Sunday, April 5, 2009


It's Saturday evening. It's drizzling a bit as Leo and follow the Japanese women down a small street near Asakusa. I have a few reservations, but that voice in the back of my mind has been quieted by a beautiful day spent eating and drinking under the cherry trees. And besides, I'm in Japan. Different culture, different standards.

And the day had been just about perfect. The rain had held off till dusk, allowing for a full day of hanami (flower viewing) in Sumida Park. The park runs along the river, lining it with cherry trees on both sides. The place was already crawling with people when Leo and I arrived at a little past 11.

*(I forgot my camera. This is not Sumida Park. Sakura look the same everywhere though.)

Towards the middle of the park were rows of vendors selling a variety of Japanese carnival-type foods and wares. Small children were forced to perform choreographed dance routines on a stage not far away. Ferries, packed with sakura viewers, cruised up and down the river. Kimonos were a regular site and even a few rickshaws could be seen crossing the park.

Last weekend, walking past the groups of people all clustered around their makeshift tables, had been a stark reminder that I was a foreigner with few connections in Japan. This week, however, Leo's language-exchange partner, Chia, had invited us to join her and her friends at the park. That tenuous connection made all the difference and instead of merely observing everyone picnicking, we had spots on a tarp.

We were a bit late getting to the park and, given the crowds waiting for the ferry where we'd agreed to meet Chia, we were afraid we might not find her. Fortunately, despite the crowds and higher than usual gaijin concentration, Chia didn't seem to have to much trouble finding us. She led us to the spot her friend had staked out earlier that morning and been guarding ever since.

We laid out mats and assembled a low table from a collection of boxes Chia and her friend had brought. Periodically, as more people showed up, more mats and boxes would be produced and the table would be extended to accommodate them. The group next to ours took what they termed a more 'American approach' by bringing a table, camp chairs and even actual glass wine glasses. While I generally liked the makeshift box table approach, after several hours of sitting on the ground, I was quite happy when we annexed a bench that our neighbor group abandoned.

People came and went freely, often arriving with new batches of food and drink which would be divied up around the table. Not everyone spoke English, but no one seemed to object to the two foreigners hanging out. There was even a point when I'd been talking to a new arrival for a little while before they asked me who I was. I was kind of surprised to realize that I'd become comfortable enough to temporarily forget that I didn't actually know anyone outside of Leo.

So, that was how I spent the afternoon. And now I'm walking into a garish building with a few too many neon signs and hourly rate ads in the window. The lobby is large, spotlessly clean and sparingly furnished. The replica greek statues, marble tiling and cheesy chandelier create an odd aesthetic that clashes horribly with the neon lights that run along the ceiling.

One of the women talks to the bellhop-looking attendant behind the counter. Leo glances at me. I shrug. The place is odd, but by this point curiosity has taken over.

In the elevator. Up to the sixth floor. The hallway is narrow. The rooms are packed closely together. I arrive at room 66.

The room is small. There's a TV in one corner, a phone near the door and a room service menu on the table. When the light is dimmed, a black light comes on that reveals an alien landscape with crumbling roman-esque pillars scattered throughout it painted in fluorescent paint. Nice.

In addition to the menus, there are two thick binders. One's mostly in English with a bit of Korean and Chinese thrown in as well. The binder's kind of useless though since it's alphabetized according to Japanese song title. Fortunately, the electronic touchpad that controls the system has an English mode. Even more fortunately, I've had opportunities to practice my karaoke skills and have learned a decent selection of songs that I'm both capable of singing and that Japanese people will also recognize. Leo struggles a little bit at first since there isn't much in the way of French music in the system, but after a song or two seems to be enjoying himself. The Japanese women are quite good singers (though I have no understanding of the songs they stick to).

Anyway, the real highlight of the Karaoke parlor is that I now have a new career ambition: I want to direct the videos that they play behind the lyrics in the Japanese karaoke places. Newer songs that have real music videos will show them, but older ones have awesome videos made to play along with them. I'm really curious if each song has a specific video, b/c there are a lot of songs. I suspect the songs have some sort of 'mood' tag that selects a corresponding video from a group that matches that 'mood'.

For the most part they're big on soft focus and cheesy melodrama that would seem over the top for a soap opera. My personal favorite was a video of a girl who sucked at basketball. At first it seemed like her boyfriend just liked to humiliate her by showing her up with his defensive prowess, but after a while he stopped playing defense and she still would throw the ball off the pole holding the basket when attempting to shoot. The boyfriend would then stare disdainfully until she went and retrieved the errant ball.

I thought I had the whole plot figured out, and was certain that the close up of her determined expression after falling over signalled the beginning of her redemption. They'd even thrown some water on her face to imply sweating (this occurred in a few videos, except it never looked anything like sweat, just like someone had splashed some water on the person. it was really weird. I mean is realistic sweat that hard to fake? Or real sweat that hard to cause?) But instead, the video switched it up and just cut to a girl jumping out of a wrapped present in the middle of the street. Blew my mind. Then back to the girl who sucked at basketball, then some unrelated wind surfing shots. The the girl gains the ability to dunk and knocks her boyfriend over the in process. Amazing.

There was another great one about a puppeteer girl who worked at a book store and was using her puppeteering as a means of seducing a customer. I could probably watch these videos all day.

Otherwise, karaoke parlors are weird. I can totally understand karaoke in a bar. You can hang out with your friends, talk, make an ass of yourself singing a song or two, whatever. But going into small private room with only your friends just to sing with each other? I don't know. But the videos are sweet.


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  2. I want to know what songs you sang.