Karaoke (カラオケ)

A typical Japanese past time and also one of my personal favorites is Karaoke (Called carry oke in the west) . First let’s go over what Karaoke actually means.  カラ represents the Chinese character 空 which means empty.  オケ is a shortened version of オーケストラ which means orchestra.  So basically it means “Emtpy Orchestra”  Now you are probably wondering what that actually means.  It basically means to sing without an accompanying orchestra playing music for you.

Karaoke History and Background

The equipment needed are a microphone, a TV monitor, a device for adjusting the volume and pitch and speakers.  The lyrics of the singer’s chosen song will appear on the screen.  When the lyrics changes color, this guides the singer and helps him or her in keeping the proper rhythm.  When I first arrived in Japan in the early 1990’s, at that time the lyrics were displayed on a blue background.  However nowadays in Japan, there is usually a video in the background that makes the experience a whole lot more fun and interesting.

When someone wants to sing a song, at either a karaoke box or at a karaoke bar, (I’ll explain what these are in a moment) there is a book filled with song titles.  The book includes songs that are currently popular or were popular in the past.  The songs are listed by title and also by singer.  Let’s say that you want to sing the song “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.  There are two ways you can go about looking up the song.  First you can look up the song under songs that start with the letter M and go through the list until you find “My Way”.  All the songs are listed in alphabetical order by the way.  The second is to look up the song by singer.  The singer’s name is also listed in alphabetical order.  Once you find the singer, there will be a list of popular songs by that singer.  Scroll down to find the song that you would like to sing.

After you look up the song by either the song title or singer’s name, you will find a number next to it.  You then enter that number in the remote control device and hit the enter button.  After a few seconds your song will appear on the monitor and you can then start singing.

Karaoke Box

Above I talked about going to either a karaoke box or karaoke bar.  Let me explain the difference between each.  A karaoke box is basically a building that has several floors and on each floor there are a number of small private karaoke rooms.  You rent out the rooms anywhere from an hour to all night if you wanted.  Once you check in at the lobby area you tell the staff how long you want to rent a room for and the total number of people in your party.  The staff will give you a remote control device for entering the song number and a book or books which include the song titles and names of singers.  A staff member will also inform you of your designated room’s number.   If it’s in the morning or during the day, the room charge will be very inexpensive and chances are that you won’t have to wait and can go directly to your designated room.  If it’s in the evening, especially on the weekend, the room charge will be more expensive and you will most likely have to wait until a room becomes available.

Karaoke Bar

Now, let’s go over what a karaoke bar or “Snack” is.  Basically, a karaoke bar will have a bar counter and some tables. Many karaoke bars are privately run.  They are usually fairly small in size and cannot accommodate a large number of customers. Many karaoke bars will have a “Mama San” who is either the owner or manages the bar and some extra staff.  Karaoke bars tend to be more expensive than karaoke boxes.  Most karaoke bars will have at the bare minimum, beer, whisky and shochu.  Other larger karaoke bars will have a wider variety of alcoholic drinks available to choose from including wine, sake and cocktails.  After you sit  down the staff gives you what’s called “お通し” which means appetizer in English.  There usually isn’t a food menu at a karaoke bar but most will serve light snacks.  There will also be a TV monitor for those customers who would like to sing a song or two.  At some karaoke bars the karaoke will be free.  And at others you will have to pay extra for each song you sing.

Types Of Crowds

Now you are probably wondering what type of crowd goes to each one.  If your main purpose is singing songs or you are on a budget, then renting a room at a karaoke box would be the way to go.  You can also order food and drinks from a telephone located inside the room at reasonable prices.  If you rent a room for 2 hours and you have 10 minutes remaining, you will usually get a phone call from the front desk asking if you would like to extend your stay or not.  Please not that in the evenings and on weekends, if the karaoke box is really busy, there is a chance that they won’t allow you to extend your stay if you wanted to.

In Conclusion

If you have never tried karaoke, I highly recommend that you give it a try.  Not only is it really fun, it can also be a way to relieve stress.  Even if you aren’t stressed out, it makes you feel good overall afterwards.

Here is a video of me singing a Japanese Enka song at a karaoke bar in my neighborhood about 10 years ago.  The title of the song is called “Yuki Guni” and the singer is Ikuzo Yoshi. Unfortunately the video is a bit dark and the acoustics aren’t very good.  I will try to make some new better quality karaoke videos in the near future.

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