Karaoke isn't something new and has been a favorite pastime in Japan for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Japan and my classmates and I would go as often as 2-3 times a week. When I moved to the United States, I was surprised at how different the karaoke experience was in the Western culture. It was nothing like Japan's karaoke.
The main difference to me was the privacy. The karaoke I've experienced in the United States is open mic, typically at a bar, where you sing in front of complete strangers. In Japan, it's the complete opposite. You get your own private room and you sing among friends, co-workers, family, etc. Not complete strangers.
You may be wondering if there are even any English songs at a Japanese karaoke. Yes, there is! In fact, they probably have waaay more of a selection than the karaoke bars in the States. Karaoke in Japan is a huge business and they have every song you can think of. They have every thing from Beyonce to Janis Joplin.
Most establishments charge by the half hour per person and the receptionist will ask how long you plan on staying. You don't have to commit to the number of hours, you just give them an approximate time and then pay after you're done. We planned on staying only an hour, but ended up staying for 2 hours because we were really enjoying ourselves. Also, some places require a one drink minimum per person.
Once you figure out how much it will cost you, they will give you a tab with your room number and your start time. Some establishments will call your room when your time is up. Others will require you to keep track of your own time and to proceed to the check-out counter when you are finished.
In your private karaoke room, you will most likely see a drink and food menu and some sort of electronic key pad. Our room had two electronic devices that resembled an iPad. There were no instructions anywhere, but in this day and age, it's pretty easy to figure out how to use these devices.
There were several language selections to choose from (Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese) and the device is pretty self explanatory. You can input a song title or a musician's name. Or you can even select categories like Most Popular Songs or Current Hits.
Once we registered our songs into the system, the lights automatically dimmed and the disco lights were in motion. It's amazing how technologically advanced these karaoke rooms are. Back in the day, when I was in high school, we had to select songs from a huge paperback book and had to dim the lights and cue the disco lights ourselves.
Oh wait, that's not it. There is more! You can even select costumes to wear. They are usually placed on a rack in the lobby or in the hallways (not all establishments provide this). If you're not into costumes, some establishments have fun and easy instruments like the tambourine or maracas. The best thing we saw at a karaoke establishment was the wireless microphone headset. This was definitely for the serious singers who need to be hands-free as they sing and dance.
There are thousands of karaoke establishments in Japan and they are usually located close to train stations, so they won't be hard to find. We recently went to one called Karaoke Kan, which is the karaoke chain that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson went to in the movie, Lost in Translation. Big Echo is another popular karaoke chain and probably a little cheaper. We recommend going to one of the bigger chains, since they will most likely be up-to-date with the English songs. Have you ever been to karaoke in Japan? Let us know your experience in the comments below.