Andrew Dickens heads off on a solo foodie weekend in Japan to discover why (and how) the Japanese do dining alone right.
Thirty-three floors up, I stare across central Tokyo. Between me and the hopefully very strong windows of the Shangri-La hotel, sits afternoon tea Japanese style: two tiny crustless sandwiches with indeterminate fillings, a tiny cake, a tiny scone, a tiny blob of clotted cream, a tiny jar of honey and a large pot of tea. There is also an empty chair. I am eating alone.
I have often dined out alone (by ‘dined out’ I mean everything from eating a kebab sat in a gutter to meals where they expect you to know your cutlery), but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Yes, eating is easier if you don’t have to talk – literally – and it’s nice to have thinking time, and to concentrate more on your food. And yet it’s also boring.
I like entertainment and distraction and, if the food is good, I want someone else there to experience how good it is so that people believe me when I say how good it is. And a whole bottle of Cab Sav to yourself is never a good look.
The kings of solo eating
Which is why I’m here:
To watch and learn and maybe fall off the fence. Japan, you see, is the world capital of solo dining.
The shrinking population and increase in single-person households has been matched by an increase in people requesting a table for one. But a tiny cream tea in a very posh hotel many metres above these people is teaching me nothing.
Read more: Solo travel fuels this major happiness habit
The next day I head to Kichijoji, a suburb of Tokyo, and wander into a noodle bar for some lunch. Udon, if you’re specific about your noodles.
It’s cheap and cheerful and tasty and full of people eating alone. I sit at a long table, slurping up my lunch, while around me others do the same. There’s no eye contact; there are even eye-level screens splitting the table lengthways, so you can see the person opposite’s food, but not their face – no matter how hard I try. It’s privacy in the most public of places.
I can’t tell if they’re happy. They’re not smiling, but it would be weird if they were. They don’t look unhappy.
The journey continues
A couple of days later I head to the southern city of Kagoshima. Here I eat alone in another noodle restaurant and a burger chain called Moss Burger (think Wimpy, but with 370 more options on the menu and staff who look happy to be there.) It’s the same in both places: people munching away with no-one to tell them if they’ve got something on their chin.
So why do they do it?
“Sometimes it’s just an accident,” says Daishiro Masuzono. “Sometimes I’ve made plans with friends, but I’m late getting out of work and they’ve eaten without me. I still want to enjoy the meal so I go on my own!”
I met Daishiro a few minutes ago in Fusion, a Kagoshima bar-restaurant run by British ex-pat Paul Bengtson. Daishiro, Paul, I and another man are all eating a delicious slow-cooked pork rib spaghetti, washing it down with a very nice Japanese craft beer and talking about eating alone. We did not arrive together.
“There is a feeling of safety and security in Japanese society,” he continues. “This means people have no problem being on their own.”
The other man is Toshihiro Hirakawa, who, I discover, is a dentist. This somehow assures me that beer is good for my teeth. Both are regulars at Fusion.
“Sometimes my wife doesn’t want to eat out and I do,” says Toshihiro. “Maybe I want beef and she doesn’t, so I go out and eat. It’s normal. Most of the time, though, it’s because I work late and it’s not good to eat late, so I eat before I go home.”
Working late = eating out
Paul says this is common in Japan. People don’t want to be wolfing down their dinner at 9pm (if you’ve ever slept on a proper Japanese futon, you’ll know why – it’s like napping on a mortuary slab).
The upside of this is that the country is full of excellent, affordable places to eat. Some of the best ramen I ever had cost me £3 in central Tokyo. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to go back to normality after that. Show a Japanese person what you spend £6 on at lunchtime and they’ll weep for you: their average cheap eat would have your hip London or New York foodies queuing round the block.
With all this delicious food, though, don’t they want to share the experience with someone?
“Yes,” says Toshihiro. “I’d love my wife to be there, but it’s not always practical. But it doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. In Japan, the staff are very friendly. It’s important to be a good host and the whole atmosphere is very egalitarian – they are not your ‘servants’. If you’re a regular somewhere, there’s a sense of community, but it’s quite normal to talk to strangers in a restaurant.”
“Sometimes,” adds Daishiro, “it’s just easier to eat alone than making arrangements with other people.”
So, other than convenience and the chance of making new chums, are there other benefits to eating alone?
“There are dishes like sukiyaki which are delicious but are meant for sharing,” says Daishiro. “If you eat on your own, you don’t have to share!”
“It’s the same with yakiniku, the Korean-style barbeque where you share the food,” adds Toshihiro. “You’ve chosen a perfect piece of meat, put it on the grill, watched it cook to perfection, and then someone else takes it. That doesn’t happen on your own.”
Silence is golden
One thing I’ve noticed when I’ve eaten alone in Japan is that I’m doing it differently to the locals. I’m not talking about my chopstick technique, which resembles Edward Scissorhands with nerve damage; I’m talking about my non-food-related behaviour.
As mentioned, I crave distraction – or maybe I feel lonely – so, like probably every European or American in my situation, I’m on my phone. I’m reading the news, I’m googling transfer rumours, I’m on WhatsApp even though it’s 4am at home (everyone will definitely want a load of messages and questions to wake up to), AND YES I’M PHOTOGRAPHING MY FOOD FOR INSTAGRAM.
But the Japanese are not doing this.
No, the Japanese, nearly without exception, are just eating. They are sitting there, bowl or plate in front of them, putting food and liquid into their mouths. This might be in part because phones in Japan, by law, have to make a noise when they take a photo (it’s an anti-pervert measure), which would make the ‘gramming too cringeworthy for such a socially aware nation.
But that wouldn’t stop them browsing and this is Japan, where even the toilets are digital (no, really, they ‘cleanse’ you at the touch of a button). I ask my new friends if I’m missing out on some kind of spiritual benefit to eating truly alone.
They reply in unison.
“No,” they both say.
So, they just enjoy it?
“It’s just convenient,” says Toshihiro.
Not Japanese? No problem
I’m happy for the Japanese nation that they’re comfortable eating alone. I’m envious of the fact that they can eat excellent cheap food. I’m also concerned that a visitor here might not be able to reap the benefits of a society set up for solo dining.
“It’s not a problem for visitors,” says Daishiro. “Even if they don’t speak English, or just a little English, the staff will make sure you are looked after and get what you want. You can walk into any restaurant and ask for a table for one.”
“Sometimes they’ll put you on a table with another person who’s eating alone,” he says. “So maybe you can talk to them, but there’s no obligation. Sit in silence if you like.”
They suggest one more place I could try. Ichiran is a noodle chain that began in Fukuoka and has recently gone global. At this place you can only eat solo: ramen is served up to you in your individual booth by a chef you can’t see.
“The idea is that they want you to shut out distractions and concentrate on the food,” says Daishiro.
Fuking off to Fukuoka
And so, one bullet train journey later, during which I regress to the age of seven, running up and down the aisles and pressing my face to the windows as we zoom along at 200mph, I find myself in the ever so cool ‘Ramen Capital of Japan’, Fukuoka, and in one of the Ichiran restaurants (I have no idea if it’s the first, nor do I care).
I order at a kind of vending machine. This is quite common in ramen restaurants (there’s an English translation on the buttons). I get my ticket, find a booth, and fill in a form saying how I’d like my ramen (spicy, please!). Minutes later, a little bamboo shutter pops up and my ramen is shoved in front of me by an anonymous hand that I really want to high-five.
It’s not quite the revelatory culinary moment I’d hoped for. Maybe I tasted the food more, maybe I didn’t – it was pretty good. But did I text? Did I take a photo? And did I get bored? I did not. Did I enjoy the experience? I did. Would I want to eat alone every day? I would not. Which, I reckon, makes me just like the locals.
Want to give your tastebuds the trip of a lifetime? Try these adventures:
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This trip is more luxurious than the soft felt of a Fes hat. You’ll ride camels, bathe in spas, swim in waterfalls, glamp beneath the stars and, of course, get your Game of Thrones hit in Ait Benhaddou. You’ll also get to experience the delicious Moroccan cuisine, as you’re given a secret foodie tour around Marrakech and dine like locals in the city of Fes (hat not required).
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Japan attacks your senses like a friendly Samurai. The smells, the sounds, the colours (so much pink!) and, of course, the tastes. You simply don’t get bad food in Japan – they wouldn’t allow it – and on this trip you’ll learn how to make sushi at the world’s largest fish market and take a foodie foray through the market stalls of Osaka. And that’s just a fraction of this incredible cultural adventure.