A Guide For First-Timers to Karaoke in Japan

by Charlie Horner
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It’s likely that most of you reading this article have been handed the karaoke microphone at some point in your lives and sung something silly, whether you wanted to or not. It’s also likely if you’re thinking of visiting Japan, you’ve heard that they love karaoke.

So why is Japan so obsessed with this popular pastime? Many people who are familiar with the Japanese’s reserved nature are surprised to learn of their love of public singing. One of the reasons could be that Karaoke was invented in Japan! Literally translated “empty orchestra” and loved the world over, Karaoke is still best when experienced in its birthplace, and honestly? Nobody does Karaoke quite like Japan. How can you ensure you have the best Karaoke experience during your trip?

We’re going to look at the history of Karaoke, answer some of your most popular questions, and share some of the best places you can sing your way to a good time (skip ahead if that’s all you’re looking for – we won’t get mad).

Who Invented Karaoke?

The simple answer to that question is that karaoke, as we know it today, was invented by a man named Daisuke Inoue, but in reality, several people contributed to the mainstream appeal of Karaoke today. 1960s Japan favored cafes in which live bands would play sets for the audience to sing along to, known as Utagoe Kissa. They were incredibly popular – large hotels and restaurants offered the service alongside much smaller venues hoping to jump on the trend. Unfortunately, the technology of the time didn’t allow for anything more advanced than the live music singalong.

In the 1970s however, audio-visual technology had advanced enough for karaoke to progress. The first ever prototype was made by Japanese engineer Shigeichi Negishi, but it was in 1971 that the first proper karaoke equipment was created by Kobe-based musician Daisuke Inoue. Inoue got the idea for a karaoke system after receiving many requests for recordings of his own musical performances so that people could sing along to them at home. In response, he created a machine much like a tape recorder that charged 100-yen per song.

Despite the fact that 100-yen was roughly the cost of two meals at that time, the machine rose in popularity quite quickly. Inoue leased his machines out to stores and provided new songs himself. Unfortunately, Inoue did not understand about patents, and therefore never really made much money from his machines. Roberto del Rosario wisely did apply for a patent, and further developed Inoue’s work, creating a sing-along system in 1975.

With the integration of audio and visual technology, karaoke soon spread to countries all through Asia, although the activity was much slower to gain popularity in the west. With the increased popularity in the 1990s, came a wider range of music and even more mainstream appeal. Karaoke bars popped up all over the world, and especially in Japan. Nowadays, even though the technology can be found in homes around the world, and is available on most smartphones, karaoke clubs can still be found throughout Japan in varying forms and are as popular as they have ever been.

What can you expect from karaoke in Japan?

When Japan commits to doing something, they tend to do it very well, so you can expect a premium experience in most karaoke bars here. While karaoke was very much a public affair when it started, most of Japan’s modern-day establishments now favor small, private booths (karaoke boxes) where you can sing alone or with a few friends, and the “classic” style of karaoke bars where you since to a room full of people are a little harder to find.

Yes – you read that correctly. Singing alone. Private karaoke rooms have become popular for people who just want to sing to their heart’s content in complete privacy, and many people in Japan choose to spend time there alone. Many uptight western people like myself (ok British let’s face it) might think that sounds a little bit silly, but it’s a pretty fun pastime since it allows you to really belt out your favorite songs without fear of embarrassment or self-consciousness. It’s known as hitokara in Japan, and it is increasingly popular with those that are a little shy, and even amateur singers hoping to improve their skills. It definitely beats the shower.

Many karaoke bars in Japan offer all kinds of amenities like food, drinks, and snacks. And most major chains and even smaller venues have a wide selection of English songs, so you don’t need to worry about learning a new language just for your karaoke debut. Because Japan is the land of technology too, most karaoke facilities offer the latest features

There’s also some good news for those of you who’d like to try this Japanese rite of passage but aren’t very confident in your singing ability. People in Japan LOVE singing, and because of that are pretty non-judgemental towards hearing other people sing too. It doesn’t matter if you’re the next Adele, or you found like a bag of cats being swung around (it’s a saying in England, I promise), most people listening to you here will supportively cheer you on.

So now you’ve imagined a triumphant ballad sung to a room of supporters, or just yourself, where’s the best place to get your karaoke on? We’ve picked a couple of places in each of the major cities to help you plan your next live tour.

Karaoke in Tokyo

There are plenty of choices within Japan’s capital city, especially in some of the more youth-oriented districts, but here are just a few of the Karaoke spots in Tokyo that get rave reviews.

Karaoke Kan

9 9, 4-chōme, Roppongi Minato City, Tōkyō-to, 106-0032, Japan

This is a very popular chain of karaoke stores, with locations at each of Tokyo’s main districts (although we’ve included the Roppongi location’s address, since it offers such a great nightlife). Karaoke Kan offers a really wide selection of rooms, ranging from basic to VIP, and even has all-you-can-drink deals, making it very popular with students and salarymen alike. They also have a wide variety of English and Japanese songs!

Studio Himawari

12 4, 1-chōme, Kabukichō Shinjuku City, Tōkyō-to, 160-0021, Japan

This is a great option for those of you who love live music since the bar’s owners, who are husband and wife, will often play along with the music on their own instruments. While this venue certainly does have a relatively expensive cover charge when compared with other karaoke bars (3000-yen), it gets excellent reviews from people who say the food and drinks on offer are excellent. Studio Himawari is open until 7am and is often the choice of venue for those finishing shifts at other bars, but it can be hard to find so make sure you check it out on google maps before you go.

Pasela Resorts

1F, 16 3, 1-chōme, Kabukichō Shinjuku City, Tōkyō-to, 160-0021, Japan

Pasela Resorts is the place to go if you’re into anime, manga, or are an otaku of any kind, because they often collaborate with different manga and anime franchises. They’re also known for having a particularly impressive selection of foreign songs, which is just one of the reasons the venue is so popular with visitors. Reviewers rave about the excellent range of food available here, in particular the “Honey Toast” which is not to be missed.

Karaoke in Kyoto

After spending an entire day quietly traversing Kyoto’s historical sites, it makes sense that you might want to let loose and sing loud – here’s a couple of the best places you can do that.

Joysound (Kiyamachi branch)

267-3 Kitakurumayacho, 2-chome Higashi-iru, Sanjo Sagaru, Kawaramachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Joysound have two locations in Tokyo, one in Osaka, and one here in Kyoto. It’s another great location for anyone with an interest in anime, since they claim to have the largest selection of anime songs available in Japan (so you can shamelessly sing the theme to “Your Name”, or rock out to the Attack on Titan theme song). They serve food and drink, and even have a room where you can rent instruments to play while you sing – great for people who want to practice their all-around performance before debuting it to the world.

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Big Echo (Kyoto Ekimae Branch)

2-730 Higashi-Shiokoji-cho, Shichijo Sagaru, Higashi-Nokoin-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto

Big Echo is a great option for those who want to experience karaoke a little differently because they have several concept rooms that are quite novel for a Japanese Karaoke bar. Some look like far-out living rooms or rather elegant rooms that prove quite popular with women. If you are traveling with or meeting a large group, they also have rooms that accommodate up to 40 people.

Karaoke in Osaka

Osaka is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan, after Tokyo, and it’s known for a vivid nightlife and great street food. It also has one of the most authentic karaoke experiences Japan has to offer.

Kankodori (カンコドリ)

3 Chome-6-12 Awajimachi, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 541-0047, Japan

This karaoke bar really has to be seen to be believed since it perfectly encapsulates the spirit of 1960s karaoke. Instead of toting modern karaoke booths and machines, Kankodori (literally translated Oystercatcher) is full of 7” vinyl records to sing along to! Of course, this means that most of the songs available are what’s known as Kayō music, which was a popular style between 1955 and the late 1980s. While the music might be foreign to most foreigners, it’s popular with all ages in Japan, and young often sing along with older people. Even if you can’t sing along you should certainly check this venue out for the nostalgia alone, and get a real feel for what karaoke might have been like when it started.

Karawan

4-27 Komatsubaracho, Kita Ward, Osaka, 530-0018

Karawan was Osaka’s first karaoke bar to offer solo booths, so they’re a great place to spend a little solo time. They also offer women’s only rooms that have auto-lock features, so you don’t need to worry about anything dangerous happening while you’re there. One of their most popular features is the fact that each room has a genuine condenser microphone, which really does give you the feeling that you’re singing in a real-life recording studio.

Honourable mention – Sapporo

We wouldn’t want to neglect the lovely island of Hokkaido, especially since Sapporo is the fifth-largest city in Japan, and because the island to the north loves karaoke as much as the rest of the country.

Big Echo Karaoke

3-10 Minami 3 Jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo

Another Big Echo! In their own words, Big Echo Karaoke offers a typical Japanese karaoke bar experience, which is great if you’re looking to experience what the locals do. They have songs available in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, which makes sense considering Big Echo is one of the biggest karaoke chains in Japan. You can expect food, drinks, and the highest quality equipment……and a rocking good time of course!

So, what do you do when you get there?

It can be a little daunting to head straight into a karaoke bar if you don’t speak Japanese. While many bars do have some English-speaking staff, it’s not always guaranteed. The large chains are more likely to have English menus and booklets but again – it’s not a guarantee. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting you through the doors and singing to your heart’s content with as little difficulty as possible.

1.  Find the reception desk

Most establishments have reception areas where you can book a booth, agree on the amount of time you’d like to spend there, and decide if you’d like any food or drinks packages. Keep in mind that as with many Japanese businesses residing in the city centres, the bars and booths are sometimes located a few floors above ground level. It’s also worth taking your passport with you, as many bars like to see one form of I.D.

Once you’ve found the reception nail down all the details of your session, and bear in mind that there are usually cover charges, and possibly (there’s often an option between one drink at a time, and an all you can drink course (nomihodai).

2.  Find your booth or room and get started.

You’ll often be shown straight to your booth, where you’ll find everything you’ll need for your own private concert. Check out the machine, most of which will allow you to select your preferred language right off the bat, which will make selecting songs in that language much easier. Many karaoke bar booths give you the option of changing the lighting and the volume, and if you’re at a really high tech one they might even have the option for you to connect your own device too. If you’d like to order food and drink there’s usually a separate remote to do that too.

3.  Sing to your heart’s content!

Sing, sing, sing!

4.  Finish up…or keep it going

You might get a call 5-10 minutes before your session is due to end but keep an eye on the time just in case that’s not their policy. If you’re having too much fun, the venue is not due to close, and there’s nobody waiting, you can extend your time and keep singing for as long as you’d like.

Once your time is up and your throat is sore, you can head back to reception and settle up your bill!

And that’s about it! Obviously, you’ll have to wing it if the venue you choose doesn’t follow the standard process, but as is always the case in Japan, the staff will be friendly and accommodating. We’d love to hear your experiences if you manage to make it to any of the places on our list, but in the meantime you’d better get those vocal chords warmed up.

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