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Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Sugamo Karaoke Experience Part 2

Before I begin this article, I read a couple of nights ago that Mr YOUNG MAN Hideki Saijo (西城秀樹) had passed away just a few days ago. I am not a big fan of Saijo but he was one of the singers who ushered me into the world of kayo early on. As such, it was a big shock to read that he's gone so soon. J-Canuck has done a nice little tribute to him which you can check out here. I'm happy that I had the chance to see this icon of the 70's a couple of times on TV. Rest in peace, Mr Saijo.

Well, let's continue on a brighter note, shall we? (Shoo, onion ninjas! Shoo!)

For a couple of weeks between the end of April and early May, I was back in Japan for what may be my last visit to the land of the rising sun for a while - I'll be heading off to university soon so I wanted to take care of some outstanding items on my list before I get shipped off. I did accomplish the goals I set out for this trip (at the cost of my bank account) around a fragment of Tohoku, a bit of Hokuriku, and of course, Tokyo, and I had an incredible time travelling with Mom for most of the time, and hanging around, as J-Canuck calls it, The Big Sushi, on my own for a few days. As with my previous trips, I would like to share with you guys the highlights. To start, I'd like to talk about my return to Mukashi no Uta no Mise, a karaoke joint somewhere in the middle of Sugamo's Jizodori.

I recorded down my first visit to this quaint joint a couple of years ago, so you can check that out here. This sequel will be a long one as it encompasses my third and fourth visit, so sit back and get comfy. Alright, let's begin.

My acceptance gift.

I was at Mukashi no Uta no Mise last December for my second visit, but with it being a weekday, there was hardly anyone there so I took it as some sort of a practice round to try out some songs I had been meaning to sing. This time around, however, was a whole different ball game. This third visit (and first of this recent trip) was during the middle of Golden Week, more specifically Children's Day Saturday, and I was on my own. I was a little worried as to whether there'd be anyone there as I thought that the oldies would be spending that day with their grand kids (if they had any). But I was dead wrong as an hour into opening time and the "party" was already in full swing. The Mama-san was happily surprised that I showed up again, and one of the folks, this uncle I'll call Y-san, recognized me from two years back.

With a rowdy audience of 6 (at that moment) and hyped on coffee, I went in over my head and picked my opening song, Ikuzo Yoshi's (吉幾三) "Hokugen Kaikyo" (北限海峡). I'd never sung it before (karaoke style) but I love it, so what could go wrong? - Oh, things went wrong. It was a bad idea to start with an unfamiliar song and the key was wrong and I couldn't quite get it either. I could feel the disappointment from the crowd too, especially since one of them even mentioned, "Oh, this looks promising," at the start. I stabilized a little, but I thought it was a travesty. I am so sorry, Yoshi.

"Omae...", the sweetest bit, but the hardest to sing, in my opinion.

With my senses slapped back into me, I switched to my original plan, which was opening with Hideo Murata's (村田英雄) "Meoto Shunju" (夫婦春秋). I thought it was decent - after tweaking the key a bit, though a little rough on the lowest notes than I'd hoped, I felt like I was redeemed in the eyes of the regulars, most of whom had honed their skills to a fine point. "All the oji-sans would shed happy tears when they hear you sing this," was my favourite comment. I was given a seal of approval and offered sushi (the first of many, many other snacks) that the group had brought along. By that time, the most rowdy member of the club had arrived - a flamboyant purple haired oji-san in a kimono whom I shall call Y-chan. He fanned the flames of an already noisy bunch to new heights with oolong highballs - much to the chagrin of this old lady beside me, though.

I followed it up with Hachiro Kasuga's (春日八郎) "Ore wa Nora Inu" (俺は野良犬), a song which I have decided to make my Juu-hachi ban. It was definitely a blast from the past for the audience with its nostalgic sound. Personally, I felt that this was my best song for that day.

By then, the handful of folks became two handfuls, and passionate cheers of encouragement like "Mattemashita!" (I waited for this!) were constantly thrown out to everyone. It also became apparent to the oldies that I knew a lot of enka - frankly, it's more because they picked many I so happened to know - so it became almost like a game to see if I could recognize or even sing whatever they sang. It was amusing... or they thought I was amusing.

En-ya-saaaa-to mawashiteeeeee...

Next was Haruo Minami's (三波春夫) "Funakata-san yo" (船方さんよ), which was personally the hardest to sing, not because I had problems with the song itself, but because the oldies were at peak levels of excitement while screaming out their kakegoe to go along with the song and Y-chan kept singing with me (it's one of his favourites), so I had a hard time listening to myself... I need more karaoke experience (this was only my third time ever). Overall, I thought it was OK in spite of the distractions.

After dwelling in the oldies, I decided to go with something more modern. By that I mean Kiyoshi Hikawa (氷川きよし) and "Choito Kimagure Wataridori" (ちょいと気まぐれ渡り鳥), and after, "Omokage no Miyako" (面影の都). The former I felt was better than the latter, plus it was a lot more fun to sing. It made me realise, however, that the Sugamo bunch couldn't be very much bothered about the Prince of Enka, so that made the serifu portion a little dull, though I did get a "Hai, ojou-san!" from the lovely Grandma K. The video above, which first also shows "Otone Nagare Tsuki" (大利根ながれ月), a song I sang at a later date, will give you an idea of how fans react to the whimsical "Choito Kimagure Wataridori".

My 8th choice and the last for that whole afternoon session, was Michiya Mihashi's (三橋美智也) "Yuyake no Tonbi" (夕焼けとんび), thus completing the Yonin Shu set. I also thought it'd be a good idea since it didn't require as much vocal gymnastics, and it was evening (around 5 pm) by then. Again, I had to tinker with the key, but it was a satisfactory end to Saturday. This being another of Y-chan's favourites, he actually gave me some notes for improvement, of which I felt honored for having received advice from one of the day's best singers.

There were handshakes here and there, and I even managed to arrange another meeting with some of them on the following Monday - I planned to go for another round anyways, so all the better with a few more folks. 'twas then when I finally introduced myself. Suddenly, I didn't feel so lonely anymore.

Monday came soon enough and I was back in Sugamo. As expected, it was pretty quiet and there was only a crowd of 3 strangers, and later the 2 folks from Saturday who promised to show up, Grandma K and this sweet lady called K-chan, much to my joy. I took it as another opportunity to try out more songs, which indeed I did - I (unwittingly) sang a total of 13 songs! Takoyaki was brought by grandma to the karaoke to share, which was enough for all present, though both ladies insisted I had theirs, so I ended up with 3. I was glad and relieved that the red ginger taste was very mild.

The first of three.

This session was partially me retrying a few numbers from my 2016 round, beginning with Hikawa's "Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro" (箱根八里の半次郎), which I can always rely on for a warm-up, Minami's "Yuki no Wataridori" (雪の渡り鳥), Muchi's "Osho" (王将), and Michi's "Hoshikuzu no Machi" (星屑の町). The later three attempts I would consider "meh" - was in too mellow a mood to "feel" the them.

Oh boy, do I miss them...

New tunes were attempted too, and some of my best that day, I felt, were Duke Aces' "Onna Hitori" (女ひとり), and Haruo Oka's "Akogare no Hawaii Koro" (憧れのハワイ航路). I was nervous over their keys as well, but it all worked out in the end. For once I could agree with audiences' "Umai!" and "Jouzu!", and not see it as common courtesy .

To mix things up a little, I picked some daring stuff too, like Hikawa's version of "Benten Kozo" (弁天小僧), which was a real crowd-pleaser the moment I did it in his expressive manner - a deliberate decision. And also his recent single, "Shoubu no Hanamichi" (勝負の花道).


It goes without saying that I did another Hachi number, this time being "An' Tokya Doshaburi" (あん時ゃどしゃ降り), and the MV showcased the movie he was in from 1957. They knew I love Hachi, so I think they yelled out something on the line of "There's your Hacchan!" when he appeared. Yes, grandmas, my Hacchan...

0:49-0:57 though... ma heart...

Duets were quite commonplace that day, with a couple of the uncles wanting to sing something with Grandma K - she was pretty good for someone over 80. Eventually, she even invited me to sing 2 songs with her! Her choices were "Kiyoshi no Zundoko Bushi" (きよしのズンドコ節), followed by Dick Mine's "Tabi Sugata Sannin Otoko" (旅姿三人男), the latter chosen with the knowledge that I love matatabi enka. From the former, I noted that I had problems singing duets as I couldn't concentrate on my own key when my mind goes off listening to my partner's. The latter was better, though after that was when I truly felt exhausted from forcing out the low notes (my nemesis).

As the session came to a close, I wondered what song would be a meaningful end (for now, at least) to my fun-filled days at Mukashi no Uta no Mise. Frankly, I thought of saving the encouraging "Shoubu no Hanamichi" for this, but having already sung it earlier, I needed a replacement. And then a light bulb appeared - why not return to my Japanese music roots?

I chose "Hajimari wa Itsumo Ame" (はじまりはいつも雨) by Aska. The folks knew I'm all enka, but I wanted to show them what came first. Frankly, while I felt that it was a good attempt and better than a good half of my enka choices, the reception was lukewarm - except for K-chan, who was perpetually excited for anything. Grandma K and this other grandpa had no clue of the song's existance, and I have a bad feeling that the Mama-san did not approve of my choice, considering Aska's tarnished record - it's been 5 years, though...

Anyway, at the end of everything, I was pleasantly surprised albeit quite tentative to recieve some parting gifts from the folks. After all, I had only known them for two days. But they insisted, so I agreed to a pair of geta from K-chan, and a dinner treat from Grandma K. It was an awkward sushi dinner - not because I had problems communicating with the old lady, but because I had problems interacting with the sushi chef. Geez, he must have been wondering what this grandma was doing with this young foreigner who could barely speak Japanese...

I am very grateful to have met such wonderful people and experience their hospitality on this trip, and saying goodbye wasn't the easiest thing to do, to be honest. But I hope to see them again soon - now I'm aware that I have to appear on Saturdays or Sundays for most of the Sugamo bunch to be in attendance. Until then, I intend to fully learn Grandma K's favourite song, "Kantaro Tsukiyo Uta" (勘太郎月夜唄).

With that, we've come to the end of this article. It's been a long article - thank you for sticking through and I hope you enjoyed reading it!

Left: Conch; Right: Salmon
Far right: A gross pile of ginger
P.S. During one interview, Kohei Fukuda (福田こうへい) said that if you sing any one of the Yonin Shu's (Hachi, Michi, Muchi, Minami) songs, the oldies will go wild. I can strongly attest to that.


  1. Hello, Noelle.

    It looks like you had a pretty good time at karaoke. I had my own karaoke experience during my trip to Tokyo last year, but my compadres were not interested in any Japanese stuff at all so I had to content myself with the English-language tunes. Ah, well.

    Glad that you got all your requests out of your system and made some good friends in Sugamo. That experience will be with you for life and you now have your No. 18. When you do get back to Japan, you'll be all set for karaoke any time.

    Wish you well at university. I'm not sure when I will get back to Japan myself. If I'm extremely lucky, it may be 2019 but most likely it could be as late as 2021.

    1. Hello there, J-Canuck. Thanks for the well wishes. From the looks of it, the earliest I can head back to Japan is in 2020... if I’m lucky.

      I got to sing most of the songs I had always wanted to try, although with the end of that followed new ones. :) And I think I’ve finally (more or less) figured out my singing key. But yeah, Sugamo this time around really gave me more than I had hoped for. Didn’t think I would’ve made proper acquaintances from there, but I was glad I did. Gives me something more to look forward to when in Tokyo.

      By the way, what kind of stuff would you tackle at an English song karaoke? If it were me, I’d go with easy (I think) classics like “Strangers in the night” or “Rhythm of the Rain”.

    2. Hello there. I think I may have sung "Strangers In The Night" decades ago but my first English karaoke song was another Frank Sinatra ballad "My Way" which could get approval or drive away folks depending on the clientele.

      Otherwise, I've done plenty of Billy Joel and Beatles. :)

      If...and that's a big If...I get back to Tokyo next year, I would probably go with the end of April since that would be the time when Emperor Akihito abdicates. It would be interesting to be in Tokyo when the reign period changes. Obviously there would be no physical changes but I'm sure some measure of pomp and circumstance would exist.

    3. General Kenobi... Sorry, the opportunity for the meme was too good to pass up. :)

      Hi again, and thanks for sharing. "My Way", what a way to kick off your English karaoke experience! At the rate that I hear Akira Fuse sing this powerful number, I might be able to regurgitate whatever I heard, though I think the folks at Sugamo would only give me a round of pity applause, haha.

      I like to think that you have a good refuge from the Golden Week crowd if you do indeed return to Tokyo at that time. That period is insane! That aside, I do think it'll be interesting to be there when the era changes. No physical changes, as you said, but it is a momentous occasion.

    4. Hello again.

      Well, any time that I can be compared to the great Alec Guinness, I am very humbled and honoured. :)

      As for "My Way", I do have to say that it usually takes a few Brown Cows to get me to sing "My Way". Wistful pathos does need some Kahlua to grease the wheels, so to speak.

      Unfortunately, Air Canada being the only Canadian airline to fly to Japan has the dastardly advantage of charging whatever it wants for air fare, although admittedly the price of the fuel needed to fly non-stop from Toronto to Tokyo may justify the high cost. Luckily, once I get to the Big Sushi, it always empties out around GW so it's quite nice to walk about. On the other hand, the highways and byways surrounding the megalopolis become the world's largest parking lots for the that week.


Feel free to provide any comments (pro or con). Just be civil about it.