Long, long ago . . . in a distant age . . . there was no karaoke (cue twang of shamisen and cymbal flutter).

"My uncle played guitar at a place like this before karaoke kicked off," says Toshiaki Chiku, now in his 40s, at a cozy shitamachi (downtown) snack bar in Sendagi, east Tokyo, as he relaxes in the midst of a solo Japan tour and giving his first interview in English.

"Before karaoke we had nagashi," he says. "Musicians would play guitar in bars and customers would request songs. Then the guitarist, or maybe a shamisen player, would sing the requests, or the customers could sing along instead. My uncle got paid for this. Then he started teaching my brother how to play guitar. I was 12 then, and I learned too."