We Need To Talk About My Osaka Karaoke Experience

Intense singing. With strangers.
Intense singing. With strangers.

It’s no secret I enjoy a good karaoke night with friends, but it turns out there’s a semi-private karaoke experience — with strangers — I enjoy just as much.

Last weekend in Osaka my friend Sarah and I stumbled upon several bars of the same type: They are sorta-divey, narrow spaces — only as wide as a tall man’s wingspan, a single, sit down bar that seats maybe 12 people, tops, and three bartender women who serve you sake, beer or liquor while you and your barmates sit around and take turns signing karaoke selections which appear on the two screens in front of you. (The bartender ladies make sure to offer you the remote and song book at frequent intervals so the singing doesn’t cease).

You just drink and sing, and smoke, since it’s allowed in Japan, with strangers in a super intimate setting. Or you can ignore everyone and stare straight ahead, since it’s a bar and not a living room setting, like private karaoke rooms (which are far more common across Asia). But everyone applauds you at the end of your selection, these bars are full of men but non-suggestive bartender women, and you end up feeling a general sense of community in a short amount of time. I need to know what this bar concept is called!

A stirring rendition (at least to us) of  "Moon River" with our new (and only) Osaka friend.
A stirring rendition (at least to us) of “Moon River” with our new (and only) Osaka friend.

We befriended the Osaka man who happened to be seated next to us, and he humored me by singing the Japanese cliche, “Sukiyaki,” because it was the one Japanese song I could think of. I returned the favor by selecting “Moon River,” with which, for some reason, all Asians I’ve ever karaoked with are familiar.

The best part of the evening was, after we were three bottles of sake in, the bartender ladies passed out karaoke snack sticks for everyone. I think it was like a Funyun, but in the form of a cylinder, and wrapped in cute Doraemon packaging featuring little Doraemon holding a microphone singing. They come in onion or curry flavor (among others) and they were DELICIOUS. Sarah was most excited about the snack.

WHAT ARE THESE BARS? I don’t know the Japanese name for them but there’s gotta be a name for this type of experience, since while wandering the area near the Tennoji Zoo (parts of it can be kinda sketchy by Japan standards), there were several of them in a row. At first we were intimidated about wandering into one, namely because they were so small that it seemed unnerving, and because all the customers were men and the bartenders were women. But nothing even remotely weird or sexual seemed to happen while we were there. It was just a good ol’ time, making new friends. Definitely one of my top nights in Asia.

The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.
The curly haired man on the end there ended up singing a Queen song for us, which was pretty crazy.

I’ve Got Seoul But I’m Not A Soldier

It’s announcement time! I’m switching roles and becoming an international correspondent for NPR. That’s very cool. But what’s cooler is I get to open up a new Korea/Japan bureau for the company, based in Seoul. You know I like the beginnings of things.

For most of 2013, Friend Javaun and I would randomly yell “Annyeong” to each other from one floor to another at NPR headquarters, where the fourth floor overlooks the third. Never did I imagine that Annyeong could become a daily, non-ironic greeting.

I lived in Asia for a spell when I was 19 years old, with an all-male hip hop group that had just signed on with Warner Music Taiwan. The lead artist was an alum of a hot 1990’s Asian boy band called “L.A. Boyz” and my roommates were forming Machi, which went on to enjoy brief fame and a hit collaboration with Missy Elliott. The afternoon I went out for a movie with those boys in crowded shopping center was the only time I’ve ever experienced what it’s like to be chased by paparazzi and screaming teenage girls.

I think back on that time as a vortex. I know I lived those months in Taipei, but the experiences were so heightened and frenetic and strange that it still doesn’t feel real, even these 12 years later.

Now I live what is more akin to a “grownup” life. A real job. A spouse. A spawn. Two cats. My geriatric dog. And we’re about to uproot ourselves and charge into the Asian vortex, together.

We’re planning to move at the beginning of 2015. I don’t know what to do with our house yet. I am panicked about getting to see the final episodes of Mad Men without too much time delay. I worry about my 16-year-old dog surviving a cross-planet move. I am unsure of my own abilities to cover a place where I am illiterate.

But I’m also filled with excitement and wonder and gratitude for the chance to do this. I know how rare a privilege it is these days to get a chance to work overseas, supported by a large, well-funded news organization. As my friend and mentor Kinsey said, it’s invaluable experience that will change and shape our lives.

Whoa, right? We’re planting the NPR flag on an action-packed peninsula! Can you imagine the culture stories? This is the place where they just hosted a competition to see who could zone out the longest. C’mon, that is gold!

Onward, into the vortex.