Eating Alone in Japan

by Nathan James Thomas

A traveler finds a sense of connection in the solitude of the country’s many restaurants that cater to solo dining in Japan.

There was a light drizzle outside. I had left my umbrella in a locker by the door of the small Kyoto guest house. I fumbled for the key in my pocket, felt its light weight between my thumb and forefinger, and let it drop. The restaurant wasn’t far, and a little rain wasn’t going to hurt. 

My hair was barely damp by the time I approached the door. There was a Japanese man smoking outside. He glanced up at me, extinguished his cigarette, put the butt in a bin, then opened the door and quickly closed it behind him. I caught a glance of a small but busy restaurant, one counter, packed with diners. Two old men were smoking. It looked lively and real and — though I groaned internally at the word — authentic.

Standing outside an opaque door, alone, I wondered what kind of delights or embarrassments awaited on the other side. What if the place was full and I was waved away? What if it was full of giggling locals who looked at me like I was some kind of imposter, intruding on their conviviality with my ungainly solitude?

I hesitated, made for the door, then turned back, rationalizing to myself… I don’t speak Japanese and would just be a nuisance. The place was probably full anyway. I’d find somewhere with a menu I could understand. 

solo dining in Japan

About halfway back to the guest house, my hair was actually starting to get wet, and I was hungry… and disappointed.  A quick turn. A deep breath. And back. I strode through the wooden door as if I owned the place, confident on the outside… hopefully. 

The two old smoking men turned to give me drunk, bemused stares. I looked. Every space by the small counter seemed to be full. A woman behind the counter fixed me with a stern stare and held up her arms in a cross, shaking her head. I turned and left.

***

I’ve been alone here before. Crisp winter air, alleyways lined with bungalows, electrical wire somehow only slightly marring the underspoken grandeur of Japan’s historic capital.

The first time, many years ago, I stayed in the suburbs far from the Chinese tourists dressed up as geishas and the westerners hollering Living on a Prayer in the karaoke bars. Far from the golden temple and the bamboo forest, in a small suburb where people were just getting on with living their lives.

Circumstances had placed me alone there for a few days, in the empty apartment of a friend of a friend. I knew no one, spoke not a lick of Japanese, and had no agenda other than to eat as much sushi as possible and hopefully stumble upon a story.

***

I stood outside the door of a small local bar. I breathed deeply and went in. About a dozen metal chairs surrounding a white nylon bar, dim lighting, a middle-aged woman behind the bar refilling the glasses of quiet, stupefied-looking salarymen — it was hard to tell if the suited men had come together or were alone.

solo dining in Japan

I asked for a beer — I may have learned just enough Japanese to pull this off without English — and the matron tried to make conversation. She appealed to the drinkers in Japanese, presumably asking if anyone there spoke English. No one did. She made a phone call. I sipped my beer. A few minutes later, a young man arrived.

Barely more than a teenager, he looked around shyly, greeted the woman familiarly, pointed at me and said something in Japanese. “Hello,” he said to me, “I am blank. Can I sit with you?” I said yes, he sat down next to me, asked for a beer. The woman raised her eyebrows, hesitated, and then brought him one, smiling indulgently.

The boy was the bartender’s son. She had called him and explained that a foreigner was here. He had come to keep me company. We chatted for the next hour or two. He was an aspiring singer who left me with a piece of paper with a scribbled list of Japanese pop bands to look up. He was excited to be there — despite being over 18, his mom didn’t let him drink in her bar, but that night was an exception. 

Sometimes, this kind of thing happened when you forced yourself to enter the doors. And sometimes you get kicked out. In either case, I always felt foreign, fascinated and grateful for the experience of being there, but also like a grain of sand in an otherwise perfectly oiled machine. 

***

The best travel moments often happen against a backdrop of loneliness, loneliness suddenly alleviated by a chance meeting, loneliness gradually sublimating into fear and then into excitement as a harrowing journey finally approaches the yearned-for destination. But in Japan, as the ungainly, unqualified outsider, loneliness seemed both something I brought with me and something I found almost everywhere I looked. 

Japan seemed to bake loneliness into its very design. Brightly lit canteens have glass screens set up around the counters, cocooning each individual away from fellow diners. Men in suits, well-dressed women in high heels, teenagers with elaborate haircuts, all sit alone, chopsticks in one hand, phones in the other, often wearing headphones, playing games or watching video clips. You order food on a small screen in front of you.

solo dining in Japan

On the immaculately clean Tokyo metro, there is silence. I can’t even remember if the trains made noise — rationally, I know they did, but the atmosphere is one of pristine calm. People stare straight ahead, or sleep. A ticket machine I was using once appeared to malfunction, and the wall in front of me opened up; a panel swung aside, and an attendant popped his head out. He resolved my issue politely and then disappeared again, the wall sealing up, leaving no trace of where he had come from

***

It’s late December, and my time in Tokyo is coming to an end. I stand under the clear sky on a clean and quiet suburban street, looking with hope and trepidation at a series of kanji characters, which, I am guessing, indicate the name of the restaurant that I have been seeking. 

It’s impossible to see what’s on the other side of the carved wooden doors, but I take a deep breath and will myself to go in. The owner waves at me and snaps something — I think I’m getting thrown out but realize he is asking me to slide shut the door behind me. 

Salarymen in impeccable suits sit around the counter, eating with a focused detachment. I hang my coat and slip my mask down as my glasses fog up. I quickly clean them on my shirt, the room going blurry, then place them back on and navigate to a free chair around the bar. 

It’s dim here, the small room in darkly painted wood lit by a couple of small bulbs. It’s almost completely silent as well, the other customers — 7 or 8 men in suits, some sitting side-by-side but all giving the impression of having come alone — are not speaking. One or two furtively glanced at me as I entered but quickly resumed their unhurried eating. 

There are only two staff, a man of about 60 behind the counter slicing raw fish and a woman of about the same age. The woman brings me a mug of rich, syrupy green tea. The man sets to work on my sushi. 

solo dining in Japan

Soon, a square plastic plate appears bearing delights that make all the previous anxiety and tension melt away. The rich, fatty tuna, the perfect orange circles of roe, the delicately pink salmon, the creamy texture and seductively pungent flavor of the raw prawns.

I had crossed the threshold, and for the next 30 or so minutes, I felt like a part of the fabric. 

Although I’d been the last of the diners to arrive, I was the first to finish. I paid the lady and then left, closing the wooden doors behind me.

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