What The Japanese Can Teach Us About Dining Solo

From library-like cubicles to virtual boyfriends who'll cook for you, Japan has solo-dining all figured out.

  • Chat on the phone with a Pop Star or an Anime Character. If you're out to dinner alone, but want others to think you're popular and don't mind a little subterfuge, then get this app that sends you “phone calls” from anime characters and pop stars. If you're the type that likes to be challenged, then turn to Dream Call which requires you to pick up the phone, make appropriate “I’m listening” noises in response to the recorded pre-programmed chat, and then scores you on your “mm-hmms” and “I sees.” Whoever said you shouldn't play at the dinner table, ignore that person.
[Photo: Animate.tv]
  • Get a virtual boyfriend. iPhone app Kare to Gohan (Dinner with My Boyfriend)—or its english version, PlusBoys—has photos of young men, each with a personality profile and a back story. For example, Biker and college student Tatsuya is friendly, but likes going to rock festivals by himself. The young man of your choice will whip up a meal for two, accompanied by screens of cheerful “welcome home” banter. Warning: If you check in on more than one character in a short span of time, it might lead to jealousy.
[Photo: JapanTimes]
  • Or get a virtual girlfriend. For the low price of a dollar, the "Watching Cute Girl" app gets you an on-demand girlfriend, who'll go to whichever restaurant you pick, make appropriate comments, and show you only a little "friendly attitude". We admit, this could get a little creepy.
[Photo: Kotaku]
  • Stick your head in a cubicle. In Japan, it isn't odd to find single men and women eating alone, hunched over bowls of ramen or soba and plates of sushi, but solo dining is actually encouraged in specific restaurants. Yakiniku Hitori, a Korean-style barbecue restaurant in Tokyo, has library-like wooden cubicles for one, as does Ichiran, a 39-year-old ramen shop in Fukuoka. If you go to Hoshokaku in Takayama, you'll get similar cubicles, only this time they'll come with a view of the restaurant's garden. [Photo: Chris Schonberger]
  • Try Hibachi-style dining. This concept's simple: You sit facing the chef, you're mesmerized as he tosses and twirls his knives and tongs, and in your supremely entertained state you don't care that you're eating alone. We call this a win-win situation.
[Photo: Mitsuba Restaurants]
  • Or the Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl The age-old question, How do you stay entertained AND eat ramen (or anything else) if one of your hands is busy holding a phone? has finally been answered.  this device allows you to prop your smartphone in the holder at the edge of the bowl and slurp away.
[Photo: MisoSoupDesign via CNET]
  • Get a DVD dinner date. So what if a lonely Japanese guy who works all day and has no friends can't get a date? He can always buy Oshokuji no Jikan, a three DVD virtual dinner date series that comes with videos of three to five different girls eating a variety of foods, while chit-chatting. As the marketing blurb on the DVD says, "you no longer have to eat alone."
[Photo: Japan Sugoi]

If there’s one salient piece of advice for those who dine alone, whether out of choice or necessity, it is this: “Never be daunted in public.” The fact that this quote comes from Hemingway, and was backed by MFK Fisher in her 1948 essay on dining alone, only speaks to its truthfulness and timelessness. The unfortunate fact that many people in the U.S. still feel ashamed when taking themselves out for a solo dinner proves how little things have changed, despite Fisher and Hemingway’s best efforts.

Sure, there’s plenty of brouhaha over how 50% of the country eats alone and that it’s becoming the norm. And yet, there are several fantastic restaurants that do foods and smaller portions for single diners without serving up a side dish of the ‘where’s your girlfriend/boyfriend?’ attitude. Yet, for some reason, the world still assumes Ryan Gosling is in need of a lunch date when he eats alone. And when you walk alone through a restaurant full of two-tops and group dinners and sit at your table with a glaringly empty chair on the other side, chances are, plenty of pitying looks come your way. And that’s even if you are spared the corner tables and neglectful waiters. Eating alone—and we’re not talking fast food and takeout restaurants here—hasn’t lost much of its stigma and can still make you feel like this hilarious Steve Martin caricature from the 1984 comedy Lonely Guy.

The Japanese understand that, sometimes, you have to spend some quality alone time with your food.

Which is why we’d benefit from adopting the attitude and strategy of the Japanese, who are the unparalleled masters of solo dining. Their cubicle seats, which have recently been installed in Kyoto University‘s dining hall, are a testament to the fact that the Japanese understand that, sometimes, you just have to spend some quality alone time with your food. In Japan, chefs entertain you with their knife antics, so you can have dinner and entertainment without wondering why you didn’t just order in. The Japanese have even come up with a bowl that’ll not only hold your food, but also your iPhone, so you can have virtual companionship while still being able to use both your hands (genius).

We’re so impressed by the country’s wholehearted acceptance of the meal-for-one that we’ve put together a list of everything we can learn from the Japanese when it comes to the art of eating alone. Sure, some of these ideas seem slightly absurd, but isn’t that what we’ve come to delightfully expect from the Japanese? And what’s not fun about eating with a virtual boyfriend who’ll not only cook a meal for you, but comes with a personality and a penchant for jealousy? Beats us.

Click through the gallery above and learn the tricks of the solo dining trade.

  • Anna Rymika

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