Where do Japanese folks go to practice singing? (Karaoke booths!)

Who here likes singing in the shower or in the car?

How about singing while goofing off with your friends?

…How about singing in front of people you don’t know?

Yeah I’m not a fan of that last one either, but I get a kick out of the first two. In Japan, however, the insulation in the walls is…. lacking, to say the least, and while my voice isn’t offensively bad, I’m sure my neighbors appreciate quiet more than me belting out the latest musical hits over and over again. Luckily, in Japan there are karaoke boxes, places where you can rent a room by the hour (or for a set time) to sing your heart out to all sorts of tunes. They often offer things like free soft drinks, tambourines, snacks you can order in addition to the base charge of the room, etc.

Which is great when you have a group of friends together, but what about when you’re on your own and you just want to sing your heart out without bothering anybody?

That is where Ichikara comes in.

Headphones and the gadget you use to input your song choices. (Also tea.)

Ichikara (イチカラ) is run by Jankara, one of the major karaoke chains in Japan. Its’ name translates to “From one”, meaning that rather than a group, this place is meant for individuals. The idea is simple: rather than giving you a large room, it instead offers a private booth with headphones. For a set hourly rate, you’re offered free soft drinks and a room with a lock that allows you to practice whatever songs you like.

Some places also take note of how many calories you’ve supposedly burned.

As someone who used to blast (and belt) Phantom of the Opera in the car on the way to work in America, it’s taken some time to adjust to paying for a place where I can sing without people getting irritated at me. However, there are some perks to it that I’ve really come to like.

The chance to practice. We all have songs that we’ve listened to dozens of times and think we kn0w–but the minute we load it up in a karaoke machine, our minds go blank or, even worse, we realize we’ve been singing it at the wrong “octave” and now everything sounds funny. Having a chance to practice, especially in private, does wonders for ones’ confidence levels.

Practicing the local language. Japan is not the only country to offer this style of karaoke, and it doesn’t only offer songs in Japanese. There are plenty of English, Korean, or even Chinese songs to pick from. I’ve noticed that when I spend an hour singing Japanese songs, however, my speaking, listening comprehension, and reading abilities are much sharper afterward.

Getting out of the house. Frankly, having an excuse to leave the house is nice. I can easily spend an entire weekend at home fussing around, so having somewhere to go–even if it’s to a karaoke booth so I can sing uninterrupted–is a nice change of pace.

The booth, nice and cluttered after I used it for an hour.

One downside to the booth option is that they are very limited in number compared to the usual karaoke rooms; in Kyoto as of June 24th, there are a grand total of two Ichikara shops versus dozens of standard karaoke rooms. Another can be price–if you’re able to get a regular room on your own, it can be cheaper per hour depending on where you go.

But that’s just it; if you can get a room on your lonesome. While some standard karaoke places are fine with a single person renting a room, others may turn you down or point you in the direction of an Ichikara. I prefer to avoid the whole potential run-around and just go to the place that’s geared toward individuals, and save the rooms for when I’m ready to horrify dazzle people with my singing skills.

If you get a chance, check one out for yourself and see if you like the differences!

Kyoto Teramachi Sanjo no Holmes: A Review

(NOTE: I’ve noticed a lot of folks peeking at this recently–this is an old review for the Japanese version of the light novel. Just FYI!)

As someone who lives in a foreign country, one of my goals upon coming here was to eventually become literate. My definition of literate is that I’m able to walk into a bookstore, pick something off the shelf, and be able to read the blurb inside the cover to see if it’s something I might enjoy.

In December 2015, I passed the JLPT N2 by a meager two points, so I suppose that technically puts me at the level of “able to use business-level Japanese”. In my day-to-day life, however, I place myself comfortably at N3, which is more “able to use daily conversation and sometimes rant about the economy in short sentences level Japanese”. I am able to go to a movie without subtitles, read the messages my Japanese friends send me on Line, and other daily activities without too much trouble.

But there is always room for improvement, and as an avid reader I decided, along with a friend, to start up a Japanese Book Club. Very recently, we finished the first book for said club: 京都寺町三条のホームズ by 望月 麻衣。

The story follows a high school girl named Aoi, who has just moved to Kyoto from her home up in Tokyo after the ending of a rocky relationship. Upon wandering the covered arcade street Teramachi, she finds a little antique shop, in which a university student, Kiyotaka, works. Kiyotaka is an enigmatic young man who people often come to in order to solve little mysteries about their antiques, and for that–as well as other reasons explored in the book–he is granted the nickname “Holmes”. As such, Aoi slowly but surely becomes the “Watson” in the tale as she starts a part-time job at the antique shop and learns more about his family and Kyoto as a whole.

Originally, I expected it to be more of a mystery novel with an overarching plot. To my surprise, the book is actually broken up into several smaller “books”, each with its own story arc. While several little mysteries are explored in the text, the tale is really more about the developing relationship between Aoi and “Holmes”.

As someone who knows Kyoto fairly well by now, I enjoyed reading Aoi’s perspective on several places, from Teramachi street itself to Kamogawa River and the shrines throughout the city. Likewise, reading Holmes’ explanations of the local customs were also interesting for me as they often tied in with my own experiences. Someone who has been to Kyoto is likely to get more enjoyment out of the story, but the descriptions are pretty easy to follow and I found myself picturing certain places pretty clearly.

Another thing I enjoyed was the character of “Holmes” himself. Aoi plays as a great foil to his personality. Like Sherlock Holmes, his interest in a given case is gone the instant he’s solved it, even while others are still trying to understand how he figured everything out. He also has a tendency to set up his “Watson” to unwittingly help him on cases, which can leave her irritated at him.

One thing that I found odd was the author’s (or perhaps the publisher’s) choice in furigana. As someone who is still regularly struggling with kanji, I look for furigana to understand the reading of new vocabulary so I can easily look it up and, in the future, pronounce the word properly. While furigana was littered throughout the text, especially for Kyoto-centric things people wouldn’t be familiar with, I found it strange that a kanji would be introduced first without the help. Then, after it had appeared two or three times, you would finally stumble across it with the helpful furigana next to it. Why was it not introduced together the first couple of times instead?

Another thing that bothered me somewhat was the ending. It did not feel like a conclusion at all. Rather it felt like the ending of an episode to a TV series or cartoon, where nothing has been resolved because the writers are confident there will be a sequel. While there are in fact, several books following this one, I don’t like the idea that the book can’t stand entirely on its own.

That said, I will be reading the second book to see if it provides any better conclusions to the story. I’ve already invested enough time in these characters and settings, so why not?

In short:
Geared toward: Given the main characters’ ages and personalities, this is geared toward people in high school/university and up.
Level required to read this book: Definitely JLPT N3, preferably higher if you don’t want to spend hours looking up vocabulary
Good for study: I’d say yes. Lots of repeating vocabulary, and the main characters tend to use standard Japanese (with hints of Kyoto-ben here and there from side characters)
Length of time to read it: Took me about 3 minutes per page at my current level without looking anything up, and the book is 306 pages.
Read it again: Yes. I’ll want to look at it again in a year or so to see if I’ve improved any reading-wise.

How do Japanese folks keep in touch? (A look at Line)

Twitter, Instagram, Vine… you’re likely familiar with or at least have heard of one of these apps before. Whether people use them religiously on their smartphones or attempt to learn how to use them on their computers, they’re a big part of many people’s lives now.

In Japan, Line is what makes the world go ’round.

Ever used Skype? Line, similarly, is an app that lets you call phone to phone (or computer to computer) for free. It is also used as a messenger, but the benefit to using Line is all of the stickers you can use. No longer are you limited by whatever emoticons you can come up with; type in “creepy” to get the face of a clown! Type in “sleep” to get multiple images of cartoonish characters drooling all over pillows!

In addition, it has a wall feature much like Facebook where you can post pictures and update your status. However, should you choose to use this feature, you will find not only other people but companies use Line to advertise themselves. If you poke around further, you’ll find options to download Line-related games you can play with friends, and Line Music, and so many other things.

Why is it so popular in Japan? Well, the stickers are one thing. Another is its easy accessibility. You’re meant to use it on a portable gadget, sure, but in a pinch you can log into your computer or elsewhere to access your account for limited amounts of time. Keep in mind that in Japan, texting is done differently here, and Line is as close to the American version of texting as you can get. What I personally like is the search feature- you can search for keywords that’ll help remind you of conversations long past. This is helpful, for example, if a friend has a birthday soon but you can’t recall exactly when.

Are there any drawbacks? Well, like other apps you will get friended by ‘bots, but they are reasonably easy to spot. The main thing is that when you change gadgets, your previous conversations don’t transfer to the new phone or tablet. You lose all of that data. I know some students who keep their old iPhones around essentially as iPod Touches in order to keep those old conversations available should they need them.

What’s another drawback? It’s not a very common app in America, at least not yet. Most people I know of who use it have lived in Japan or knows someone who lives here currently.

Still, if you’re coming to Japan soon and are intending to get a smartphone (or a pocket wi-fi so you can use internet on your portable gadget) Line is a good way to get and stay connected with any friends you’ll make here!

The food you grow up with

…And what you get used to over time can really surprise you, if you think about it.

I grew up in a fairly typical middle-class American family. We regularly had steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, spaghetti, chicken, pork, etc. etc. for our meals. We ate fish about once a week, a variety of potatoes, fresh tomatoes from the garden, all that good stuff.

Looking back to elementary school, I remember my very first exposure to Japanese cuisine: a Japanese “party” at school to celebrate the Washington D.C. Cherry Blossom festival. In it, we were dressed (incorrectly) in yukata, taught a song about cherry blossoms, and invited to try “vegetarian sushi”. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I fumbled the piece of rolled sushi into my mouth. However, I was not prepared for the salty assault on my tongue, and it was a struggle to politely swallow it down. When asked what I thought of the dish, I’m pretty sure I just walked away in disgust.

My second memory of Japanese food was high school. One of my pals had a birthday party at a Japanese restaurant. I was given Tempura Tendon, a pretty simple dish of rice with tempura served over it, and with little side dishes here and there. Using chopsticks felt like an impossible chore that I undertook with grim determination. At least it’s not raw fish, I thought as I stabbed a piece of tempura pumpkin into submission.

Cut to today. I’m spending time with family that’s come into town and we’ve hit up a hamburg restaurant. While we’re provided both chopsticks and forks and knives, I opt for the former to cut and eat my goodies with. My brother in law comments, “You’re not even cheating once!”


“You’re not using your knife at all.”

It’s funny what changes.

You know what else has changed?

We’re going to sushi for dinner sometime this week, and I am very much looking forward to salty seaweed and chilled raw fish and wasabi.

Classroom dramas: Betrayal!

In my first year of teaching, I had a class of two kindergartners, a boy and a girl. Let’s call them S-kun and M-chan, respectively. They got along okay, and liked driving me nuts because I didn’t know how to handle two five year olds who just wanted to play games. (I still don’t, but that’s not the issue here.)

About six months into teaching these guys, a third, older girl entered the picture. She was six years old and we’re going to call her Y-chan. Y-chan was a blunt, to-the-point sort of girl with strong shoulders who was ready to Work with a capital “W”. She answered everything I said in English in full sentences and liked singing the songs we learned outside of class, embarrassing her mother thoroughly in public. The other two kids seemed to tolerate her okay, but all of that changed one fateful day.

S-kun was sick, leaving the two girls to work with me in class, and M-chan was worried for her friend. She was subdued during the lesson as a result.

Next class, S-kun was back, a bit sniffly but none the worse for wear. He walked into the room and M-chan lit up like it was Christmas, preparing to greet her good buddy. Then, this happened:

M-chan: :D! :D! :D!
S-kun: ….Huh? Wait, where’s Y-chan?
Me: She’s sick today, she isn’t coming.
M-chan: :D…. 🙂
S-kun: *ignoring M-chan* Oh no! Is she okay?
M-chan: 🙂 …. :/ …. 😦 ….
Me: She’s fine.
M-chan: D:< !!!!

The slow transition from joy to pure vitriol on her face is something I will have a very hard time forgetting.

From then on, their friendship was damaged. Every time S-kun tried to open his mouth in class, whether it was to speak to M-chan or to me, M-chan would clap her hands over her ears and complain that he was bothering her.

The funny part was, Y-chan was completely unaffected by all of this nonsense. As stated before, she was in class to Work and she would not be distracted by this silliness. As a result, while M-chan tried to scowl her into submission, Y-chan’s ability to completely ignore M-chan’s attempts at aggression caused them to become good buddies.. and left S-kun more than a little baffled.

Man, friendship is rough when you’re a kid.

Playing Counselor

In my job I get to meet a lot of people from all walks of life and all ages. It’s fun because you never know what’s going to happen in a given day until you walk in the door. (That can also be a bit terrifying, but hey, hazard of the job of an English Conversation Teacher.)

However, once in a while you plop down, ask the student how things are going, and they respond with a, “Well, my spouse is currently in the hospital, my child failed to get into the high school we wanted and my parents are ill.”

Then you glance at your schedule and realize you’re one-on-one with this person for the next two hours and realize: this will not be a teaching session, it will be a counseling one.

Teachers adopting additional duties is nothing new; in every culture across the world they don’t merely teach you math or history. They also provide guidance to students who need an extra nudge, acting like a babysitter or, in extreme cases, almost like a parent toward the kids they’re helping. The sad thing is, a lot of us don’t really get training or a chance to mentally prepare how to handle a situation like this.

Never mind handling issues that other people are experiencing; I’m barely equipped to deal with my own! And I imagine a lot of teachers are in the same boat as me, whether they’re working full-time in a public school or in a university or in a conversation school abroad. But you do start to realize a few things as to why this happens, especially in that last case.

First off, it’s “safe” to vent in a second language. The student feels that whatever they say, nobody else in hearing shot is going to be able to understand it, so their feelings are private. This is even with others walking by who also study the same language. In addition, in many of these schools there is the illusion that you, the teacher from another country, can’t speak the local language, so who are you going to tell? In that sense they know that whatever they say won’t go beyond closed doors.

Secondly, most of these people are not looking for advice or help from you. I have never had someone bluntly ask me what to do after sharing things with me. Instead, they want an ear. Make sympathetic noises, try to distract them from whatever’s bothering them, give them something fun to chat about for an hour, and you’ll have more than done your job and they’ll leave the class having unloaded a bit.

Thirdly, it’s hard to see these situations coming, especially if you’re in a situation where students don’t have a set schedule for attending classes. Even if they do come to class regularly, they might seem perfectly fine one day, then spill their guts to you the next. Take it in stride as best you can and try your best to get back to the lesson at hand as soon as there’s a lull in the venting.

Again, most teachers are NOT trained for these situations- including me- and there are so many variables on what you might experience. As best you can, know your students, know your school, and worst case scenario, know how to flag someone else down to come in and help you if anything happens that makes you particularly uncomfortable.