The Art of Solo Eating in Japan
From tiny pubs that seat six people at most to individual ramen booths, we look at how dining in Japan has changed throughout history.
Illustration by Alysse Asilo
There’s no denying it, the flavors of Japanese cuisine have won many palates the world over. Ask anyone, from the millions of tourists that build their itinerary around the meals they want to partake and even locals who have their usual go-to mom and pop shops in their hometown. With its mouth-watering dishes and iconic drinks, Japan has always been a favorite food destination.
It isn’t uncommon to see restaurants that cater to the solo diner in Japan. In fact, if you’ve visited in recent years, you’ve probably dined in one of those booths where you could slurp your ramen in peace—your bowl being served through a tiny window in front of you. But eating alone was not always a popular choice in Japan. It was mostly frowned upon—benjo meshi or toilet meal is slang for the act of eating one’s meal inside a bathroom stall to avoid being seen without a companion. Meals were regarded as something to share with family and friends whether it was a comforting bowl of ramen, plates upon plates of sushi, or a fancy kaiseki.
When did solo eating become popular
Japan’s “super solo society” has been on the rise for a few years now. More single, unmarried individuals prefer to do activities alone. Ohitorisama loosely translates to “party of one.” From solo karaoke sessions to bars that cater to people who prefer to drink alone, it’s no surprise that even dining options have shifted dramatically. From being ashamed to be seen without a companion, you now have customers who actively choose to dine alone. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. As statistics show that more people choose to be single or marry late in life in Japan, businesses are adjusting to cater to this solo market.
But solo dining actually has a long history dating back to around 350 years ago during the Edo period. In his podcast Metro-classic Japan, host Kyota Ko discusses the political and cultural reason for solo dining.
One of the feudal lords called Tokugawa overpowered all the other samurai lords by draining their finances. This way, they could keep these feudal lords from declaring war and overthrowing their masters through war. Fast forward to the policy called Sankin Kotai, which kept feudal lords from financing war campaigns. The Tokugawa family required all feudal lords to spend one year in their hometown and one year in Edo, effectively forcing them to travel solo (without their household and servants). This in turn gave birth to what we now know as solo dining. Since household responsibilities fell on to the women at this time, most men could not really cook for themselves. Standing stalls serving soba, tempura, and sushi started popping up in Edo, where the participants of Sakin Kotai were men looking for a quick meal. To this day, you’ll find that many sushi and ramen bars have a counter where solo diners can eat in peace.
Solo dining in the age of coronavirus
A bar called Hitori in Tokyo opened in the Shinjuku district in 2018. As its name suggests, it only serves solo drinkers. It seats around 10 to 12 individuals, all of whom usually choose to sit separately. No one is forced to mingle or interact. A bar made for social distancing, perhaps? Another bar in the Ginza district has recently installed “fish bowl” screens upon reopening in June to encourage patrons to come out and drink again. The servers and customers both feel safe knowing there is less chance for droplet transmission while they’re enjoying a round.
With the 3Cs being implemented since the spread of the new coronavirus or COVID-19, it’s no surprise that restaurants have adapted new rules in dining. You can now have a takoyaki party all by yourself. Instead of having the server cook it in front of you, you’re given your own takoyaki pan to do the cooking yourself. Hitori tako-pa, anyone? Buffets have reopened in hotels with safety protocols in place. It wouldn’t be unheard of if more places would offer solo dining options for people who want to dine out while preventing the spread of the virus.
Fukuoka’s Ichiran Ramen has been around since the ‘60s but only adapted their solo booths at their first concept store in 1993. This has become the chain’s blueprint for its restaurants not only in Japan but all around the world. It just might be the blueprint for dining out in a post-pandemic world.