel for those special moments that can only be made better with a song.
Karaoke boxes are the best places to sing
Karaoke boxes are easy to spot: just look for the colorful, illuminated signs spelling out カラオケ (karaoke). Most are chains, and it's these that have the biggest songbooks, offer nonsmoking rooms and are most likely to have consoles and menus in English.
The biggest national chain and an all-round good option. Rooms here are clean and modern, though prices can be a bit higher compared to the competition.
This nationwide karaoke chain is ubiquitous and inexpensive, afternoons being the cheapest. Its decor has a distinctly '90s feel, and drinks are served to your room by staff.
Located in the Tokyo area, this karaoke box offers free soft drinks, and it's the best option for travelers on a budget. Look for the smiley face logo.
Found in Kyūshū and the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara etc), this karaoke box chain has cheap all-you-can-drink packages – though unlike other karaoke boxes, guests are allowed to bring along their own food and beverages.
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What else should I know about karaoke in Japan?
The two major karaoke systems in use are DAM and Joysound. At karaoke boxes, you sometimes get the option to choose. Both have a large catalogue of English songs and will have popular hits plus some indie favorites, though song availability can vary between machines.
Use the "Remote Control" (リモコン) function on the karaoke system's controller to raise or lower the key of the song. Volume, song speed and mic effects can be altered here too. The same buttons are sometimes found at the bottom of the controller's screen for quick access.
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When should I go?
Whenever the mood strikes. Tokyo's karaoke bars are excellent after dark, and karaoke boxes and other attractions are family-friendly during the day.
How much does karaoke cost?
Karaoke costs can vary from place to place. Some hotels and karaoke bars offer it for free, while other bars charge ¥100 ($.87) per song.
Is there karaoke etiquette?
Yes – at a karaoke bar, you should refrain from queueing multiple songs at once. But if someone's singing a song you know, you're always welcome to sing along!
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