I've been drinking again and having too much fun.
Imagine, if you will, karaoke. Now abandon all of the preconceptions that just came to mind; if you have not been to Japan, or at least done karaoke with some Asian friends, you don't know no karaoke!
The word karaoke itself was coined in Japan. It consists of the character for "empty", plus oke, in the katakana script used for foreign loan words. "Loan words?", you say, "From what language was oke borrowed?" Why, English of course: it is short for okerasutera ("orchestra").
Of course, the word "karaoke" has been adopted into English, but here is where the similarities end. Western-style karaoke tends to be sung in slightly melancholy bars by drunk or embarassed people, to an audience that is indifferent at best, or laughing at them at worst. Japanese-style (maybe I should say East Asian-style, since Koreans take their karaoke the same way; I am not sure about the Chinese--maybe Ryan can answer this one in the comments?) karaoke takes place in a private room, with you and your friends, or co-workers. And the Japanese take karaoke very seriously. No-one would dare laugh at someone else's rendition of "My Way", no matter how off-key.
Of course, Japanese karaoke resembles Western karaoke in that large quantities of "liquid courage" are usually required. If you visit Japan and want to do some karaoke, the main word to learn is nomihoudai, which means "all you can drink".
The private room in which you and your friends will be singing is usually pretty comfortable. It will contain a couch or two, several tables, and the karaoke rig itself, which consists of a large television set, a powerful stereo with several microphones (on our last outing, these mics were even wireless!), and a remote control for entering the songs that you want to sing. These songs are selected from one of two big-city phonebook-sized catalogues of songs, one for Japanese songs, one for foreign songs (meaning Western, Korean, and Chinese, basically). These catalogues are arranged both by artist and by song title, so you can usually find what you want, even after a few too many pints.
Now that you have some idea of what karaoke entails in Japan, I can tell you about Saturday night. Of course, me being me, I will start the story on Saturday afternoon, as Lyani and I are walking around the Yokohama harbour.
It was a great day for walking, sunny but not too hot, so we decided to walk north from our house to the harbour. The "Lonely Planet" map of Yokohama showed a couple of piers, linked by the Yamashita-koen, a park that it described as "decidedly dowdy", but with a harbourfront view. So we set out from home, passed Yokohama Stadium (home to the Baystars baseball team--for which one Ichiro Sasaki played, before heading off to America--and the Yokohama F. Marinos football (soccer) club), walked through the slightly upscale Yamashita-cho shopping / banking district, and arrived at the Osanbashi Pier. Which, in addition to being a functional place for passenger ships to dock (there was a largish ferry from Tokyo tied up when we were there), was apparently designed by an architect. The wood planking on which you walk swoops to and fro, looking rather like the hull of a ship. In the middle of the pier is a big concert hall, which looks for all the world like a modern hobbit-hole. It is built into a wooden "hill", and the entrance is actually below the surface of the pier. On the sides of this wooden hill, the planking gives way to grass, of all things. I had never seen grass lawns on a pier before, but I know Japan too well to be surprised at such aesthetic touches. The top of the hill affords great views of the Minato Mirai 21 development (where Lyani's school is) on one side, and the Yokohama Bay Bridge on the other, gleaming white in the sun. Pictures would express this scene far better than words, and I do have some. I will link them from this entry as soon as I find a decent free photo-hosting service.
After the pier, we stopped by a little cafe to have a bite of lunch, and then headed over to the Yamashita-koen (park). The park is basically a five-block long grassy lawn, with paved paths, lots of benches, and dotted with Japanese pine trees. All in all, a very pleasant place to have a walk, or sit and look out into the harbour. I guess the Lonely Planet writer was having a bad day when he visited, otherwise he would not have been so dismissive of the park's charms.
So as we are strolling through the park, my keitai (mobile phone) rang, and who was on the other end but Chris Kohler, one of our friends from Kanazawa. He and my university roommate, Ota, were in Tokyo for the Tokyo Game Show, a big video game-related exposition. Kohler and Ota are both fortunate enough to be professionally involved in the video game industry: Kohler as a journalist and sometime academic (his first book, Power Up, offers an interesting look at how Japan imbued video games with storylines and cinematic flavour); Ota as a game designer and programmer. The two met through me, and hit it off well. They ended up both being in the Kansai region (Kyoto / Osaka / Nara) for a year, and became good friends.
So anyway, Kohler suggested that the four of us get together that night for some karaoke (a regular outing back in the Kanazawa days). Lyani and I were game, so we headed home, by way of the fascinating Motomachi shopping street, ate some supper, and then jumped on the train to Shibuya. We met Kohler and Ota by Hachiko, which is a statue of a little dog, waiting for its master, and the most popular place to meet your friends in the Shibuya area. We crossed that famous intersection that you always see in photos of Tokyo, you know, the one where hundreds of people are crossing at a time? We found a reasonably priced karaoke place less than ten minutes from the station, and booked a room for a few hours. This was at about 20:00, and Lyani and I were planning to catch the last express back to Yokohama at 23:30.
So we pile into the private room, pick up the phone and order the first round of drinks and some food, and start flipping through the song catalogues, looking for a good ice-breaker. That ice-breaker turned out to be the Bobby Darin version of "Mack the Knife", which Kohler and I had traditionally done back in Kanazawa. A song or two later, Kohler did a Beatles tune, during which I made disparaging comments about the Beatles, and then I followed that with The Rolling Stones's "Time is on My Side", to prove once and for all that the Stones out-rock their limey cousins. Kohler and Ota did a memorable version of "Mayahee Mayahoo" AKA "Noma Noma YAY!", which is the Japanese version of a dance tune called " Dragostea Din Tei", by the Romanian band O-Zone. The reason that there is a Japanese version is that a lot of the Romanian lyrics to the song sound like Japanese, especially the chorus, "noma noma yay", which means "drink drink YAY!" in Japanese. So some Japanese guy put together a hilarious Flash video (it helps the "funny" if you can read Japanese, but the drunk cartoon kittens might be worth it anyway) of the song, with animated drinking cats.
Other highlights of the evening included Kohler's "Rocket Man", Lyani and I singing a few Spitz songs (Spitz is a Japanese band that Lyani likes a lot), Ota and Kohler doing several video game and anime themes, Kohler's "Scatman" and "Informer" (you know, that dancehall tune from 1992 from Snow?), Kohler and I hooking up on the hip-hop tip for "Rapper's Delight" and the n-Trance remix of "Stayin' Alive". I did a couple of U2 songs, accompanied by Lyani (she is The Edge), Lyani and I did a passable version of "Scrubs", and a heart-rending take on "Kasa ga nai" ("I Have No Umbrella"), a sad Japanese ballad from the 80s, and of course the whole group did "Country Roads". That is a karaoke standard.
At some point during all of this fun, 11:30 came and went. Lyani and I decided to just crash on someone's hotel floor until the morning trains started running. So we finished our karaoke at around 01:30 (I think) and grabbed a taxi back to Shinjuku, where both Kohler's and Ota's hotels were. At some point, Ota had to get out of the cab for some fresh air, and I joined him without really thinking (I had had quite a bit to drink by this point, remember). Lyani and Kohler were left in the cab, wondering what to do. After a minute, Lyani asked Kohler what to do, to which he responded, "I think you should get out, in a hurry!" Which Lyani did, and Kohler sped off into the night, desparately needing to get a few hours of sleep before the Tokyo Game Show the next morning.
So Ota, Lyani and I walked from wherever we were to Ota's hotel, where Lyani went to sleep on the bed while Ota and I talked until 06:30 in the morning. At this point, Lyani and I headed back to the Shinjuku Station, as trains were running again, leaving Ota to (hopefully) get some sleep. I am not quite sure how we got back to Yokohama, as I was asleep during most of the trip, but we must have gotten back somehow.
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how karaoke is done!