On Gaien Higashi Dori
Tuesday, November 11
Who's Food's: New Advances in Karaoke
Although we still haven't seen those Karaoke taxis they mention in all the guidebooks, we have managed a new karaoke discovery this year: Who's Food's.
For those of you who expect signifiers to actually correspond in some meaningful way to signifieds (i.e. those of you who haven't witnessed the randomly cosmetic use of English in Japan), Who's Food's is a new (to me) karaoke and restaurant chain, with branches in Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ueno and elsewhere.
Walking into the Shibuya branch, you would be forgiven for thinking you have just walked into an airport. This, you see, is Who's Food's "twist": the lobby and reception is a departure lounge, and the elevator takes you on flights to different countries, depending on the floor of your flight number.
After booking your flight with the lovely ground hostess, you are directed to the waiting lounge. A major flaw with standard Karaoke joints in Japan is that there is nothing for people to do when waiting for a room to come free. And you often have to wait for up to an hour. In Who's Food's you have many options: drink beer, play games like Othello (what a complex game!), or look at the turtles (!) in their open-top fish tanks, the kind the next Pope will use if he is a turtle. I can't imagine those turtles surviving long if Who's Food's decided to open a branch in Dublin. All-you-can-drink and turtles on demand would be a recipe for some very cruel but no doubt hilarious Irish comedy.
Just as you finish a heated discussion with your wife over the rules of Othello, which clearly neither of you know, the flight announcer calls your number, summoning you to proceed to the information desk. Flight No. 621 to Bali is now ready to depart from the elevator, you are told.
All rooms on the sixth floor are decorated Bali-style. Bali, it seems, does not allow you to wear shoes indoors either. So the shoes go off. You order your beer (for no gaijin karaoke is ever done without beer) using the TV remote control. This can be tricky if you had a few beverages to warm your vocal chords before your flight, which is almost always the case. You never meet anybody to "go to karaoke"; it is always the option that becomes acceptable (or obvious) after a few scoops.
Your beers are served by a smiling, happy staff member as you scan through the whole book (!) of foreign songs. Seeing this much expanded selection, you now have the option of being conservative or radical. Conservative means you sing the same old songs you have been singing for 7 years, the ones you know inside-out, backwards and forwards, at 33 or 45 (Like a Rolling Stone). Radical means you try something new, but it might flop (Old Man River), or be really difficult (Anything by Elvis Costello), or you might only really know the chorus after all (All the Young Dudes). Then again, though, it could be absolutely piping hot, top man, the business (Pixies, "Where is my Mind," a song made for karaoke). Usually, unlike life, you start off conservative and end up becoming more radical than a socialist worker (and with similar abilities in terms of singing mainstream 80s pop).
A few more scoops on, something starts to smile at you, urging you to touch and hold it. Yes, it's the Who's Food's tambourine. Desire to play tambourine is directly proportional to volume of alcohol consumed. Ability to realize how badly you play tambourine, unfortunately for the others, is inversely so. A few more scoops, and the "Gimme the fucking mic" and "Don't you fucking touch my tambourine" instincts emerge as scheduled. Karaoke manners are the ability to keep these savage natural instincts controlled within the age-old etiquette and refinery of the civil karaoke society.
When you land sonorously on your arse on the other side of the beer curve, when your last train time arrives, when someone passes out or wakes up, or when no one present has sound coming from their obliterated larynxes despite keen efforts to that effect, it is time to pack up your--and only your--belongings, pay the bill and take your ringing ears home.
The next day, you remember a song (Yellow) and the friendliness of the staff. You check your room for turtles, and smile contentedly in the memories of another cracking night at Who's Food's. And if karaoke means "empty orchestra", is that because all the instruments have been stolen by drunks?