Karaoke is a marmite activity. Here in the UK or Ireland you’ll often roll into a bar, have a few drinks and jump on stage (you may be in drag or in costume), where a ponytailed man will hand you a microphone and you bang out something like ‘Living on a Prayer’ or ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, possibly while shaking and sweating nerviously. While some guys get off on this, the majority of people find it too stressful to be any fun.
Karaoke Japanese-style is a much different story; you and your friends get your own private booth (or you can go on your own, I won’t judge), pay by the hour, have food and drink brought to your room, and sing cheesy songs in front of good friends or work colleagues rather than strangers. It’s more relaxing, more comfortable and much less awkward. London caters for those with the need to vocally cut loose with quality karaoke joints like Lucky Voice and Karaoke Box, but for that real Japanese experience look no further than Karaoke Epoc.
Karaoke Epoc is housed within Adanami Shobo, an easily-missed second-hand Japanese bookshop in the heart of Soho (especially easily missed because it has kept the sign from the laundromat that used to be in the space). In the front is a a selection of manga comic books, old magazines, slightly yellowed posters, DVDs for sale and rent, and old video games. However, talk to the older man or the English language student behind the counter and a world of reasonably-priced authentic Japanese karaoke will open up to you.
The prices above are per hour for the times specified, which are reasonable as far as Soho goes. This is probably due to the sheer age of the genuine (and slightly creaking) Japanese karaoke machines and the fact that the booths are made from some form of painted particle board, but this adds to the experience. You book the room (max 4 or 6 people) for blocks of time in advance, but providing there aren’t any reservations after you there’s often the chance to extend your time if you don’t feel like leaving.
Once you are shuffled into your not particularly well ventilated but definitely air conditioned room, you’ll be given a slightly confusing remote control and a massive book of songs for the karaoke machine. The happy surprise about the size of the book will soon be dashed when you realise only 2% of it at most composed of English langauge songs, and what an eclectic selection they are – never before will you have seen Alice in Chains, Frank Sinatra, Lauren Hill and Journey so close together. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff for help.
Despite what the sign says I’ve never had an issue bringing my own food and booze. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine indulging in karaoke without at least one person drinking. Which brings me to the most important point; the singing itself. You only need to know one thing – you do not need to be able to sing. Karaoke is not a singing contest. If you can bang out a tune then great, but karaoke is more about letting off steam, having a hairbrush in the mirror moment. It is open to everyone; you don’t mock a bad singer, and everyone gets a turn.
Take this, which combined with the dark lighting, sounds of Japanese students singing spilling out from other rooms, and liquor is as close as you’ll get to going to karaoke in Japan without hopping on the next flight out of Heathrow. And I guarantee you will love every minute of it.