A trip to Japan is simply not complete without a visit to one of the many karaoke bars or boxes available. You have not sampled karaoke properly until you have tried it the way it was meant to be experienced.
Karaoke is one of the main social activities of Japanese adults, especially businessmen or "salarymen". These men visit "lounge" or "snack" bars after work, drink for hours, and divulge their worries and concerns to the women at hand. In between, they sing their favourite tunes at which the women clap enthusiastically, regardless of talent.
But karaoke is much more than just businessmen loosening their ties. The bars are popular with people from all walks of life. It is a staple form of entertainment. There are even those who are so concerned with "losing face" or appearing talentless in front of their friends, colleagues or boss, that there are even professional karaoke coaches.
Karaoke: The Protocol
Many karaoke bars are open 24 hours. You hire a room with a group of friends for around $12 per person per hour. This sometimes features an all-you-can-drink or an all-you-can-eat deal.
Participants are guided to their own room, which is kitted out with all the karaoke paraphernalia necessary, such as microphones, TV, video/karaoke machine and sometimes tambourines and maracas for friends to accompany the singer.
Rooms vary in size and style. Cheaper places tend to be bare walled and basic but they can get very colourful indeed. The TV and karaoke equipment will be at one end, with seats along the sides and a table in the middle. Food and drinks can be ordered by phone.
With just you and your friends in a room, it is far more private than karaoke in other countries which usually involves a DJ and a bar full of strangers, and hence is a lot more fun.
Karaoke: The Tunes
Many places in Japan have a good selection of songs. While the songbooks bulge with Beatles tunes, they also have a surprising number of new British and American songs too. Although Japanese people usually sing Japanese songs, they do love to have a go at a Western number from time to time, and especially if there is a Westerner present.
Karaoke rooms are not as soundproof as people would have you believe, and although you hire a private room, you often have people wandering in and out, joining in the songfest. It is a good idea to attempt to remember which room you booked into, as all the doors look the same, and you can get lost.
This activity can get competitive. There are karaoke machines that actually rate your performance, giving you a score based on how close you were to the original. For the weight-conscious, there are places where the karaoke machines tell you how many calories you have burned after each song.
Karaoke: Where does it come from?
Kara means empty, and oke is the abbreviation of okesutura - a Japanese reading of the word "orchestra".
The phenomenon of the "empty orchestra" originated in the city of Kobe 20 years go. When a guitarist could not perform in a snack bar one night, the inspired owner encouraged his patrons to sing along to instrumental tape recordings.
It began on tape format and went through many technological developments until the home karaoke kit was created. Unfortunately, Japanese houses tend to be very close together and poorly insulated so this never took off and instead, the karaoke box was invented.
Karaoke boxes are roadside facilities containing closed-door, insulated rooms where you can sing you heart out without bothering the neighbours. The first one appeared in Okayama in 1984, based on a converted freight car.
The fad soon spread across the whole of Japan. In urban areas karaoke was set up in buildings with individual, fairly soundproofed rooms.
From these humble beginnings, it did not take long for the karaoke fever, ignited in Japan, to spread across the rest of the world. It was just 1987 when the fad hit the West.
It is difficult to believe that karaoke is such a recent invention as it is so well embedded into the culture of Japan. It is the country's fourth most popular form of entertainment behind cinema, restaurants and bars. At present there are more than 100,000 karaoke boxes and buildings in Japan.
Karaoke appeals to all types of people. It is the perfect way to relax with friends and a great icebreaker with a new group. In the small room, amongst friends and colleagues, you can become a pop idol. For a few minutes, anyway.