I don’t proclaim myself a foodie, but I do like good food. In the final months of my senior year of college, leading up to my departure for Tokyo, I used that as the reason for my move across the ocean. Since I didn’t have a concrete reason, I would simply laugh off prying questions and retort that I was going on a culinary quest—and after two years in Tokyo, this turned out to be almost completely true.
The food in Tokyo is good. Consistently. I don’t think I’ve ever had a horrible meal in Japan—besides my few meager attempts to venture outside my comfort zone in the kitchen. For the most part, even bar offerings and fast food looks appetizing.
One day, amid the many variations of extravagant meals to consume, I decided to focus on noodles. This genre is rarely glamorous—it was perfect for my post-graduate salary. Still, Japan’s noodle selection is vast: ramen, udon, soba, and pasta, to name a few.
As I went through these carbs, I slowly began to take note of the eating habits of those around me. What was it about noodle shops that catered to solo eaters? So frequently would I spot customers who came in, ate, and left—all alone. An act I previously categorized as a social event had been stripped of all its formalities. People came to these restaurants simply to eat and sustain themselves, and I was intrigued by their lack of reluctance to be solitary.
My image of a typical meal out includes dishes shared among the chatter. Even when eaten in homes, I associate meals with being among others and enjoying the company of family. When I was young, I was never comfortable eating alone—maybe because I didn’t know what to do without the social aspect, or felt that people would stare as I ate alone.
There’s a stigma attached to doing things alone. It’s as if you don’t have people with whom to share your time. Especially throughout high school, I was extremely self-conscious of this—that being seen eating lunch by myself was the ultimate sign of being a friendless loser. I quickly got over this in college, when my workload piled so high that I had no time to leisurely lunch with my peers.
Coming to Tokyo, where so many slurp their noodles alone, changed my thoughts towards solo eating. I think this comes with simply being more comfortable with silence and being by yourself. Moreover, I like the idea of doing something just to satisfy our basic cravings, especially in a society where there seems to be much prior thought given to every action.
Thus began my journey of eating alone in public. It’s actually very convenient because you never have to make plans. There’s nobody to reject your choice of food or restaurant, and you can truly focus on and appreciate the food. Additionally, even the most crowded of places usually has room for a single customer to squeeze in. This really sped up my process of trying out new noodles around Tokyo. I enjoyed sitting alone while watching cooks prepare the food, and listening to the sounds of the kitchen and my surroundings. No longer was I a friendless loser in my mind, but a confident solo eater.
Recently, a friend visiting from the U.S. recounted one of the most memorable scenes she happened upon in Tokyo. As she passed through a small park near Tokyo Tower during lunch, she saw solitary salarymen eating store-bought bentos on each of the seven or eight benches lining the green grass. Of course, they also wore the same black slacks and white button-down shirt.
As she described the scene to me in awe and intrigue, I smiled to myself—because just the week before, I too had been one of those people sitting on a bench, eating alone.