Last week we fanfared the May winner of our monthly travel writing competition. (You can catch up here if you missed it.)
As ever, the competition was extremely close and our runner up was Mandy Huggins from Cleckheaton. Mandy’s vivid account of Japanese karaoke was a lovely read. But we’d still rather stay away from the microphone ourselves. We’re not even sure our singing is legal in some countries.
Here’s Mandy’s entry. Take a look!
If you’re going to experience Japan to the full, then you need to do the following in public: bathe naked and sing. Though not necessarily both at the same time!
It’s a rainy evening in Kyoto, and I’m singing ‘Dancing Queen’ with Sarah, a dentist from Nottingham who I’ve only just met. Karaoke is a long way from my comfort zone, and this definitely qualifies as an 'if they could see me now' moment.
Bathing naked with strangers in an outdoor hot spring is not on my usual agenda either, but with its hypnotic mix of rigid convention and outlandish weirdness, Japan has got me hook, line and sushi. And here and now, in this scruffy karaoke box with peeling wallpaper, I’m having the most fun of all.
The evening starts with an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Blueberry Hill’, Japanese-style. This is performed by Nori, a friend of our guide, and is his karaoke jūhachiban - his party piece. He tells me he has been practising alone every lunch hour so that he can impress his work colleagues, and more importantly, his boss. In the furniture company where he works, if you want to get on, what you do after work counts just as much as what you do during working hours.
As a newcomer to karaoke I am slightly wary at first. I make a reluctant start, but after a couple of beers I join in with heartfelt abandon. The Japanese take their karaoke very seriously, and after discovering the pure addictive joy of belting out 'Dancing Queen' in the wrong key, I know that this is one of the things about Japan that I’ll remember with the most affection. Nori's working day may be long, but as team-building activities go this must be one of the best.
Outside, it has stopped raining, and worse for wear salarymen with their ties askew are spilling out onto the street from the bar next door. As we head back through the narrow Gion streets, the rainwater sparkles on cobbles outside the geisha houses. I glimpse a kimono sleeve as a sliding door closes, and I suddenly understand that the two hidden worlds of the geisha and the karaoke box are more than passing acquaintances; the karaoke machine is the electric geisha. In public the Japanese keep their feelings hidden, and this is the perfect antidote to that; a chance for self-expression at the end of a day of restraint. And there’s no embarrassment the next morning. Like at a geisha party, what happens in the karaoke box always stays there.