In America, today, November 11th, is Veteran’s day.
Here in Asia, it’s singles day. 1111.
Perhaps it’s appropriate then, that I am sitting alone inside of a Doutor, one of the bleaker Japanese chain coffee shops, surrounded by a sea of Japanese business people, who are also sitting alone. Alone, together. Why are they here though? It’s 14:30, pretty late for a lunch break, and yet most of the people around me are in collared shirts, jackets and overcoats slung over the back of their chairs as they slump over their phones and sip weak, sugary coffee.
I am enjoying, or rather, tolerating, a Mont Blanc cake, a French confection that Japanese people go apeshit over. Mont Blanc is so popular that you can find it year-round, but chestnuts are in season right now, and so I thought I’d finally try one and see what the fuss is about. It’s not bad, but I don’t know what to compare it to. It seems to be made of a kind of wafer piled with a mountain of fluffy cream and drizzled with chestnut goo before being dusted in powdered sugar. I expected the outer layer to be crunchy for some reason, and was surprised by how light, airy, and fluffy it is, with a subtle chestnut flavor. What is disappointing is the wafer on the bottom. It’s a bit like soggy cardboard.
The coffee is actually better than expected. It’s a kinako soy latte, a Japanese version of a Western trend. Kinako is quite nice, a flavor of soybean and brown sugar, and while this drink is definitely too sweet, the kinako flavor feels appropriate to fall, and the nutty soy milk gives it a coziness. This isn’t the type of coffee shop where you come for the actual coffee: you come for the affordable seasonal drinks and cakes. It’s a poor man’s Starbucks.
Right now there’s a “smooth cafe jams” version of “Hey Ya” by the Black Eyed Peas playing over the stereo, something I never ever thought I’d hear. Up on here on the second floor, there’s plenty of seating, but it’s tired, and the long rows of seats are all isolated, made for solo coffee breakers. One row of seats lines the window, facing the drawn blinds. Another row of seats is by the wall, facing the drab wallpaper. Two more rows of seats run the length of the room, in the middle, facing each other, but separated by a foggy glass partition. Oh, and there’s a smoking room, which looks like the most social part of this place. A light odor of cigarettes still manages to waft through its closed door though, adding to the overall depressive atmosphere.
The guy next to me has been slumped over, bored out of his mind, aimlessly playing games on his phone since I sat down. But oh – he just received a call! And he’s jumped to it, sitting up straight, a note of urgency in his voice. I guess he’s on the clock. He looks like he’s 16, but his voice is a surprising baritone. He pauses to listen to the voice on the other end of the call, then yawns and grumbles that something is “mendoksai.” One of my favorite Japanese expressions, “mendoksai” is a great, all-purpose expression that loosely translates to “I can’t be bothered.”
Huh. Tame Impala on the stereo. Surprisingly current.
I didn’t actually know that Singles Day was even a thing until I started seeing advertisements for it online. It’s actually not a Japanese day, but an unofficial Chinese shopping holiday. “You’re alone!! Buy stuff!!” the adverts scream. How very capitalist of them. I bet this would be a huge success if it was an American “holiday.”
While this (and by this I mean the pandemic and 2020 and everything) has been an awfully hard time to be single, in general, it’s a state of being that I actually rather enjoy and don’t have a problem with. In many ways as well, Japan is set up as a single’s paradise. If I lived in the US, there’s no way I could afford to live alone, and I would probably be forced to live with roommates. But here, where housing is smaller to begin with, it’s very easy to find something suitable in terms of both size and price. And since dining options have been set up to easily and conveniently feed people on their lunch or way home from the office, dining solo or even going to a bar alone doesn’t carry the same stigma here that it would in most other places. It can be quite an easy place to be alone.
But it is a massive city, and loneliness tends to strike here just as easily as it does in countless big cities across the globe. And for that, I’ve got my friends. If that sounds like a cheap, second-rate alternative to a partner, let me assure you, that’s not what I meant at all. If being single during a global pandemic has taught me anything, it’s the true value of friendship in my life. I was lucky in that I’d already made some friends before this year, and going through this experience together has just strengthened those friendships I’d begun to form and given them a front and center stage in my life.
So, as it turns out, I’m not so alone after all.
Safe and Happy Travels,