I looked down at the bowl, positioning the chopsticks between my fingers and stirring the ramen around and around in a clockwise motion in the hopes of distracting myself a little longer. The restaurant was local and small with single pane windows to the outside that revealed it was raining heavily, the daylight fading with a sudden haste and mixed with the humidity of the summer air – created a blurred view of the world on the other side. I could barely make out the shadows of people moving back and forth in the low red lights outside. Kyoto felt surprisingly quaint for its size, nestled with little alleys to hide yourself in, perfect for someone like me looking for a spot to eat away from the masses that congregated in the city. I looked up from my meal again for what felt like the 20th time, I still wasn’t being watched, much to the dismay of my internal anxiety demon. I was alone and totally inconspicuous. It wasn’t my first time eating alone on this solo trip but it was the first time I had come face to face with the great culinary adversary; the chopstick, which added another layer of stress to my situation. I took a final deep breath, looked down at my meal for one, chopsticks at the ready – and began.
On my travels in Japan I discovered that so much of the intrigue of its culture lay in its embrace of solitude. Meals (contrary to how I’d been raised) didn’t have to be shared amongst friends, family or colleagues and that to eat alone was very common. Where I come from the restaurant experience is quite the opposite; it is a social transaction. You dine out to converse, to laugh, to be around other humans; it is a communal experience, therefore the idea of dining alone can seem unfamiliar and even terrifying to a lot of people. The first time I found myself in a position where I had to eat alone at a restaurant when travelling was a peculiar one indeed.
Waves of paranoia would often circulate around my mind when I first began travelling alone and had to come to terms with eating by myself in a relatively formal setting.
“Is this weird? Are people looking? Does it look like I don’t have friends? Do I look lonely? Wait…am I lonely?“
I wondered whether other diners felt sorry for me, in fact I convinced myself they did. We’ve all felt it at some point, sympathy that is, for the person dining alone in a crowded restaurant regardless of their reasons for doing so. But it’s not like I hadn’t eaten alone before – however I saved this for the likes of small cafes; perhaps a panini or muffin with my coffee whilst I kept my head buried in a book. It was different, it was casual. And yet how different was it really? I’ll admit that eating alone wasn’t a regular occurrence and I nearly always found fellow travelers to dine with, other individuals searching for the comfort blanket of another to eat and converse with – just the same as me. However when I did eat alone, it took a while for me to become comfortable with it and I always relied on the crutch of an object to fill the gap that another person would; a book, my journal, my phone – they helped, they were safe.
This fear and anxiety changed when I travelled to Japan, which introduced me to a space where I could eat alone comfortably without care. I know that from popular culture and word of mouth that I was supposed to find Japanese cities overbearing and stressful. But I didn’t, finding more corners and alleys of quietness in hectic areas than I expected. In Tokyo, every other street offered a small haven away from the chaos of the city life – small restaurants where worker bees could grab a quick bite to eat without the need to talk to another person. It was normal to eat alone. To the average person, that may seem very lonely and depthless. But it was this quietness, this secluded realm of eating in private amongst a sea of others doing the exact same that eased me into an enjoyment of dining alone. I was just another person. There was comfort in that, which gave me enough strength to walk into a small local eatery in Kyoto, perch myself on a stool at a high table and order a bowl of ramen – without my phone, book or journal to lean on. I simply sat there, imitating the persona of a person who seemed comfortable in their aloneness, despite feeling anything but.
I’ve never been comfortable with the theory of “fake it till you make it” in any circumstance, but it did work.
Naturally my mind worked tirelessly to make me feel as though this was an unnatural thing worth being drawn attention to – but nobody else was watching me, not even the server (who only glanced up every now and again to honour me with a polite smile). I relaxed into it, this was fine, this was normal – my anxiety easing and an unusual sense of confidence and contentment came over me. Even if I was being watched, what was the issue in what I was doing? I was hungry, just like anyone else with an empty belly at 8pm. My eyes searched the quaint room, there were two other people in there sitting separately; local men with their heads buried in their ramen bowls, ravenously slurping up their noodles with ease and confidence. Seeing this made me realise how much the anxiety of eating alone actually comes from a place of not being comfortable with your own company. A big part of my journey as a single woman travelling the world alone was to become not just comfortable but happy with my aloneness and I hadn’t really understood that the enjoyment of eating played a role in this. I loved eating and I loved being with people, but I also had a strong introverted quality that made me someone who loved being alone too, more often than not. And yet somehow I hadn’t managed to make the bridge between my aloneness and eating, until now, 6 months into my solo trip.
My bowl arrived with a smile and polite bow from my server. It was a welcoming bowl of chicken ramen, the steam of the broth filling my nose with a warm invite. And so I ate, for the first time without a book perched next to me to occupy my eyes, folding up the noodles using a technique I’d adapted over the last few days, focusing my efforts on every mouthful. The aromas were delicious. I looked up occasionally to the blurred world outside, which was moving slower now, the sky an obvious indigo and the red lights of Kyoto glowering deeper as I took my time to enjoy my meal in a welcomed silence.
It became clear to me that eating alone was in fact a practice of slowing down and appreciating the small moments I had to myself where I could reflect on my day or simply forget about everything for a while. For the first time I didn’t need a book to lean on or my phone to lead me into a false sense that I wasn’t totally alone. And I didn’t want to either, it was a rare moment where I wasn’t totally fixated on my aloneness, in fact I welcomed it. As terrifying as I thought it was going to be, it made me realise how much I enjoyed a stolen few minutes of contentment, of being happy in my own company and for it to be enough – in the chaos and stress of travelling the world. It was just me, myself and a delicious bowl of ramen, caught in a moment of untroubled calmness.
And believe it or not my meal tasted better because I took the time to enjoy it without worrying about anything or anyone else around me.
I spent the rest of my Japan travels in similar fashion, often dining alone and sometimes with others, but always with the confidence of someone happy with herself – and it helped me to make peace with the fact that this was part of the journey, this is what it meant to be a solo traveler.
Eating alone may not seem like that big of an achievement until you find yourself in that position feeling as exposed as you could possibly feel. It takes practice. It isn’t always comfortable and sometimes you just want to dash in and out, wolfing down your meal as quickly as humanly possible through fear of being judged by total strangers. It takes a great amount of courage and self-acknowledgement. But with a little practice, those anxieties break away and you find that it feels less like a social nightmare and more like an opportunity to really slow down, reflect and simply be. Maybe you’ll need a book to keep you company to start with and that’s okay, eventually you won’t need anything at all but yourself – the world becomes background noise, and there is joy in sitting alone with a good meal.
There is an art to eating alone. And it begins with being content in your aloneness.