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Claire has just returned from her first trip to Japan where she spent a good chunk of time travelling solo. After making a hasty, jet-lag induced decision to grab a crème caramel from the nearest 7/11 on the first evening, she quickly found her feet and was delighted to discover that Japan is well-versed in the art of eating solo.
On the one hand, travelling alone is hugely liberating. Buoyed by the success of Eat, Pray, Love and similar tales of people ‘finding themselves’ on the other side of the world, an increasing number of travellers (of all ages) are embracing their inner adventurer and packing their bags to embark on a solo journey.
Yet for all the zealous enthusiasm and bravado, there’s no denying that solo travel can be daunting. Even the most intrepid traveller will have moments of doubt. What if I get lost? What if I miss a connection? What if I fall ill? And the biggest question of all… Where will I eat?
Cue visions of awkward solo dinners, pretending to be deeply engrossed in your phone or a book. Then there’s the language barrier; whilst you might get by on schoolboy French in a European restaurant, the average Western tourist is woefully underprepared to speak the language of Japanese haute-cuisine. The food itself is such a deviation from the norm for the average Western palette. There’s a chance you won’t have a clue what you’re eating, you just know one thing for sure – the fugu is to be avoided at all costs.
But Japanese restaurants are becoming increasingly accessible for those who don’t speak the language – anyone who has spent time in Japan will be familiar with the delightful plastic mock dinners gracing restaurant frontages – and going solo is not unusual at all.
Eating alone isn’t just considered socially accepted in Japan, it’s increasingly considered the norm. A quick scan of popular press reveals that Japan seems to be leading the way in the art of solo dining. Even popular Japanese restaurant chains here in the UK are big on the concept of communal dining. I instantly turn to places like Wagamama and Yo Sushi! when I want to blend into the crowd.
In Japan, Ichiran is a chain of restaurants characterised by a series of ‘flavour concentration’ booths. Here, diners can savour a bowl of ramen noodles in complete solitude. The very concept rests on the ideology that one can arrive, eat, and leave without the need to interact with anyone. The menu is purposefully simplistic, you can order at the touch of a button and food is presented without ceremony. Admittedly this might be a little extreme, especially if you’re hoping to immerse yourself in the culture and meet local people, but it’s always an option.
So don’t panic singletons! Japan is GREAT for solo diners. These are our favourite places to pitch in with the locals with your head held high:
1) Ramen restaurants
A hot steaming bowl of ramen is ‘fast food’ done well. Ramen is a salaryman’s staple, and it’s not uncommon to walk into a ramen restaurant and see the work-weary quietly tapping away on their smartphones while they slurp through a bowl of noodles at a table for one. You certainly won’t be the only solo diner.
Lots of ramen restaurants have counter seating as standard, in fact, counter seating may be more popular than table seating. Many also have picture descriptions of the food on the menu, so you can easily point out what you’d like. Some even operate a handy system where you select your dish on a screen and food magically appears just moments later.
The really good thing about ramen restaurants? Listening to everyone slurp their noodles with gusto is a sure fire way to put a smile on your face and make you feel slightly less socially awkward!
2) Conveyer belt sushi restaurants
Conveyer belt sushi restaurants are a great option for solo diners for so many reasons. For a start, there are no individual tables; just grab a seat at the counter facing the chef. Secondly, you don’t have to worry about the language. The food has already been prepared – help yourself to whatever takes your fancy. Eat as much or as little as you like, and spend as much time here as you like. It’s an authentic Japanese foodie experience that’s completely on your terms.
There’s a common misconception that sushi is just fish, but a lot of conveyer belt sushi restaurants offer a mix of fish and non-fish options. Many tourists, even the most culinary adventurous, might experience a degree of ‘fish-fatigue’ at some point during their trip. These restaurants a fail-safe option.
3) Street food
If you’re a lone traveller looking for a quick, cheap bite to eat, street food is a great shout. As luck would have it, Osaka is (arguably) the street food capital of the world! Exit Namba station, make a beeline for the bright lights of Dotonburi and you’ll be overwhelmed by options at every turn. Street food is cheap and extremely tasty (5 gyoza for 500 yen anyone?) so you can go from stall to stall sampling different options to your heart’s content without straining your purse strings. Walking and eating is considered a no-no in Japan, so lots of street food vendors have stools or tables where you can stop to eat your goodies before moving on down the street.
Whilst walking into an izakaya might feel intimidating, once you are in and settled at a counter you’ll be glad you took the plunge. Especially if you are looking for an ‘authentic’ Japanese dining experience. Izakaya are fun, down-to-earth and affordable, offering a mixture of Japanese and Asian-Western fusion small plates. There’s a good chance there will be something you like (even if you’re not 100% sure exactly what it is).
They are the equivalent of the British gastropub and typically frequented by Japanese salarymen so, like ramen restaurants, eating alone is pretty standard practice. The atmosphere is light-hearted (washing down dinner with a hearty amount of Japanese beer helps). It won’t be long before you’ve made friends with the person beside you regardless whether you’re fluent in Japanese or not.
5) Station food Halls
Japan also does ‘fast food’ well if you’re looking for a quick, convenient dining solution. In a country where there are more Michelin-starred establishments than you can shake a stick at, fast food giants like McDonalds might leave you feeling guilty. Even Moss Burger – the Japanese equivalent – seems like a cop-out.
Alternatives can be found at train station food courts of all places. At The Cube at Kyoto Station, you’ll find a number of restaurants that are conveniently grouped together, each with their own speciality cuisine. It is here that you’ll find Italian and Chinese options alongside Japanese restaurants serving okonomiyaki, Donburi rice bowls and katsu curries; what I affectionately refer to as ‘Japanese food for beginners’. Most of these restaurants have plastic food displays outside the main entrance with each dish labelled in Japanese and English. The food here is pretty affordable too, and you’ll be served a hearty portion accompanied by a cup of tea and bowl of miso soup.
6) If all else fails, there’s always Hello Kitty…
For anyone that feels the need for a dining companion, Japan has a fall-back solution. Character cafés are popular and in Kyoto, you can sit down to enjoy a matcha latte next to a life-size plush Hello Kitty. Only in Japan.
Has this got your taste buds tingling? If you fancy taking yourself on a solo voyage of discovery to Japan, contact our expert travel team. Each of them have taken that solo seat at an izakaya, slurped on a bowl of ramen, and tried just about everything at the street food stalls.
Check out our Solo Travel page for all of the latest information, tours, hints and tips for going it alone.