I would like to give credit where credit is due. Videos are from YouTube and other sources such as NicoNico while Oricon rankings and other information are translated from the Japanese Wikipedia unless noted.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Sugamo Karaoke Experience

I'm back! Over the past few days I had been vacationing in Japan with the family - Hokkaido and Tokyo - and it was one heck of a trip, I can tell you that. Somehow, I managed to strike off every single thing on my to do list, even those that were a bit of a touch and go sort of thing as they needed either huge amounts of luck or confidence on my part. And so, I'll be deviating from my usual articles to I've share my experiences with you guys. I hope you don't mind and hope you enjoy it.

The first experience that I would like to talk about in this article is tackling a popular pastime of the locals there: Karaoke. This was the one item on the list that required my confidence and a little luck. But I wasn't going to settle for any old place like the every present Karaoke Kan, I wanted to find a little joint where the only songs sung are enka and kayokyoku, and the clientele are people over 55. Eventually I did find one while exploring Jizodori in the wonderful Sugamo, a.k.a. Old People Harajuku, called, Mukashi no Uta no Mise, that was opposite the famous red underwear shop. With it's menu promising drinks, snacks, nostalgia, old singers, and old movies, I had to go in - after convincing Mom.  

The bar was exactly as I had hoped: small but cozy, dimly lit, a karaoke station in the back, signed posters of mostly unknown enka singers, less than ten regulars, who were surprisingly good singers, sitting around. I was the youngest. Whoopee! I was game to show them what I got and sort-of did so in five tunes - most fun I ever had. All the songs mentioned in this article have been profiled.

I began with "Hakone Hachiri no Hanjiro". I knew it won't really impress as it's by Kiyoshi Hikawa and for someone my age a tune by him would be the obvious choice, but with this being my first ever karaoke session, not to mention in front of an audience, I needed a song I was most comfortable with. Even so, when the time came I couldn't stop shaking and there a couple of times when I when a bit off-key due to some internal panic. I managed to pull through, and boy, that adrenaline rush afterwards! My audience seemed to have given me their seal of approval.

Next up, fueled by adrenaline, I picked the song that I was personally most proud of, "Soshite Kobe". I thought I would have no problems and the oldies seemed to be mildly taken aback by me choosing this classic. To a certain extent, it was better than my first attempt, but I wasn't very satisfied with it. In fact, I was disappointed that I couldn't bring out the angst this tune needs. I guess I wasn't feeling it that day. Would also have been a bit better if it were of a slightly higher key. The audience seemed impressed by my ability to imitate Mae-Kiyo's vibrato.

I surprised myself with song no.3. I had wanted to go with Ikuzo Yoshi's "Kadode" but changed it to one of my top enka favourites, "Hoshikuzu no Machi". I was a bit worried as to whether the oldies would accept how I handled this hit, until their rousing applause and exclamations upon finding out that the "Ojou-san" was going to attempt something by the Michiya Mihashi hit my ears, which really gave my confidence a boost. This was the choice I was most pleased and satisfied with.

You know those times when you go, "What on earth did I just do?" That was exactly what went through my head when I was about to sing my 4th song. Riding on the radiating approval I got from "Hoshikuzu no Machi", my daft mind thought it'd be a good idea to follow up with something "even better" by someone who was in the same league as Michi: "Yuki no Wataridori". As expected the folks cheered in approval at my choice, but I couldn't say the same thing for myself. Luckily, I managed to pull it of relatively okay, going off-key once and the oldies said I did good despite it being a challenging song. I clearly remember what I said afterwards, "This song is really difficult!". I did not learn my lesson, as you will see in a moment.

Haruo Minami's song was supposed to be my last song and a cheerful-sounding tune seemed like a good way to round up this amazing ordeal. Even Mom, who initially declined the offer, put out a decent "Ai San San" (before my turn). Still, the audience urged for one more, and of course, I relented.

Having seen my interest in Mihashi, the owner encouraged me to go with another one of his works. Being a bit more sane this time, I refused as I know many Michi songs are tough and require, as J-Canuck had once said, vocal gymnastics. But I wanted to select something that would garner the same amount of frenzy, which I did. Sadly, that one also needed a bit of vocal gymnastics.

As a friend of mine would say, "Go big or go home." I wasn't going home then, so I went big with the regal-sounding "Osho" by the fierce Hideo Murata. Hearing the music, I thought I should channel Murata by standing straighter with shoulders squared, chin up and wearing a no-nonsense look on my face. For that moment I felt... proud and powerful. I was doing it for them. Suddenly, for some weird reason I found that funny and broke the facade by snickering to myself. Nevertheless, it was a satisfactory finale and the oldies were pleased.

That about wraps up my Sugamo escapade. I wouldn't say that I'm particularly outstanding vocal-wise since I went off-key a few times due to not being able to hear myself or simply freaking out, but my audience were a really nice and supportive bunch, cheering me on even when I thought I didn't deliver a song as well as I had hoped. I made some friends that day. The icing on the cake was when they spurred me on with multiple "Ganbatte-s" and a "Good luck" as we were leaving, and a couple of them insisted they shook hands with me. It was an honor to do so; I felt like I was an enka singer. Commemorative photos had to be taken too.

And then one of them asked, "Will you be coming back?" That actually stung because I didn't know when I could go back, so I just replied with a vague "I don't know". But I will go back, and when I do I hope they'll be there.

In my next article, I'll talk about a live event in Ikebukuro.


  1. Noelle, welcome back! It sounds like you and your family had a grand old time in Japan.

    As an old Jedi once said, "You've taken your first step into a larger world". I have mentioned about my old karaoke haunt, Kuri, when I was back in university. It was several months before I gained the courage to pick the mike and sing what would eventually become my juu-hachi-ban, "Yukiguni", but once I did take that dip into the karaoke waters, I started swimming!

    Those other guests in the Sugamo karaoke bar there must have been truly impressed by you and your mother. One thing about the Japanese is that they frequently express disbelief that non-Japanese would pay any attention to their music, although things may be changing now with singers like Chris Hart and Jero having entered the kayo scene.

    You were mentioning those vocal gymnastics. Yep, there are some of those hits that could give even veteran karaoke singers the willies, but that shouldn't be a barrier. Just keep on working on the ones that you like and you'll have your own cadre of juu-hachi-ban. I was finally able to develop my kobushi with "Yukiguni" after a lot of practice.

    Enka today, perhaps Chage & Aska tomorrow? In any case, you're gonna have to let me know how the food situation was in Hokkaido and Tokyo. Any good restaurants?

    1. Hi there, J-Canuck.

      Taken a step into the larger world indeed. Reading your accounts on your own karaoke experiences, you seem to be quite good at tackling Yoshi's classic. It would be interesting to hear if the chance arises. :)

      While at Sugamo, a few of the regulars chose songs that required incredible vocal gymnastics, like this lady who went with Mihashi's "Takeda Bushi" - Kouhei Fukuda sang that on this week's "Uta Kon". That one gives me the willies! As for my own juu-hachi-ban (what does it mean?), for now, it seems like it could be any one of the first 3 songs I chose. And practice makes perfect.

      As for Chage & Aska... it'll have to wait. And singing their songs at Mukashi no Uta no Mise... I think I'd rather do "Yuki no Wataridori" anytime. :) The duo's songs are surprisingly difficult for me to handle.

      Anyway, I'm glad to report that the food situation in both Hokkaido and Tokyo are good. It's either that or we lucked out on choosing our food joints.

      Alright, let's see, if you ever happen to be in:

      - Asahikawa: there's this joint called "Hachi (as in bee) Ramen". Generous portions and the gyoza's pretty good. Just make sure you get there before 7.45 pm. It's across the street from Dormy Inn hotel and the NHK Asahikawa station, in a little street. In the same area there's a tonkatsu joint there that serves up a mean menchi katsu. I don't remember the name though.

      - Sapporo: Anywhere in Nijo fish market. Got some sweet crab and creamy sea urchin. Shrimp-based ramen also seem to be popular in that city and there are quite a few joints that serve it, but it's a bit salty for my taste.

      - Furano: THE MELON KINGDOM (Tomita Melon House). Melons, melons everywhere. I like the melon soft serve with chopped melon on the side.

      - Tokyo (Shinjuku): Hakata-Tenjin at Kabukicho Ichi-ban gai. A bit on the touristy side, but that joint has a grubby charm to it, and a chef with a clipped ear (didn't see him this time round though).

      - Tokyo (Takadanobaba): SHIROKUMA CAFE. The deserts are good, especially the Panda roll, and the Shirokuma-Grizzly stew is nice too.

      Thus far, that's what I can remember.

    2. Hi, Noelle.

      Yeah, perhaps someday in the future some of us folks here at KKP can get together in Tokyo for a nice round of karaoke. We'll have to drop in on that Sugamo place but I also wanna go back to Karaoke Kan or Shidax (that latter one has a pretty good food menu).

      Anyone who can convincingly tackle Kouhei Fukuda will get the deepest bow of respect from me. I cannot even imagine having the range in voice he does.

      Ah, my Padawan. "Juu-hachi-ban" (literally translated as No. 18) refers to your favourite or trademark number that you perform at karaoke. Along with "Yukiguni", there is also Takashi Hosokawa's "Kita Sakaba".

      Thanks for the recommendations of good eats. I'm not a huge sea urchin fan but I have recently found that if the uni is really fresh, then it's really good going down. Shirokuma Cafe is definitely one place I must visit next time I'm in Tokyo. Didn't get a chance to hit Takadanobaba last time around.

      Next time you're in Tokyo, I recommend Genkatsu in Ginza right across from Ginza Yamano Music at the main intersection for the area. Their tonkatsu is quite sublime since the pork is sliced into 25 thin layers before being deep-fried. It makes for a fine texture.

    3. A round of Karaoke in Tokyo with the KKP bunch would be nice, and I'm sure the Sugamo bunch would enjoy more company. And thanks for the explaination on "Juu-hachi-ban". "Kita Sakaba" was one of the songs I considered, but I wanted something a little more exciting.

      No problems on the recommendations. I too don't usually eat sea urchin, but those in Hokkaido had changed my impression of it for the better. Same for the asparagus there; it's sweet too. The Shirokuma Cafe is worth going to as well.

      I didn't get to go to Ginza this time round, but I guess I'm going there next time for Genkatsu. It sounds amazing and tonkatsu happens to be one of my favourites, besides omurice, of course.


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