Solo dining is a fun cultural activity in itself here in Tokyo – it’s your chance to enjoy quality alone-time and quality food. The history of solo dining dates back 350 years and it started for a cultural and political reason you wouldn’t expect.

Show host Kyota Ko explains the on-going revival of the practice of solo dining and its initial forms seen in the Edo Period.

Solo dining is a fun cultural activity in itself here in Tokyo – it’s your chance to enjoy quality alone-time and quality food. The history of solo dining dates back 350 years and it started for a cultural and political reason you wouldn’t expect.

Show host Kyota Ko explains the on-going revival of the practice of solo dining and its initial forms seen in the Edo Period.


Transcript

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to talk about a particular characteristic of the food culture of urban areas of Japan. Solo dining. Dining out, I think, is commonly understood as a pair or group activity in most parts of the world. But in Japan, dining out is for everyone. You don’t need a friend or a date every time you want to enjoy quality food at your favorite restaurant. Today, I’d like to convince you that solo dining in Japanese cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, is a fun cultural activity in itself, and that it actually has a pretty long history to it. It’s been around for at least 350 years. My name is Kyota Ko.

I live in Tokyo so let me discuss mainly about Tokyo. I must point out first and foremost that the dining industry in Tokyo is really, really competitive. When I was a boy like 20 to 30 years ago, there was a reasonable chance my family would regret going into a restaurant we didn’t know to taste something god awful but nowadays, you have to be close to brain-dead to even consider opening a restaurant if you didn’t know how to cook a meal people would happily pay for. 

Basically, if you are looking for a place to eat lunch in Tokyo and you are willing to pay around 1000 yen which is around $10, you need to be the unluckiest person alive to come across a disappointing meal. There are a growing number of eateries that serve not just tasty and cheap but also nutritious meals, and therefore, if you are single and you live alone, it makes less sense to cook so often for yourself, unless you like cooking as a hobby or you’re really, really serious about saving. 

There’s this restaurant chain called おぼん de ごはん which you can find at over 40 locations across Japan. They serve excellent home-made Japanese meals with perfect nutritional value. I’m pretty careful about nutrition when I cook for myself and my son – I’m pretty Japanese in that point – but I cannot imagine cooking a healthier meal than this place called おぼん de ごはん does. And they’re not expensive at all. I go there once in two weeks, and I would go even more often if their restaurant had been located closer to where I work. There’s actually one in Narita Airport, so if you’re flying into Tokyo, make sure to check them out. 

So eating out in Tokyo can be easier, tastier and healthier, and the cost is not that different from cooking a meal yourself. There are all these benefits awaiting at restaurants, but finding someone to go there with is a hassle, maintaining relationships that are close enough to dine out together is a hassle, and sometimes you’d rather spend your lunch break playing a game on your phone than trying to make conversation with a colleague or friend. 

I am certain that this is the reason so many people in Tokyo choose to go solo dining. Just a decade ago, there were more people who wouldn’t dare getting a table for one. But Japanese solo diners have kept pushing the envelope of doing what had been considered a group activity, and liberated people’s minds from thinking it’s embarrassing to have lunch alone, have dinner alone, go to Karaoke alone, and even have Korean barbecue alone. Solo barbecuing!

Thanks to them, the dining industry realized there was a solid market for solo diners, and now many restaurants have set up counter tables where soloists can eat in peace and not feel like they are fish out of water. Not just for lunch. Even for dinner. 

Some multipurpose eateries that are open all day to accommodate breakfast, lunch, teatime, dinner and late night drinks have really succeeded in creating an environment people would actually be not just comfortable being alone, but one in which people would feel joy being alone. An example will be Wired Cafe, which is a restaurant chain owned and produced by a Japanese company – you’ll find one near most major train stations in Tokyo and other major cities of Japan – their coffee is only slightly pricier than Starbucks and their food tastes really good for their prices . There’s Bill’s which is an Australian chain of restaurants known especially for their breakfast meals. There’s one in Odaiba, if you plan to visit there. Odaiba is a small island with like three shopping malls and a display of a life-size Gundam robot. The Bill’s restaurant here is built over a beach and it’s really nice to hang out there for a good 2 hours or so. A bit expensive, though. 

Both of these places serve beer, wine and cocktails, so if you feel like having an alcoholic beverage after work or a long day of walking but you’re not up for socializing, which is something that’s often associated with alcohol, going to these kind of places would be a good move. They dim the lights at night and really create a living room – kinda atmosphere for you. Drinking alone at bars and at home is another thing many Japanese drinkers like to do, which is another big topic I might discuss in another podcast eventually.  

I always see 4 or 5 soloists whenever I go to these places for dinner, and they’d be having their meals quietly at a spacious counter table, reading a book or enjoying alone time in peace. In fact they looked so chill that they inspired me to try solo dining there myself, and I did. And after experiencing it once, I felt I would totally do it again, and that’s exactly what I did. I go back every now and then to have quiet time alone. 

And I notice that at these nice cafes, there are more female soloists than males. I’m not a big drinker and I don’t go to bars often but I hear from my friends that there is an increasing number of female solo drinkers at bar counters lately. I actually know three married couples who told me they first met each other at their usual bar they used to drink solo at. 

There are in fact many small, privately owned bars in Japan that have no table seats, just a bar counter. You wouldn’t feel comfortable entering these intimate drinking spaces unless you are tagging along with a person who is already a regular customer there, and there are bars that actually do not allow first-timers in – you need to be introduced to the bar by one of their regular customers to get in. 

Anyway, solo drinking is very common at these drinking places and it’s a place where you build a relationship with the bartender through chatting with them. The bartenders listen to you talk about things you can’t talk about at work or at home, and make you feel better. And because they listen to you, they get to know you really well. So it’s not a big surprise that they would sometimes introduce you to other regular guests, because they would have a pretty good idea about what kind of person you would click with and they have a very detailed database in their minds about what kind of people their customers are. They make quality matching happen. But they wouldn’t do that if you come to their bars with a friend all the time. 

Now as I mentioned right at the beginning, solo dining has actually been around for a long, long time in Japan. It was commonly practiced among Japanese men in Tokyo 350 years ago, when this city was still called Edo and when people were dressed in kimono looking like those people typically drawn in ukiyo-e paintings. This point in time is called Edo Period in Japan.

There was a cultural-slash-political reason to the rise of solo dining. Until the end of the 16th century, Japan was split into several dozen bits and chunks of land – there were as many as 70 feudal domains – each governed by a feudal samurai lord. So an age where these feudal lords invaded each other’s land and tried to expand their territories went on for about a 100 years. Lesser feudal lords who served for greater lords would sometimes revolt against their masters and overthrow the ruling family to take over its land by the use of armed forces. Overthrowing a greater power was so out of the ordinary in Japan until this time that it seemed to have been considered courageous and encouraged even. 

It’s kinda like that excitement you may feel nowadays when you read or hear about a small start up company with a new idea grows so big so quickly and disrupts the order some pre-existing giant corporations had established, like Airbnb disrupting the hospitality industry. 

So war could happen anytime anywhere during this 100 year period which is now commonly called the Sengoku Period. Sengoku Period translates to War-infested Period. It was basically an age of a fair degree of chaos. But one feudal lord called TOKUGAWA Ieyasu finally put an end to all the madness by overpowering all the other lords. His descendants managed to keep Japan in peace for 250 years thereon, and how they did this has a lot to do with our topic today: solo dining. 

Again, for many samurai lords, what they would wish upon a star on a starry night was that one day they would become a feudal lord of much bigger land, and to do that, overthrowing their masters by means of war was the means that was often chosen. So the Tokugawa family thought, how can we ensure that these samurai lords now working under them would never ever dream of disrupting peace again? And they came upon a very unreasonable but extremely practical solution. They decided to deprive the ability of feudal samurai lords to initiate war, by draining their finances. By getting their money drained in their treasury, feudal lords were left with a decreased ability to finance warfare. 

So what did the TOKUGAWA government do? Step one: make a residential area in the city of Edo for the wives and children of all feudal lords to live in. Edo, which is Tokyo now, had become the center of politics after the Tokugawa family started ruling Japan. Each feudal lord lived in their own feudal domain in other parts of Japan, but they were required to have their spouses and offspring live near the Tokugawa family, so basically their closest kin were taken as hostage. So if a feudal lord declared war against his master, his wife and kids would have to be killed in the most gruesome of ways. But otherwise, these hostages lived luxurious lives of prince and princesses. 

This was actually common practice during the Sengoku Period; greater lords would take hostage of children of their subordinates; and although this was effective in preventing coup de tats to a certain degree, samurai lords would still take a chance and revolt sometimes, so it didn’t guarantee peace. And although building and maintaining a second house in Edo was costly for all feudal lords, it wasn’t costly enough. 

So, Step two: make a policy which mandated all feudal lords to alternate between spending one year in their hometown with their relatives and friends, and spending one year in Edo with their wives and children. So all feudal lords had to travel, at a time without planes or trains, back and forth between their two homes every year, and some of these feudal lords like the ones in Kyushu island lived over a 1000 km away from Edo, so it took them 40 freaking days to make the trip. 

And they had to bring all the servants who served them, people to carry around much of what everyone owned, people to carry around and cook enough food to feed everyone during the trip, and this must have been a significant part of the luggage – cash as in coins to pay for all the dozens of bed and breakfast stay-overs for a staff of somewhere between several hundred to two thousand. 

Several hundred to two thousand staffers parading across the country! Imagine what that would cost the feudal lords. It’s basically the equivalent to paying for a month-long business trip for that many people. So this new policy which was called Sankin Kotai effectively curbed the ability of feudal lords to save up for their war campaign. 

So how did Sankin Kotai affect the Japanese culture of solo dining? It actually, practically gave birth to solo dining in Tokyo. 

The male to female ratio of Edo City was 2:1. There were double the number of males compared to females. How can this be? Well it’s because of Sankin Kotai. The hundreds and thousands of participants in Sankin Kotai were all men. All these men were either single, or married but had to leave their spouses behind in their hometowns. 

And here’s the thing about Japanese men at that time. I think I could safely say that virtually none of them knew how to cook. Household chores were exclusive to women at this time in history, and therefore this dense concentration of men in Edo City meant a huge business opportunity for the food industry. 

So soba, tempura and sushi stalls were set up everywhere in Edo so that men could just stop by, eat within a few minutes and then leave to get back to work. Many of these stalls had their customers eat standing up so that they would be able to serve many customers. They would come and go quickly, and therefore the prices of the food they served could be set very low. There are still pretty many standing soba stalls in urban areas of Japan, and they now serve company employees who want a quick breakfast or lunch before going back to their offices. 

There are no more standing tempura or sushi stalls I don’t think, but you’ll notice sushi and tempura restaurants always have counter tables, where solo diners would feel comfortable sitting at. 

The number of diners in the city of Edo kept increasing, and now, according to a study by Trip Advisor, Tokyo has the most number of eateries per person in the world, with 6.22 restaurants per 1000 people. As a comparison, New York has 1.39 restaurants per 1000 people. 

So it’s not that dining out used to be an activity reserved for couples and families in Japan. Solo diners were the first to dine out, at least in Japan. At one point, people became shy about dining alone for some reason, maybe because eating was seen as a social or family activity among the general public in the 20th century, but now that we are well into the 21st century, the gourmet and social aspects of dining out have become independent of each other. We value quality alone time with quality food and drinks. The quick solo dining of Edo businessmen has evolved into solo fine dining, here in Tokyo.

So the next time you stop by Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka or wherever, go find yourself a nice meal alone at a quiet restaurant. Leave a comment on my blog or the Metro-classic Japanese Facebook page and I can try to suggest a nice and affordable place to solo, if you are looking to do it in Tokyo. 

So I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。