Karaoke, which translates from the Japanese characters as “empty orchestra” dates from the 1960s. Today it is not only a prime pastime for many Japanese, irrespective of age, but a global phenomenon. Devotees sing favorite songs to pre-recorded tapes, CDs, and DVDs in bars, pubs, and even at home. Most popular are Western standards, current pop songs, and enka, the Japanese equivalent of French chanson.
It is common for Japanese companies to build karaoke complexes consisting of small, cozy rooms for couples to much larger spaces, some with concert-style lighting, for groups of friends and large parties. Food and drinks can be ordered. It is hard to escape karaoke – it is everywhere in the city.
Big Echo, a karaoke spot in Tokyo
Big Echo is the name of one major karaoke chain that operates in Tokyo, and the well known games company Sega operates another. Family restaurant chains such as Denny’s, Jonathan’s, and Royal Host are also strong supporters. Sometimes venues even star in movies: Karaoke-kan in Shibuya’s Center Gai is the famed location used in the 2003 movie Lost in Translation – the rooms used are 601 and 602 on the sixth floor.
There is no shortage of venues to hear live music in Tokyo. Many big acts, Japanese and foreign, appear at Shibuya’s Club Quattro. O-West and O-East are two other good venues in Shibuya for techno and J-pop. In Ebisu the Liquid Room is a trendy place to see a mix of bands. The Akasaka Blitz hosts J-pop groups and some foreign acts. Venues for live music and experimental performances range from the ever-exciting SuperDeluxe in Nishi-Azabu, to expat-hangout The Pink Cow in Roppongi. The Mandala Live House has mostly Japanese bands.
For big-name jazz performers try the Shinjuku Pit Inn, the Cotton Club in Marunouchi, and the Blue Note Tokyo Birdland, in Akasaka, is one of Tokyo’s longest-running jazz clubs Billboard Live Tokyo in Roppongi is a fancy venue that features live music performances by top artists.
A Jazz representation at Cotton Club – Marunouchi, Tokyo
For a cozier, more intimate setting, try the Blues Alley Japan, a small club featuring blues, jazz, rock, world music, and other genres.
The domestic and international classical music and opera scene in Tokyo is flourishing. Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, Bunkamura, New National Theater, Suntory Hall, NHK Hall, and the Tokyo International Forum are all popular spots.
Movie-going is not cheap in Japan, costing about ¥1,800 per person, However, on Cinema Day, usually the first day of each month, ticket prices are reduced. Many cinemas also have Ladies’Day, usually on a Wednesday, when ticket prices for women are reduced to ¥1,000. Some American and European films may take up to three months to reach Japan. Non-Japanese films are usually shown in the original language with Japanese subtitles.
In Shibuya, Bunkamura sometimes shows Japanese films with English subtitles and occasionally screens Independent and European films.
Also in Shibuya, the Theater Image Forum, designed by architect Masaharu Takahashi, uses the most advanced digital technology. The centrally located Toho Cinemas Chanter shows art-house and Independent movies.
For mainstream movies, try United Cinema Toyosu, which is one of the largest in Tokyo, with 12 screens. It is possible to hire children’s seats and even blankets here. Marunouchi Piccadilly in the Mullion Building in Yurakucho has five screens, while Ebisu Garden Place has two.
A popular choice is the nine-screen Toho Cinema Roppongi Hills in the Roppongi Hills complex.
Toho Cinema Roppongi Hills
Fans of Japanese cinema should visit the National Film Center.
The annual Tokyo International Film Festival is held in October/November. Other worthwhile festivals include the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
The theater scene encompasses everything from Shakespeare (at the Tokyo Globe) and Broadway musicals to comedy, classical ballet, and modern dance, with the main venues in Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Marunouchi. The level of performance is usually high.
The Tokyo Comedy Store offers non-Japanese and Japanese the chance to show off their comedy skills in English: two laughter- packed hours on the fourth Friday of the month at Crocodile in Harajuku.
A uniguely Japanese theater experience is Takarazuka, a company divided into five troupes and composed entirely of women. With their own state-of-the-art Takarazuka Theater in Yurakucho, they perform adaptations in Japanese of Western musicals and historic love stories, and are famed for their lavish productions.
The Interior of Takarazuka Grand Theater
Nihon Buyo Kyokai stages regular performances of traditional dance. Usually at the end of May, the Azuma Odori, an annual production of dance, drama, and music, brings Tokyo’s geisha community on stage at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theater Buto – a unique and compelling art form – is contemporary dance combined with performance art. Developed in the 1960s, performances feature shaven headed dancers, almost naked, painted with makeup. Slow, simplistic choreography seeks to create beauty out of the self- imposed grotesqueness.
Game-playing New Yorkers have a field day at Fat Cat, a vast subterranean games room which holds 10 pool tables, 10 ping-pong tables, along with half a dozen foosball and shuffleboard tables, chessboards, and a bar area where people can sit and play Scrabble or backgammon.
People playing pool at Fat Cat
The place is dark, crowded, and usually noisy, and adding to the energetic mayhem are jazz, soul, or Gospel bands playing on a small stage tucked to the side. Three groups play each night from 7pm–2am, with an informal jazz jam session taking over until closing at 4.30am. At night the place is generally packed with 20–30-year-olds and the NYU student set looking for an inexpensive and fun alternative to nightclubs and restaurants.
Bowlmor Lanes near Union Square is also a nighttime destination for New Yorkers looking for something different to do. The management at Bowlmor spiffed up a neglected three-floor bowling alley about a decade ago, turning it into a retro-hip spot with glow-in-the-dark bowling, big-screen videos, a huge sound system and a couple of bars. Some complain both the drinks and the bowling are too expensive ($24 for shoes and unlimited bowling from 9pm–1am), but others counter that the place is well managed and conveniently located.
A baby elephant seal was making eyes at me. True, I must have looked alluring in my rubber boots and layers of down and Gore-Tex, almost as plump as the mother seal that had recently weaned my admirer and returned to sea. Here on Macquarie Island, a lonely sliver of upthrust seafloor halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica, the beach was littered with these young seals, most at an age when they’re called—I’m not kidding—weaners. Hundreds of blubbery tubes with smiling, whiskered faces lay in clumps and piles, flippers draped over one another, emitting a chorus of grunts and raspberries. Dapper king penguins waddled purposefully among them like impatient business commuters.
But my weaner was all alone on the charcoal-gray sand, uncuddled, gazing at me. Miraculously, it began to scoot closer, until it was near enough to arch up and snort in my face. Then, it heaved its damp, velvety bulk across my lap. You’re probably thinking you’d like to cuddle a weaner. You can, too, but it takes effort. First you have to get yourself to the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, board a ship, and bash south for several days through the notoriously windswept latitudes known as the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties. Once at Macquarie, you will need to clamber into a Zodiac raft and motor across a short but ornery stretch of water amid curious, swimming, head-swiveling penguins. Wind and swell are the norm, so a successful landing is by no means guaranteed.
But if you do get your wellies on that gray beach and find yourself among the crowds of penguins and heaps of seals, even if your arrival doesn’t coincide with the brief period in November and December when the weaners miss their moms and will settle for a girl from California, take a good long look around, because you are in a wonderland. But unless you happen to be an extremely intrepid sailor, a climate scientist, or an actual elephant seal, you aren’t getting to Macquarie on your own. I went on a 13-day, multi-island voyage offered by New Zealand-based Heritage Expeditions. The trip is billed as “the Galapagos of the Southern Ocean” and, in addition to Macquarie, an Australian territory, includes several of New Zealand’s most remote and windy island groups: the Snares, the Auckland Islands, and Campbell Island.
Long before Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao put Spain’s little-known northern Basque city on the bucket-list tour, and with it coined terms like “starchitecture” and the “Bilbao effect,” there was the city of Bilbao—a 19th-century industrialized maritime stalwart that had fallen on harder economic times in the latter half of the 20th century. What hasn’t changed since this port town was founded, in 1300, despite Spanish Civil War bombings and the decline of shipbuilding, are its undercelebrated rolling hills, superior sheep’s-milk cheese, and sparkling wine. We say make your pilgrimage to the deconstructivist, titanium monument to postindustrial optimism, and then eat your way through the rest of your stay.
The best way to understand the region’s “a little bit often” philosophy is to go on a txikiteo, a Basque pub crawl: You’ll sip small glasses of txakoli, the region’s slightly effervescent white wine, and nibble pintxos—the Basque tapa, which, according to locals, you have to be able to eat while standing up and in two bites. If you start early, you’ll have time to hit one of the city’s rustic taverns or siderias (hard-cider houses), which crank out traditional—and more substantial—tortillas de bacalao and grilled steak Or go the modernist route and check out the city’s gastro scene that, long the bridesmaid to those of neighboring San Sebastian and the Rioja, has come into its own.
To get your mind around the insanely high-level architecture that’s cropped up post-Gehry, take a walk along the winding Nervion River. From the Guggenheim, head south past Santiago Calatrava’s cantilevered Zubizuri footbridge. Turn inland to the affluent Indautxu neighborhood and Philippe Starck’s 2010 Azkuna Zentroa, a 1909 wine warehouse turned cultural center. Walk northwest toward Cesar Pelli’s glass Iberdrola tower, Alvaro Siza Vieira’s Bizkaia Aretoa hall, and cross the river and head west to the late Zaha Hadid’s Zorrozaurre, a massive urban-renewal project converting a 148-acre peninsula to a live-work island complex.
The Mothership – Eleven Experience’s foray into boating has those destination-specific luxe touches we expect of the brand (like the floating pods in its Icelandic spa). Sailing in southern Florida, after a day of bonefishing in the Marquesas Keys or sportfishing for tarpon in the Everglades, you’ll eat snapper ceviche and wagyu tenderloin aboard your 74-foot, three-stateroom Hatteras motor yacht. If the fish aren’t biting, you can always take the boat’s stash of snorkel gear and paddleboards to explore historic Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
Tusitiri – This 60-foot wooden dhow was found abandoned on a Kenyan beach by its new Norwegian owners (who also run Enasoit Game Sanctuary in Laikipia) and restored over eight years. It sails with up to 10 guests from August through March alongside the humpbacks, dolphins, and eagles of the Lamu Archipelago (specialists are on board to school you on the surroundings). At night, brass lanterns cast a glow on linen bedrolls out on deck as you fall asleep to the dull cries of egrets and terns. (Yup, you’re literally sleeping under the stars.)
Blue Deer – Stefano and Giorgia Barbini—former CEO of Escada France and Italy and scion of Brioni, respectively—own this 74-foot custom catamaran, which sails the Italian Med from June through October and the Caribbean from December through April. Like their White Deer San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge in the Dolomites, every detail of the vessel feels especially considered. And then there’s the food: Stefano keeps the wine cellar stocked with Piedmont reds that go perfectly with that uni pasta made with urchin scooped from the sea that day.
Amandira – Since early 2016, Aman has been chartering weeklong voyages into Raja Ampat on its handcrafted 170-footphinisi, a two-masted Indonesian ship. Having 14 staff on hand means the up-to-10 guests can get in-cabin massages and bubbly top-offs around the clock. The real draw, though, is the specialty Nitrox diving, which allows for longer dives alongside wobbe-gong and reef sharks off Kawe Island. Novices, not to worry: An onboard scuba instructor can train you for mid-level plonks into the coral reefs.
Satori – The rose-lined pathways at Borgo Santo Pietro are alone worth a trip to Tuscany. So it’s not surprising that we fell hard for the property’s five-month-old sister ship on first glimpse of its 121-foot mast Danish owners Claus and Jeanette Thottrup gave this high-style Turkish yacht five staterooms with marble baths (the master has a to-die-for freestanding walnut tub), high ceilings, and a cozy on-deck cinema. Though our favorite touch is the salon, constructed eight inches below deck, ensuring clear views of the Spanish Med from every leather-saddled seat.
“Yes, I know it,” my Vancouver cab driver said when I asked him about Haida Gwaii, the torch-shaped archipelago flung some 70 miles off the coast of British Columbia, across the choppy Hecate Strait. “It’s our there.” The 175-mile-long chain has benefited from its extreme isolation, with some of the largest and oldest spruce trees on the planet; 20 kinds of whale, dolphin, and porpoise; and animal subspecies that exist nowhere else—like the Haida Gwaii black bear, which has developed especially large teeth and jaws due to a steady diet of crabs and salmon. Only a dozen visitors at a time are allowed to set foot on some of the islands. (Though Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge did manage to swing a visit to the area last September.)
Aside from the Imax-like wildlife encounters— Sitka black-tailed deer flit across your path, and sputtering gray Minke whales surface off your boat’s bow—much of the archipelago’s almost mystical energy owes to the fact that it’s the ancestral home of the Haida First Nation, which comprises roughly half the islands’ population of 5,000. Haida culture thrives in the towns of Old Massett and Skidegate on Graham Island, where street signs are in English and Xaat Kil; the Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate stages dance performances in a longhouse-style theater. On Anthony Island in Gwaii Haanas, I wandered through an ancient, mossy forest and peered up at 19th-century carved cedar mortuary poles housing remains of bygone chiefs. It all conjured a neck-tingling echo of an old Haida proverb I’d scribbled down: “When you walk this earth, you must walk carefully. Underneath your feet is the knife’s edge, and you could fall off this world.”
Every June, for all of my 26 years, I’ve taken an overnight flight from JFK to Rome to visit my mother’s side of the family. As soon as we touch down, all I can think about is a panino stuffed with paper-thin slices of prosciutto. But when I walk into my grandmother’s house, jet-lagged, with a roaring, empty belly, I’m met with an espresso, a bowl of apricots, and a single dry biscotto. The truth is, despite the fact that Italians are the world’s reigning food champs, they don’t do breakfast.
It’s usually taken standing up at the nearest bar, if it’s eaten at all. The only place to find a truly decent spread (and a comfortable seat) is at a hotel, and the paragon of the form is served in the garden at Rocco Forte’s de Russie. The pastel-pink staircase in its courtyard opens onto a sprawling terrace shaded by palms and potted lemon trees where you’ll get your frothy cappuccino, crostini, freshly squeezed orange juice, and aperitivo-worthy salumi. Next time, I’m taking a detour on the way in from Fiumicino.