Our worst critic is usually ourselves.

Karaoke has been one of Japan’s biggest pastimes for decades with countless bars offering the service and large parlors offering private rooms for it in nearly every commercial area across the country. But not everyone is a fan of flaunting their amateur vocal stylings. In fact, some people, like our writer Saya Togashi, downright loathe the experience.

It’s not that she doesn’t like singing. It’s just that she knows she’s not particularly good at it and would rather not be the center of attention while doing it. On the other hand, she also doesn’t want to be the wet blanket at gatherings who refuses to sing, which results in her doing it against her will and hating every second of it.

▼ She can’t even look at a mic without her skin crawling.

Because of that, she’s sworn off the activity for about 20 years now aside from some private sessions at home on her game console. However, she recently learned of an increase in available solo karaoke booths and decided to try one out called Wankara wherein “wan” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for a dog’s bark while also sounding like the number “one” (hence the chain’s logo, a cute dog with a wagging tail shaped like the number 1).

It was Saya’s first time, so she had to go through the process of signing up as a member. She felt self-conscious that the clerk might judge her for having no friends, but was relieved to find that the staff were all very courteous.

The main area was very similar to a normal karaoke parlor’s, complete with self-serve drink fountains.

However, it was strangely silent and there wasn’t the cacophony of a dozen different songs leaking out of each room at the same time that you’d hear in the hallways of a normal karaoke place. That’s because rather than having the music and singing pumped out of speakers, everyone uses their own headphones.

Saya went into her booth, which at Wankara is called a “Pit” (as in “cockpit”), and was surprised by how cozy it was.

But despite its size, it was packed with features not often seen in full-size karaoke rooms. She had her own mixer in one corner.

And there was a full-length mirror to practice her moves in or check her appearance before a possible recording session.

There was even a condenser mic for higher-quality audio.

Headphones were provided but it’d have been no problem if Saya had brought her own.

The only thing she noticed missing was the song catalog to look up the number that needed to be punched into the karaoke machine. Having not been to karaoke in a few decades, it took her a minute to realize they were no longer used and figure out how to use the touchscreen on the machine.

It took her another 30 minutes to realize there was a remote tablet on the counter so she didn’t have to bend over every time to choose a song.

If all these technological advancements weren’t enough to make Saya feel old, the top songs were all alien to her. Our writer has always been more into capsule toys and cats than YouTube and the boob tube, so she was rather clueless when it came to the hits of today.

As always, anime theme songs were the great equalizer in Japanese music and she could find refuge in the theme song to Demon Slayer, “Gurenge” by LiSA.

As the initial notes flowed into Saya’s headphones and she let out her accompanying vocals, she was blown away by the sound quality. Unlike normal karaoke where you have to shout into the mic over the blaring music, every delicate sound was picked up by the condenser mic and balanced with the music beautifully…

At least, as beautifully as she was capable of…

The downside to this setup was that all of Saya’s imperfections were out on display rather than drowned out in echo and the hard tones of the background music. She could hear herself losing breath as her voice cracked, faltered, and struggled to stay in tune all the time.

It made her realize that it wasn’t just a lack of karaoke experience that was affecting her. Ever since the pandemic began, she had been living like a recluse, speaking only to her family and cats in her actual voice for the most part.

She wondered if it was just the audio settings, but when she took her headphones off, her natural voice sounded even worse to her. Self-consciousness began to take hold even though she was alone in the room. After all, there were security cameras so who’s to say some guard wasn’t sitting in another room laughing at her?

Saya began fidgeting with her hands as she sunk deeper into her shell. She couldn’t bear to torture herself anymore by listening to her own voice…

But she also didn’t want to waste the money she paid for the hour so she put her headphones on and sang her way through the rest of the song, gasping all the way.

She then decided to regroup and select a Ghibli song since those are pretty much ingrained in her DNA. She could sing most of those songs without even looking at the words on the screen.

Then she picked a song by enka singer Aki Yashiro whom she remembered from back when she watched TV. She always loved her cool personality.

Saya also took advantage of solo karaoke by singing songs she’d normally refrain from in front of others – songs such as “Fight!” by Miyuki Nakajima who sings about a girl getting pushed down the stairs of a train station.

As she went through all these songs, she realized that all of her musical tastes were highly focused around the year 1995. That was almost 30 years ago…

Existential dread aside, the time passed smoothly and Saya seemed to settle into using her voice again. She could feel herself breathing from her diaphragm for the first time in a long time. The door locks automatically and no staff could be seen, allowing her to relax even more.

As her time neared the end, she decided to give “Gurenge” another shot and this time it was much better.

Of course, it still wasn’t very good, but it was a little better and that’s what counts. More importantly, she felt louder, more relaxed, and more in tune with herself.

Even when going into the main area for drinks and passing by other solo karaoke singers, there was a strange feeling of solidarity and even mystique. Any one of those people could secretly be an amazing singer in their private Pit. Maybe they thought that about her too.

Wankara has an automatic payment system and area to place returned equipment like headphones so there’s no need to deal with any staff on the way out.

Saya left Wankara with a euphoric feeling, both from completing a huge task for herself and from breathing more deeply than she has in a while and delivering oxygen to the most deprived corners of her body.

But like all pleasures, it gradually faded away and she regressed back to her normally shy and gloomy self. She won’t forget that feeling from solo karaoke though, and now she knows where to get it.

Related: Wankara
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[ Read in Japanese ]