Norebang; Karaoke Korean style

We’ve all been there. It’s 2am and after a few too many shots you and your friends are slurring and swaying your way through your best rendition of Hey Jude. While in England the word ‘karaoke’ conjures up images of dingy pubs and office parties, Korea has taken karaoke and turned it into something of a sacred institution. Norebangs (literally translates to ‘singing rooms’) are popular, commonplace, and, dare I say it, enjoyable?

Korean norebangIf there’s one thing Koreans love besides soju, which let’s face it is often an essential part of karaoke here, it’s a good sing song. According to statistics from 2009, there were almost over 36,000 norebangs in Korea, with 1.9 million people visiting them every day. Norebangs are dotted along every street and are usually identifiable by the glowing neon signs outside them and the wailing coming from within.

They range from tiny booths in games arcades to full-blown themed suites, and no Korean night out is complete without a visit to one. Usually kitted out with a disco ball, tambourines, a song book the size of the Yellow Pages and sometimes even a dance podium, the private rooms mean you don’t have to subject strangers to your best cat-strangling impressions. Just your friends.

The room hire itself is pretty cheap and while you are expected to order some food and drink you will often receive a lot of ‘service’, the wonderful Korean custom of giving away free stuff, often crispy pork cutlet, fried mushrooms or noodles.

One word of warning; never underestimate how seriously Koreans take norebang. Just as you’ve finished laughing your way through  ‘Sweet Caroline’, your Korean friend will swoop in with an emotional version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’, and maybe even shush you if you dare to talk over them…

The hat is optional

The hat is optional…

Korean norebang

…as are the dodgy dance moves

Korean norebang

How to survive a Korean night out

To survive a Korean night out you will need to come equipped with three things; a liver of steel, an expandable stomach and a good set of lungs. Drinking with Koreans requires endurance.

Koreans bar-hop in a way that would put most university pub-crawls to shame. A typical night out will involve stopping off at several different bars, and each bar is called a ‘cha’. The stops are counted off as il-cha (round 1), i-cha (round 2), sam-cha (round 3), sa-cha (round four) and so on until, no matter how much you protest, you end up swaying and slurring along to Hey Jude in a norebang (karaoke).

The night will usually start with dinner, and the first few bottles of soju. Round two will most likely involve more soju or beer at a hof or a Western-style bar. Round three will be more of the same but maybe with some drinking games thrown in. Most hofs require you to order anju, food like fried chicken, fruit or dried squid. Many Koreans believe that eating salty or spicy food helps the body digest alcohol quicker. I’m yet to see proof of this.

Round four or five is invariably a trip to a norebang for a sing-along and yes, you guessed it, more booze and food. Then for those still drinking, or standing, a nightclub is usually the last destination for some dancing until the wee hours.

Make sure that you observe the rules of Korean drinking etiquette and remember, what happens on a Korean night out stays on a Korean night out!