The name karaoke is actually a shortening from the two Japanese words "kara" and "okesutora", literally "empty orchestra". Meaning music tracks where the lead vocals have been removed, allowing the participants to themselves sing to the accompanying music. It's said to have been invented in Kobe in the early 70's by a musician who played at the local bars, letting the customers sing the lead while playing guitar.
While there are still plenty of smaller bars where you sing in front of the other customers, nowadays the most popular form of karaoke are the thousands of karaoke box parlors spread most everywhere in Japan. A karaoke box is a small room you rent by the hour, fully equipped with a karaoke-machine, microphones and usually a tablet like remote to search and input songs. The lyrics and along with music videos are then displayed on a large tv screen.
Karaoke boxes can be found most anywhere in Japan. In close vicinity to train stations you can almost always be sure to find a karaoke box. Other places you are likely to find them are around shopping centers and bar areas. Look for signs with 「カラオケ」(karaoke) written on them.
When you walk up to the counter you will be asked how many you are and for how long you plan on singing. You will also be asked if you want to order a drink-all-you-can plan, most places require you to at least order one drink. Also remember to ask for a non-smoking room if you don't smoke. Some karaoke boxes only have non-smoking rooms.
The cheapest time for karaoke is during the weekdays, with Friday nights and weekends being more expensive. If you plan on staying a longer time, more than 4 hours, the "free-time" plans are your best choice. "Free-time" unfortunately not meaning your stay is free but rather that you pay a fixed price for several hours of singing, usually divided in afternoon to evening and late night to early morning time slots.
The simplest way to select songs is by using the tablet like remote, which let you search by songs by artist or song name. While defaulting to Japanese you can change the display language to English. Some modern remotes even let you search by singing a part of the song into it's microphone. For the more manual approach there are usually songbooks in the room, but if you can't find any just tell the staff and they will bring them to your room. Finding your desired song just enter it's code into the karaoke machine directly or through the tablet remote.
You will find menus from where you can order food and drinks by the phone in your room. Recently it's not uncommon to find a dedicated tablet remote for ordering, especially useful for foreign customers that don't speak any Japanese. Just choose what you want to order from the touch pad and the staff will bring it to your room.
When 10 minutes remains of your time the counter staff will call on the phone letting you know your time is almost up, giving you the chance to extend your time. When you are done bring the room tag to the counter and pay. The majority of karaoke boxes allows credit cards to be used.
Have you tried karaoke in Japan? Or do you have any questions not answered here? Please let us know in the comments below.