Karaoke! Just by the word itself one can figure out that this phenomenon must in some way have something to do with Japan. And not only because of this, I strongly recommend anyone who is planning to visit Japan to enter one of the numerous karaoke boxes and sing their hearts out!!!
The amazing thing about karaoke in Japan is, that you can basically choose who you want your audience to be. If you would like to sing with strangers in a bar like setting, you can go to any bar that has a sign カラオケ "karaoke" written on it.
While these bars are nowadays actually pretty hard to find, places where you can enjoy karaoke privately with friends or even bu yourself in so called "karaoke boxes" have become much more common and you can find one of these chain stores on almost any street corner.
Where should I go?
As I just said, you can go almost anywhere in the busier centers in Tokyo and you can find a karaoke box chain store. Beware though, the prices of hiring a karaoke box differ extremely according to which chain store you go. I usually find that the chain store with the blue banner that reads カラオケ館 and the one with the red banner that reads "Big Echo" are two of the most common but also expensive. They do have good facilities and a lot of songs to choose from though. The prices are usually per half an hour per person, not per room!! The prices are higher in rush hours, weekdays after 19:00-20:00 and all weekend. Often you have to order one drink that is around 400 yen (4 dollars), but at some places you get an all you can drink course included for about the same price so it really depends.
If you want to go someplace cheap and get some free drinks while you`re at it, I would recommend you to go to either カラオケの鉄人 (karaoke no tetsujin) or 歌広場 (utahiroba). They usually have some good deals when it comes to free time and all you can drink services. Actually, I just went to karaoke no tetsujin today and I paid 1300 yen (13 dollars) for 5 hours of singing (I am hardcore!), one pizza and endless drinks (soda, juice and tea).
What do I do once I am there???
You sing your favorite songs!!! So how do you do that?
Usually when you want to hire a karaoke box, you just walk to the counter and you will be asked with how many people you want to hire a room and for how long. If you go for more than 3 or 4 hours, it is usually cheaper to go for a "free time" course which means you can go as long as you want within either normal time or rush hours (the price differs). You will be appointed to a room and your time instantly starts running so get to your room as quick as you can!
Your room will include a television screen, two microphones and a touch pad on which you can choose the song you want to sing... in Japanese. But don't worry! It is easy to figure out how the control panel works (some of them can be set to English) and they usually have many English songs in their collections as well. Just pick your song, pick up a microphone (be sure to turn it on) and start singing! You can also change the volume of both input and output, change the key and insert echo! If you don't know how, you can just ask an employee, they will surely help you! If you want to order some food or drinks, you can use the phone which usually hangs on the wall near the door.
When your time is up, you will usually (but not always, I found out recently!) get a phone call, telling you your time is almost up. You can then wish to increase your time or go to the counter and pay the fee.
Word of advice from a hardcore karaoke hobbyist
My first tip is to come prepared!! Usually you have a whole range of songs you love and would be able to sing at karaoke, but believe me, you won`t think of them once you have to actually input them into the karaoke machine. Make a list of the songs you want to sing the most beforehand! Also, time goes by faster than you think so make sure you order them by preference!!
If you really don`t have anything to do, or just love singing for hours, I recommend you to try and go to karaoke by yourself! It is also a perfect way to kill time, right next to ordering a coffee and chilling at a cafe. Although it might be a little bit embarrassing, you will soon find out that you can sing all your favorite songs without any fear of anyone judging you of your singing skills and even dance while your at it.
Another fun way to spend karaoke is by going at night and getting an all you can drink course including alcohol... which is indeed somewhat expensive, but done with the right mood and the right friends, a great time is guaranteed! But girls, watch out! If you are invited by some guy to go to karaoke... at night... he probably just wants to be alone with you!