Almost from the time that I began singing karaoke regularly, taking the H-Bomb show to Japan had been a prized objective for me. The Land of the Rising Sun was, of course, the place where karaoke originated. How could I not want to experience karaoke in the land of its birth?
I finally made it happen in April 2008. After singing in 13 other countries, I prepared to make my long-sought pilgrimage. That journey to Japan — my first foray into Asia, and my first time crossing the International Date Line — proved to be an outstanding vacation in many respects. Surprisingly, however, as you’ll see, I found the Japanese karaoke scene a letdown in comparison to my soaring expectations.
Like most visitors from overseas, my point of entry to Japan was Narita International Airport. That airport is located in the city of Narita, about 35 miles east of Tokyo’s city center.
Disaster almost struck before I even made it out of the airport. Right after I cleared customs, my passport fell out of my backpack without my noticing. But just a few minutes later, a young American man ran up to me in the ground transportation area and asked if I’d lost my passport. “That’s impossible,” I confidently replied, adding that I had just placed it in my bag. But then I noticed that the zipper was partially open on my backpack, and the passport was missing from the compartment in which I’d inserted it. The young man then ran back to where he’d come from; and shortly thereafter, he returned with my passport. Disaster averted.
This wasn’t the first time that I lost my passport while on the road. But this blog isn’t about my irresponsibility; it’s about my love of karaoke and travel. So, onward!
Anyway, once I recovered my passport, I didn’t immediately board a train to Tokyo. Instead I headed to a nearby hotel in Narita. Why did I do that? you may wonder.
Narita had a population of about 126,000, as of 2011. It’s an airport town, not known as a tourist destination in its own right. Sure, it has a temple and museum that you can visit; but if the number of reviews on TripAdvisor is any indication, neither of those attractions is widely visited by international travelers. And the temple and museum were not the reasons for my own decision to start out in Narita. I was there for one reason and one reason only: the city of Narita boasts a karaoke bar that I was looking forward to singing in. (Amusingly, as I was writing this blog entry, I overheard a man who was sitting next to me in Starbucks telling someone that he’d just come back from spending a day in Narita, on his way back to New York from a two week visit to the Philippines; and that while passing through Narita, he’d visited that city’s temple. Okay, so I guess it’s not true that nobody checks out that temple. 🙂 )
The karaoke bar in Narita is called The Cage. I’m not sure if that’s its official title or just a nickname, but I’ve never heard it referred to as anything else. (The chain-link wall around the seating area, visible in the photo to the right, may have had something to do with how the place came to be dubbed The Cage.) I’d been told by a friend of mine who’s a flight attendant that The Cage is frequented by airline flight crews from all over the world who work flights to and from Narita Airport. Thus, I knew that I would find people to talk to who spoke English, and that, even better, these patrons would be interesting people who circle the globe for a living.
And so, on Saturday night, April 12, 2008, Japan became country no. 14 on my World Karaoke Tour, on the strength of a visit to The Cage. The Cage was everything I thought it would be. I remember chatting with flight attendants from, among other carriers, Austrian Airlines and Cathay Pacific. And I met a nice pilot from United (he’s the guy sitting at the lower left in the photo above), who mentioned that he’d just flown in from San Francisco and Huey Lewis had been one of the passengers on his flight! My first reaction to that disclosure was jealousy. Envy then turned to incredulity: you’re on a plane with Huey Lewis — highly successful recording artist and star of the greatest karaoke movie of all time — and you don’t invite him to join you for some karaoke after landing? What’s that all about?
Despite the disappointing lack of Huey Lewis, I had a fun time singing at The Cage. I remember little about the songs that I sung that night; but in the photo to the left, the screen is showing some of the lyrics to “(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles” by the Proclaimers; so that at least that must have been one of the tunes that I performed for the flight crews at The Cage. And I generally remember enjoying myself and staying longer than I’d planned.
The tally for my World Karaoke Tour had now climbed to 14 countries and three continents, and my vacation had only just begun. The remainder of my time in Japan included visits to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, plus a day-trip to Nara, which (like Kyoto) was a former Japanese imperial capital; and a day-trip to to the town of Toyota, where I toured a factory that manufactures some of the town’s eponymous automobiles.
While my kickoff evening at The Cage went well, Japanese karaoke outside of Narita turned out not to be what I’d anticipated. As I’ve mentioned previously, I much prefer to sing in public, in a room full of patrons who are at least theoretically capable of cheering me on. The magic happens for me when karaoke becomes an interactive experience, with the energy of the crowd fueling my performance. In New York City where I live, some karaoke bars that I attend also feature private rooms that you can rent by the hour with a few of your friends; but those private rooms are offered as an adjunct to — and not a substitute for — the main public lounge. Occasionally after several hours of singing in the main room, I will end up commandeering a private room with some friends for a few additional songs. Under those circumstances, karaoke in a private room can be a pleasant enough diversion for me. But spending an entire evening in that setting has never held any appeal for me.
It turned out that in Japan, the vast majority of karaoke establishments consist solely of private rooms for rent, a concept known locally as “karaoke box.” Throughout my travels in Japan, karaoke box establishments abounded wherever I went. But bars or restaurants where you can get up and sing in front of strangers (the kind of venue in which I actually wanted to pay homage to karaoke’s roots) were virtually nonexistent. I found two such places in all of Tokyo. Two. This was in a city of 13 million people! And I found no karaoke bars at all in Kyoto or Hiroshima — just the karaoke box establishments in which I had no interest.
Moreover at the two karaoke bars that I did miraculously find in Tokyo, the patrons consisted almost entirely of Americans and Western Europeans. I’ve mentioned before that when I visited Japan, I sang as “Godzilla” rather than under my usual stage name of “H-Bomb,” out of cultural sensitivity to the only country against which atomic weapons have ever been used. What I didn’t say is that the use of an alternative sobriquet proved unnecessary, as I saw few if any Japanese people in the karaoke bars I went to in Narita or Tokyo (so there was really no one to be sensitive to). The locals weren’t at the Western-style karaoke bars because they all hang out at the outlets where karaoke box is offered. It’s not at all surprising that in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, when Bill Murray’s character sings karaoke with Scarlett Johansson’s character, he does so at a karaoke box establishment, and not in a karaoke bar. Sofia Coppola’s depiction of the Japanese karaoke scene was quite authentic.
One of the two karaoke bars at which I sang in Tokyo was Fiesta (I can’t recall the name of the other one; I wish I’d kept better records in my pre-blogging era). I remember walking through the Roppongi district to get to Fiesta, and being accosted on the sidewalk by a promoter from one of the many nightclubs in that neighborhood. “Are you looking for something special?” he asked me, presumably in reference to the club that he was trying to entice me to.
“No, I’m not,” I proudly responded. “I’m going to karaoke!” I’ll bet he wasn’t expecting to hear that. 🙂
If my overall karaoke experience in Japan wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I still got to sing on multiple nights in the land of karaoke’s origin. That’s not too shabby. And I was thoroughly fascinated by much of what I was seeing during my daytime explorations; many of those sights that I glimpsed during my inaugural visit to the Far East were vastly different from the places I’d traipsed through during my vacations in Europe.
One other musical note from my trip: During my visit to the Toyota factory, I was shown some interesting technological advances from the company, which extended well beyond the field of automobiles. For example, visitors to the factory (at least as of 2008) were treated to performances by a trumpet-playing robot:
How awesome is that? Note: This was the first video I ever shot, so please excuse its technical defects. Anyway, also on display at the Toyota factory at the time of my tour was a very cool concept for the personal transportation module of the future:
This experimental vehicle was called the iUnit. Seeing amazing stuff like the iUnit helped make up for the unexpected lack of karaoke bars in Japan. 🙂
Finally, here are some photos from my trip to Japan that depict some of the other amazing things I saw in that country (and I know that these pix are nearly four years old, but most of the things depicted below could not have changed that much since 2008):
A unique type of lodging found in Tokyo is the “capsule hotel,” providing the minimum amount of space for you to catch some zzz’s. Here we are looking down a hallway in such a capsule hotel, the “Big Lemon” — located in the lively Kabukicho section of the Shinjuku neighborhood. When you pay your 3800 yen (slightly over $40 US) fee for a night’s accommodation, you get your choice of a berth on the upper or lower level. While I stayed in more conventional hotels, with actual rooms, during my visits to Tokyo, I did rent a capsule at the establishment depicted above, just so I could take pictures in it. 🙂 The proprietors insisted that no photography was allowed; but having paid for the privilege of doing whatever I wanted in my rented capsule, I wasn’t about to listen to their silly demands. 🙂
Upon the completion of my photoshoot, I then headed back to my own hotel, and did not actually spend the night in my capsule as I was entitled to.
This is what the sleeping accommodations actually look like inside a capsule hotel. Here again, the scene is the “Big Lemon,” in the Kabukicho section of the Shinjuku district.
You won’t find a minibar in your room. But there are surprising luxury features such as a color TV and clock/radio. All guests of the facility also have access to a sauna. And while closet space in each berth is limited, lockers are available on-site to store your valuables. (although if you are the sort of person who stays in a capsule hotel, you probably don’t have too many valuables).
Note that conveyance between the upper and lower levels is by means of a ladder — safer than an elevator in case of fire.
The assembly line in a Toyota factory in the company town of Toyota, Japan, near Nagoya. This particular plant, at the time the photo was taken in 2008, produced Priuses and Camrys, and one other model that I forget.
Due to the prohibition on photography during my tour, this is one of only 2 photos I was able to sneak inside the factory.
Fishmongers inspect some of the giant frozen tuna arrayed on the warehouse floor during the morning tuna auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
I had to get up at 4:45 a.m. for this and it was so worth it; I’ve never seen anything like it.
The market’s official website had indicated that the auction is no longer open to the public, because the hordes of photographers were interfering with operations. However, arriving at about 5:30 a.m., I had no trouble getting in, and I saw numerous other tourists milling about. But the difference is that most of the other sightseers obediently stayed in a designated roped-off area, while I wandered around periodically on the wrong side of the rope. 🙂
So as I gazed out upon the sea of frozen tuna, I kept thinking, “There’s a lot of mercury in this room . . .”
Ginza Crossing in Tokyo typifies the colorful electric signage that predominates in Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
The view above is looking straight down Ginza Street. The poshest avenue for shopping in Tokyo, Ginza Street includes such prestigious stores as Cartier and Apple – the analogue to New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Disco Stu goes to Japan! The guy on the right looks Japanese. If so, then I’m pretty sure he’s the only Japanese person I’ll ever see with an afro . . .
And by way of comparison, here is his American counterpart: Disco Stu.
Tokyo Tower bears more than a passing resemblance to Paris’s Eiffel Tower, which was its design inspiration. However, le tour Tokyo is actually a tad taller than its European doppelganger (1,091 feet vs. 1,063 feet), and features a different color scheme (the orange and white that is standard among Japanese towers due to aviation regulations, as opposed to the brown and gray finish that marks the Eiffel Tower). The Tokyo Tower’s steel frame (in contrast to the Eiffel Tower’s iron cage) results in a weight just barely over half that of the Parisian structure (4,000 tons vs. 7,000 tons).
Situated at the base of Tokyo Tower is a four story building called Foot Town, which contains various museums, restaurants, and shops — including a wax museum (it is apparently obligatory to have a wax museum at any major tourist trap. For example, there is one in the Empire State Building).
Naturally, the tower contains observation decks that offer panoramic views of the city. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji. However, visibility conditions were not so favorable during my two ascensions of the tower.
Built in 1958, Tokyo Tower was celebrating its golden jubilee during the year of my visit (not counting many intermittent destructions at the hands of Godzilla). However, when I visited, there was nothing special going on to commemorate this anniversary.
The entrance gate to Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto.
Kiyomizu means “clear water” in Japanese; the temple takes its name from a waterfall on the grounds. The origins of the temple date back as early as 798, although the buildings that presently occupy the site were completed in 1633.
Kiyomizu-dera is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Torii! Torii! Torii!
An avenue of contiguous torii (ceremonial orange gates) at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. The individual gates blend into a tunnel of orangy goodness.
This is a section of the bamboo grove near the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. As you can see, the tree density is thin in this region. I’m not sure if it’s because many of the trees have been harvested, or what.
This bamboo forest really looked otherworldly to me — like nothing I’ve seen before. This particular section reminded me of those pictures I’ve seen of the hairs on a human head magnified several thousand times. 🙂
A colorful street in the Gion section of Kyoto — the bustling neighborhood in which I was fortunate enough to have chosen my hotel.
On Japanese city streets, it is common to see vertical signs — many of which are illuminated at night — projecting outward from the sides of buildings. Equally common are thick clusters of overhead power lines. I’m not sure that I would want to be on one of these streets when an earthquake hits and knocks down those wires . . .
The Kinkaku-ji temple, also known as the Gold Pavilion, in Kyoto. The two upper stories are covered in pure gold leaf.
The temple is situated on the Kyoko-Chi, meaning “Mirror Pond.”
The name of this temple gets a little confusing because also in Kyoto there is a Silver Pavilion, known in Japanese as Ginkaku-ji. So they sound almost the same (Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji). I did also go to the silver one (which my guidebook said was also worth seeing — although, despite the name, it is not actually coated in silver). However, when I got to the silver temple, the main building was completely covered in scaffolding. 😦 So I was unable to photograph <that structure that’s arguably as beautiful as the Kinkaku-ji temple seen above.
Toda-Ji Temple is one of the major temples to visit in the town of Nara, the first capital of Japan.
The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, including this temple, have collectively been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like so many of my other photos from this trip, this one features the obligatory overcast sky.
In Nara, street vendors sell packages of wafers for people to feed to the ubiquitous deer. Here, a young man goes about such a feeding in an unorthodox way.
This was taken on a foggy day; note the low cloud cover in the background.
A deer stands sentinel in front of the 5-story pagoda of the Hōryū Temple in Nara. 122 feet in height, this pagoda is generally believed to be one of the two oldest wooden buildings in the world. The wood used in its center pillar is believed to have come from trees harvested in or about 594 A.D.
Nara was the first Japanese capital. The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, including this pagoda, have collectively been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Two schoolchildren in Nara, wearing the blue uniforms that are ubiquitous among Japanese students. They are both making the gesture that looks like the peace sign but means something else (I’m not sure what).
The girl on the right “interviewed” me as a project for her English class. She asked me my name, and then asked me to spell it; she then wrote the letters out in her notebook. She asked me where I was from, and read me a prepared statement (I forget now what it was, but probably it would have been something along the lines of it was nice to meet me). She concluded by asking me to exchange an American coin for a Japanese coin.
One of Nara’s famous deer can be seen in the background at the right.
A shinkansen, or bullet train, pulls into Kyoto Station.
I relied heavily on shinkansens for inter-city tansport during my trip to Japan. Overall I found them not to be as comfortable as an Amtrak train (even when compared to Amtrak’s coach class), due principally to narrower seats; but the Japanese rail system is far more reliable than trains in the United States (or, for that matter, in the United Kingdom). The trains really do run on time in Japan. Except for the very last day of my trip, when I showed up at Tokyo Station to catch an express train to Narita Airport for my flight back to the U.S. (I had bought my ticket for this express train a couple of hours earlier) — only to be told that, inexplicably, my airport train had been canceled.
The Genbaku Dome, Japanese for “Atomic Bomb” Dome (and thus frequently referred to as the A-Bomb Dome), is one of the few buildings still extant in Hiroshima that predates the events of August 6, 1945.
Designed by the Czech architect Jan Letzel, the edifice was completed in 1915, when it opened as the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition.
30 years later, after the building had undergone several name changes, the United States detonated a nuclear bomb just 150 feet away. For whatever reason, the Genbaku Dome became the closest building to the hypocenter to not be totally obliterated.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the skeletal remains of the building have been preserved as a reminder of the horrors of nuclear war. Across the river is Peace Memorial Park, a dazzling collection of monuments that commemorate the awful destruction of August 6, while also harboring hopes for peace. Nearby is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which contains exhibits and artifacts that graphically depict the human cost of August 6. Whatever you think of President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb (as well as the dropping of a similar bomb over Nagasaki three days later), the museum speaks eloquently to the human tragedy that ensued.
The view here is from the Aioi Bridge, the original target of the nuclear bomb.
Colorful origami cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument in Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. These paper cranes, symbolizing a desire for peace, are sent in by children from all over the world.
The events from which the tradition arises began in 1955. In that year, Sasaki Sadako, a 12-year-old girl who had lived in Hiroshima 10 years earlier when the atomic bomb was detonated over the city, developed leukemia. The people of Nagoya donated 1,000 paper cranes to her in the hospital as a “get well” gift. She was inspired to start folding her own cranes by this gesture, as well as by a Japanese tradition that holds that a person who folds 1,000 cranes is granted a wish.
Reportedly, Sadako had only folded 644 cranes before she succumbed to her leukemia.
After her death, a memorial was built to her and all the other children who had perished as a result of the atomic blast. A statue at the memorial depicts Sadako holding a golden crane. And, to this day, children send in origami cranes to be placed at the monument.
For travelers staying in Hiroshima, a popular excursion is a day-trip to the nearby island of Miyajima. While Miyajima is best known for the floating torii in its harbor (seen below), there are other things to do there as well. I took a ropeway ride to the top of Mount Misen, the highest peak on the island (although it only rises about 1,200 feet). I made the ascent for one reason: wild monkeys live on the mountain, and are known to hang out at the ropeway terminus near the summit. I wanted to hang with my simian friends.
But when I got to the top of the mountain, the monkeys were nowhere to be seen. 😦 According to an English-language bulletin board in which updates are written in magic marker, the monkeys had gone into the forest to feed. I missed them by no more than about 10 minutes.
Despite the disappointing lack of monkeys, I did enjoy pretty good views while ascending and descending in the cable cars.
The “floating torii” off the island of Miyajima, after dark.
This vista is regarded as one of the three most scenic views in Japan. However, most tourists only come to watch it at sunset (and admittedly, the sunsets behind the torii can be spectacular), but then immediately catch the next ferry to the mainland. It is worth lingering into the evening, to view the specter of a disembodied torii floating in the darkness. (It is illuminated via floodlights on shore that are aimed at it.)
At the Tokyo Dome, looking down from the upper deck.
Yokohama Bay Stars at Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, April 23, 2008