Japan has a huge diversity of food. Every area of the country claims to have its own specialty, from the bitterest goya in Okinawa to the freshest crab in Hokkaido. You’d have to be a pretty fussy eater to be able to come to Japan and not find quite a lot to like and, for me anyway, dining out is one of the greatest pleasures Japan has to offer.
Restaurants are everywhere. You can barely walk a block without stumbling upon some kind of eating establishment – a ramen restaurant here, a yakitori stall there, an okonomiyaki joint just round the corner, next to the kaitenzushi place and below the izakaya. It’s a diner’s paradise.
It is also, I think, one of the best places in the world for the solitary diner. In all of the above-mentioned places, nobody would think you a weirdo for strolling in and taking your place alone at the counter . In the UK, where I am from, to dine alone in almost anywhere but a fast-food burger bar is to walk in and shout, ‘Look at me, everybody! I’m not just hungry, I’m lonely and friendless, too!’ The waiter smirks as he shows you to your table for one, and the empty chair and cutlery opposite you let everybody else think you have either been stood up, or are just a bit pathetic.
In Japan, there is no such stigma. People dine solo all the time, and due to the prevalence of counters you don’t even feel as alone as you do when allocated your very own table. You can just squeeze on in beside the next lonely chap slurping his noodles and all is fine and jolly. And if you’re foreign, he might even chat to you. He’ll ask you all the questions you’ve heard a million times before about why you came to Japan, and if Japanese beer is number one and whatnot, but if he’s had a few himself he’ll probably buy you some, too, so it’s not without its benefits.
Perhaps you are the kind of popular person who thinks, ‘Well, I don’t need to dine alone. I’ve got loads of friends.’ If so, good on you. I was like you once. But one by one they went home, and I grew older and my other friends started having kids and going out less, and I didn’t want to give up the enormous pleasure of eating out here. So, if the wife is otherwise engaged, or off shopping or just not in the mood, I will occasionally just take myself off to a local eatery and revel in my solitude. And I feel no shame in doing so. I feel no loneliness. Indeed, it is a joy. A simple joy.
So if you are bored, lonely, friendless, a solo traveller or a long-term shockingly dull ex-pat, whatever – take yourself down the street and pop into any one of the little food places you stumble across. Rarely, will it be time wasted.
P.S. If you are a bit of a fatty, you might want to avoid dining alone at an all-you-can-eat buffet affair. People seeing you stuffing your face there might be a bit more judgmental. They’ll probably look at you and think, ‘Look at that greedy fat bastard.’ I know I would.