The Overnight Karaoke Bus From Hell

In the mid-90s, I was living and working as an ESL teacher at a private school in Kanazawa, Japan,  a couple of hours by train from my relatives living in Kobe. I liked to visit them at least once a month to get to know them and stave off homesickness. The train ticket usually cost about $150. Sometimes I took the bus to save money, even though it was a much longer trip.

One day, our office boy, Kazu (who also worked part-time for a travel agency) told me that he could get me a free ticket to Kobe that weekend. He was booking a chartered bus which had an empty seat. The only catch, he explained, was "Overnight bus. Maybe you be tired." I said sure, that would be fine, "I can sleep on the bus." He gave me a quizzical look and said, " sleep." As a foreigner, I was by then used to getting quizzical looks from the locals, so I didn't comment or think much about his hesitation. 

When the weekend came, my boss and his wife offered to drive me to the bus station. "So, Kazu got you on the overnight bus. Have you ever taken overnight bus before? You might be too tired when you get there." I said that I had taken other overnight buses and I could always fall asleep. "Hm. I guess you won't sleep," my boss said. I assumed he figured it would be too uncomfortable, so again I said nothing.

They dropped me off and said, smirking, "Okaaaay...have a nice trip. Let me know how you sleep." In retrospect, I should have wondered why they were smirking.

I was one of the first passengers on, and, as it turned out, Kazu had booked me the seat right at the front, directly behind the driver. I got settled and was preparing to sleep when the bus driver looked at me in his big rear-view mirror, smirked (again, I should have wondered) and said, "Ah ah sleep!" However, it was about 11:30 pm and I actually did drift off.

I woke up maybe 30 minutes later to the high-pitched prattling of the young female tour coordinator who informed all the passengers that the bus was ready to depart. She saw me, smiled and bowed and said, " Ah. Good Morning. Welcome! Ready?" Um, yeah. Ready to sleep. Then she said something (I assumed was in Japanese) which I didn't understand.  It sounded like "Ju-Etsu!" Again, big smile. I hunched further down in my seat and closed my eyes, hoping she would finish her speech and all would be quiet. She patted my arm and said brightly, "Ah ah, no sleep! Ju-Etsu!"

She kept talking to the passengers, and I assumed she was going over safety/housekeeping/itinerary because she was referring to a booklet they were holding. I might have been mistaken, but at one point I thought she was talking about me because she gestured my way and some of the passengers nodded and grinned at me. Now I was getting cranky from wanting to sleep, but I sat up and peered behind me at the rest of the bus. It was then I realized that not only was I the only foreigner on board, I was also the only female. All the other passengers were middle-aged Japanese businessmen. I remembered this was a chartered bus. Probably a work trip. They would have some sake or beer and snacks and doze off with their heads on their chests. Finally, I could also get some sleep.

Suddenly, the lights got really bright. A dozen mini-chandeliers that I hadn't noticed before sparkled to life. A movie screen popped up right in front of my seat. And then, a big disco ball descended slowly from a trap door in the ceiling. The tour coordinator handed me one of the booklets, which turned out not to be the itinerary, but, rather, an extensive list of songs. To sing.  On this bus. She turned to a page marked "Duets" and said, "Please choose, okay?"  Ah. "Ju-Etsu" meant "Du-ets." To my utter shock and dismay, I realized I was meant to be the sole female duet singing partner on The Overnight Karaoke Bus From Hell. Ah. NO SLEEP!

So there I was, in the middle of the night, roaring down the highway somewhere in rural Japan singing show tunes, love songs, and ABBA with a bus load of jolly, half-corked Japanese men. I realized then I was Very. Far. From. Home.

When we finally pulled into the station in Kobe at around 7 am , my lovely aunt was there to meet me for a day of sightseeing and shopping. I stumbled off the bus, my eyes adjusting to the actual sun after staring at a disco ball sun all night. She said, " look so tired.  No sleep?"

Christina J. Holgate is a teacher, serious Elvis fan, amateur photographer, volunteer, greyhound owner, cat rescuer and cigar aficionado.  

Photo credits: by Jaako and karoke via Flickr CCL.

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