If, like me, you cannot sing, karaoke is a curse. One of the first things I learned to say in Japanese was, "If I sing, all your customers will leave."

This was my only defense when confronted by an insistent proprietor at a karaoke sunakku. The threat of having to listen to me sing wasn't enough. Only the threat of losing business worked. And so it was that I was able to avoid karaoke for my first 10 years in Japan. But when I heard about Smash Hits -- a karaoke bar offering a comprehensive list of songs in English -- I thought I'd check it out.

"I hate enka," says Saito-san, the master, talking about the Japanese blues songs warbled nightly by salarymen in karaoke bars throughout the country. "It sounds so sad and lonely."