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Why, Japan, Why? AUGUST 2020

How Japan has perfected the experience of eating, drinking and traveling “honorably alone”

We’ve all had the awkward experience of having to dine alone in a restaurant—the meek acceptance of the mingey table nearest the swinging kitchen door and the studious attention to an open book so people don’t think we were stood up.

In Japan it used to be the same.

Japanese used to be so afraid of being seen as hopeless singletons that they’d post photos of themselves like this, “on a date”…
…but the reality would be quite different!

That’s changing, though, as more and more people stay single by choice, or find themselves single later in life, with many active years still ahead.

A new movement called “o-hitori-sama” is responding to the trend, and has been elevating dining, singing and even traveling alone to a luxury option, rather than a sad default.

When a popular TV show gets built around a trend, you know it’s got legs.

Kodoku no Gurume or “The Solitary Gourmet” is now in its seventh season
It features popular actor Yutaka Matsushige as a traveling salesman who visits local restaurants and always eats alone
Each episode features a real restaurant and its real specialties, anointing the place as somewhere one can dine by oneself without embarrassment

But how do you design a restaurant so solo diners feel comfortable?

“Conveyor belt sushi” restaurants were the first to be embraced by people eating alone, because solo diners also tend to eat more quickly than people who are conversing, and at a kaiten sushi restaurant, they don’t have to wait around for a server to bring each course.
Some even have dedicated touchscreen menu monitors that send each order directly to the chef. They’re also designed with counter seating instead of tables…
…which is a key strategy, because it’s more comfortable to eat by yourself when you’re not facing an empty chair that reminds you you’re alone. Also, the presence of a chef working busily behind the counter gives a sense of community, without invading the customer’s privacy
But counters aren’t the only option. One-person dining booths have appeared in some restaurants—especially 24-hour “family style” restaurants that serve everything from breakfast to dinner—because they understand the reasons their clientele eats alone. A large number of their customers are single men whose work hours are irregular—like remote IT workers, or those who toil away on all-night construction crews—so they may be eating lunch at midnight or dinner at five in the morning
Or they might be painfully shy. This ramen restaurant puts up privacy barriers between customers, for those who don’t want to be reminded of strangers sitting next to them while they eat

Some are even changing their menus, to appeal more to single diners

Even cuisines that have been traditionally off-limits unless you come a group are adapting. This Indian restaurant has a curry sampler for single diners, so they can still try many of the menu offerings, without ordering big sharable plates of each specialty
And many restaurants that specialize in yakiniku, the relentlessly social “Korean” BBQ that’s cooked communally at the table, have introduced one-person grills to appeal to those who eat alone. (This one, for example, is at Yakiniku Like, in Gotanda)
No more negotiating which cuts of meat to order! No more watching the choicest bits get snagged by a fellow diner before you get a chance to grill it yourself!
You can even control how hot to make the flames

But eating isn’t the only activity you can now comfortably do by yourself in Japan

In many parts of the world, going to a bar is one thing you can always do alone (especially if you’re somewhere you don’t know anyone, but want to meet people), but in Japan, people only drink in groups. If you go to a bar by yourself, not only will you look like you have no friends, you won’t make any new ones either.

Unless you go to Bar Hitori! The staff at this kind of drinkery knows how to make those who arrive alone feel welcome

Singing karaoke has always been a group activity—indeed, it’s the ice breaker of choice for groups that want to know each other better—but now there are karaoke venues that offer single occupancy rooms

Some solo singers just want to practice before having to perform in front of officemates at a company event, but many who live in cramped conditions where belting out your favorite tunes in the shower is not an option also use these hitori-karaoke rooms to let off steam

Even traveling alone is now an attractive option in Japan

Magazines like “Dedicated Single Walker” publish up-to-date features on tours designed for single travelers, hotels, inns and resorts that welcome single guests, and activities that an intrepid single voyager can participate in with feeling like a third wheel
Destinations like Hoshino Resorts offer packages designed to attract people traveling alone, at all budget levels. Single travelers can even save money by booking a “capsule” room to sleep in at night, while enjoying the luxurious shared amenities and sightseeing options by day

As population begins to drop in all industrialized countries, we may start seeing more of these innovations elsewhere in the world. Perhaps the kind of thinking they’ve pioneered in Japan will soon make going solo an enjoyable experience all over the world.

If you love a good read, you might enjoy The Last Tea Bowl Thief too

“An immersive page-turner, meticulously researched and perfectly plotted. Without question, the best book I have read all year.” —Susan Spann, author of the Hiro Hattori mysteries and CLIMB

For three hundred years, a missing masterpiece passes from one fortune-seeker to the next, indelibly altering the lives of all who possess itread more

Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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