Before I start this post, I should say that I love karaoke. A lot. I had a reputation among my friends for always having discount vouchers for karaoke, and always being up for a session of singing our hearts out. They knew which songs I loved to sing (and I knew theirs). Of course, karaoke can be done across Japan, but many of my memories are from Sendai. I won’t go into the hows of booking a room or all of the different options; I just want to share my experiences with you.

Opening chords
My first experiences of karaoke were actually when I was an exchange student. Then, it was still a very alien pastime, full of mysterious vocabulary and winding corridors to boxy rooms. I could barely keep up if I wanted to sing in Japanese, but I did try! Even so, there was something about karaoke that immediately gave it a place in my heart. It could just be that after a long time without singing in any kind of group or choir, it satisfied a kind of nostalgia. Or perhaps it was because I went with great groups of people.

The first time I went is one of my favourites. It was with a university society, or “circle”. They called themselves a “culture club”, which was an acceptable cover for the fact that they basically spent their time talking about anime and other popular culture. I didn’t mind – I learned loads from my conversations with them! And when we went to karaoke, I learned what makes a great karaoke session. Everyone was supportive of each other’s singing, and everyone had a fair share of singing time – it was very organised but still relaxed. The atmosphere was so energetic when we sang as a group! I came out of it with a love of karaoke and a list of new songs I wanted to memorise as soon as possible.

Chorus (x2)
When I got to Sendai, although I was no longer a complete novice, there were several aspects of karaoke I still didn’t understand. But armed with my linguistic knowledge and the determination to succeed, I got myself a membership card and set to exploring.

It turned out Sendai was a great place to deepen my knowledge. For one, it was a city, and a city has dozens of karaoke centres (called karaoke-kan). It took me no time at all to find my favourite karaoke-kan to go to with friends – it was the first chain I tried! Maneki Neko wasn’t ridiculously expensive and it had locations all over the city (and Japan); the one I came to use most had the fantastic policy of allowing customers to bring in outside food. This led to the celebration of more than one birthday in Maneki Neko, and plenty of snacking! I’ve never had a more unique birthday, or one that was more fun. We could even use the drinks bar to get ice-cream to have with the cake!

It wasn’t until much later that I found my second favourite karaoke-kan – the solo, daytime marathon enabler that was Mega Crayon. The reason it was perfect for this was because it was so cheap – and the reason for that was minimal staff and worn sofas. But I could sing my heart out for 4 hours, so I didn’t care. I explored all – and I mean all – of the extra features of the karaoke machine, from stories that changed depending on how well you sang, to putting stickers and backgrounds all over the screen. I used that last one to great effect on my unsuspecting friends!
Click image for larger version

Name:	SAM_6053.JPG
Views:	1
Size:	387.5 KB
ID:	1094
The drinks bar area of a Mega Crayon. You need something to drink after a couple of hours of singing!

I became very comfortable with my karaoke routines. It became an unspoken rule that my friends and I would always start by singing Zankoku na Tenshi, and I said above that we already knew what we’d each probably sing! We knew which songs to join in on, and when during the song list we could rush out to top up our drinks (or ice-cream!). But sometimes the best moments in life are unplanned, and it’s no different for karaoke. The best duet I have ever sung at karaoke was entirely unpractised and unprepared. It was a song I knew, but I didn’t even decide which part I was taking – I just joined in with another singer at his insistence. It was perfect. The perfect balance of planning and improvisation; a great thing to strive for in daily life as well.

In Sendai I was also introduced to the experience of singing karaoke with work colleagues. It’s quite a popular choice for a post-dinner activity, and more interesting to me than going for more drinks! It was quite exciting going to a new karaoke chain, but I was fully aware that the atmosphere was different to going with friends. At first I was less relaxed than usual, but that didn’t last long – you can’t be too stressed when you’re singing! And it was a great way to learn new things about my co-workers – it’s impossible not to, even if it’s just what type of music they enjoy! Not everything I learned was pleasant, however – I could’ve happily been ignorant of who was a smoker, especially since I had to find out first-hand. Karaoke-kan do have non-smoking rooms, but smokers tend to trump others in Japan, unfortunately. You can even smoke in restaurants, but I digress.

Going to karaoke with colleagues also gained me the experience of visiting a karaoke bar. It was strange because it was more like karaoke in other countries, only the bar was smaller (honestly, really small). There was still a karaoke machine, but you had to feed it money – and boy, did that make it expensive. It was lucky I was being treated! I would never go to one out of choice, when I had so many other options.

Repeat to fade?
Although I no longer live in Japan, I haven’t given up karaoke forever. I will go back, and I’ll always want to sing. I think it’s one of the best ever Japanese inventions! With any luck, one day I’ll be able to sing authentic karaoke here at home, in a booth away from the crowds, at a price that’s cheaper than a cinema outing. I can dream!

I hope you enjoyed the first of a new series of blog posts that I plan on writing, all about my experiences of Japan in general and Sendai in particular. Remember to comment if you want to share your opinion or know more!