The art of eating alone: me, myself and a bowl of ramen

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.

why women travel alone

Travelling alone around the world (regardless of your age or gender) is a hugely brave and life-defining thing to do. It takes an obscene amount of courage and every individual journey is as wonderful as it is challenging.

However the very act of travelling alone holds much more weight for women because the dangers of travelling alone are generally more considerable. It is the vulnerability of travelling alone that deters many young women from taking the leap themselves and unfortunately, most of us still live in a world where women are likely to become the victims of crime, the reality of which can happen in our homes and neighbourhoods so naturally the thought of taking that risk thousands of miles away from home may feel like one not worth taking.

Why then, despite all of these potential threats and heeds of warning do women continue to travel solo?

There are countless reasons as to why so many women travel by themselves; to heal a broken heart, to work through a life crisis, and often it’s because our lives have become stagnant and we need an injection of vitality into our otherwise normal lives. But through all of that there is a desire to assert our selves in a world that is constantly telling us no.

“No, you can’t do that job.”
“No, you can’t wear that, you’ll attract the wrong attention.”
“No, it’s not safe for you travel there as a woman.”

It’s this fear of the unknown and the rhetoric of warnings that propel women to travel alone anyway. It gives women freedom above all else; freedom to slow down, enjoy the view and breathe the air. Freedom to prioritize yourself above anyone else. Freedom to live every day on your own terms; you’re not bound by anyone or anything, giving you room to address your own needs. Travelling alone gives you the space to explore your sensory pleasures; to eat and indulge, love voraciously, to experience culture through a different lense and to feel the weightlessness and empowerment that comes with the territory of travelling solo. It gives you the gift of choice – every decision you make is yours and the path you take is yours alone. This kind of individualism may feel daunting and overwhelming, but it teaches you how to be comfortable in your aloneness, and you will return from a solo trip feeling more confident in yourself as a woman. There will be no obstacle you can’t overcome and no mountain too high for you to climb, and it’ll encourage you to become the most fierce and independent versions of yourself.


Roys Peak, Wanaka

I reached out to some of the amazing and strong women who I’ve met on my travels and during my early 20s to get their insight into solo travel; why they do it, what they’ve learned about themselves and why they would never change their experiences for the world. So if any woman (young or old) out there need inpiration to take that leap and book a solo trip, here they are:

“Yes, I will always do it again and will keep doing this for as long as I want. Travelling alone taught me the most in life so far and how to love and accept myself. I developed a peace for life in the process and made mindset changes that will never leave me. That is the best decision I ever made in life.”

Sophia

“I think the best thing is the freedom and that you don’t depend on anyone, you can change your plans easily; if you feel like staying the whole day in bed you can do it or if you suddenly decide to join someone and spontaneously go somewhere else – you can. The best advice is to be open minded and not afraid of some difficulties. Shit happens and yes there are some bad people out there, but the amount of amazing people you meet on your way is so much bigger. Stay in hostels, talk to everyone and have the time of your life!

Ksenia

“I love that travelling alone challenges me in so many ways and gets me out of my comfort zone. It really helped me with becoming more confident around other people and accepting myself just the way I am. In the last nine months I learned to listen to my body and soul, and to only listen to the things that make me happy, and that anything is possible if I only set my mind to it. As scary as travelling alone as a young woman sounds, I would never have had such amazing experiences nor met so many great people if I hadn’t gone alone and I will definitely not stop exploring the world anytime soon. I am happy that I’m not this shy and insecure girl anymore, but an independent, self-loving woman. I have friends in every part of the world now and being aware of what I have achieved in these past months and what challenges I have mastered makes me incredibly proud of myself and I am really looking forward to my future travels.”

Anna

“My time in Japan was more than just exploring a beautiful country. I wasn’t just walking through foreign places, I was exploring parts of myself that I’d never allowed to surface before. My self-assurance grew, my independence and my ability to live life at a day’s notice, rather than a meticulously planned year in advance. It awakened a love for travel, for creating bonds with other people i’d have never met otherwise, for learning new languages and, perhaps most pertinently, I began to love who I was, what I would become and what I had to offer others.”

Lauren

“Solo travelling made me more confident – before doing it I would have felt very self-conscious sitting alone in a restaurant or just going up to a group of people and introducing myself… It is one of the most freeing experiences you can have as a woman. Advice for other women wanting to do the same: sadly there are more dangers that statistically affect women while travelling solo than men but it’s such a freeing experience so go with the flow! Also don’t put pressure on yourself to have fun all the time. Instagram makes it look like solo travelling is all rainbows and smiles but there are some real challenges and there are days where you won’t want to go out and explore. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – you’re there for you and if one day you want to stay in bed – that’s okay!

Faye

So what are you waiting for?!

Sadly this sort of freedom doesn’t extend to women everywhere, many women are still fighting for basic equality – so if you are in a privileged position where you have to power to travel wherever you want, I urge you to seize that opportunity. Stop waiting around for the right person to do it with and go out and discover just how life-affirming and incredible it is to do it on your own. You’ll discover what you’re made of, make memories and friends for life and really come to understand who you are as an individual and your power as a woman.

I know travel is limited right now in this pandemic, but I hope this blog gives you some food for thought and encourages you to start planning your own solo trip when the world resembles some level of normality and you can catch a flight again! In the meantime, why not take a short trip in your own country? It is the best way to ease yourself into travelling alone. Visit a new city, go on a multi-day hike, live like a hermit for a few days in a small cottage somewhere in the middle of nowhere, embrace yourself and focus on you. Be selfish – you’ve earned it.

Jessica Green

I have been travelling solo around the world since March 2019. Check out my Instagram @jessicamaygreen below, I’m happy to answer any questions or have a chat with like-minded people!