Silent cafes attract solo Japanese in search of peace
A young woman sits alone in a café sipping tea and reading a book. She pauses briefly to scribble in a nearby notepad before showing her words to a passing café worker: "Where are the toilets please?"
This is a familiar scenario in Tokyo’s so-called "silent cafés", spaces which appear at first glance to be conventional cafes but where customers are not allowed to speak, communicating instead by writing in notepads.
A growing number of "silent cafés" - with self-imposed chat bans - are opening across the capital, attracting a steady stream of solo Tokyoites keen to swap the pressure-cooker pace of urban life for solitary silence.
The concept taps into a rising desire among young Japanese to be alone, a situation fuelled by economic uncertainty, a shift in traditional family support structures and growing social isolation.
The phenomenon is not confined to coffee shops but covers everything from silent discos, where participants dance alone wearing wireless headphones connected to the DJ, to products such as small desk tents designed for conversation-free privacy in the office.
At the more unusual end of the spectrum, one Kyoto company offers single women the opportunity to have a "one woman wedding" - a full bridal affair, complete with white dress and ceremony, the only thing missing being the groom.
The trend has its own media buzzword "botchi-zoku", referring to individuals who consciously choose to do things completely on their own.
One recent weekday afternoon, Chihiro Higashikokubaru, a 23-year-old nurse, travelled 90 minutes from her home in Odawara, Kanagawa prefecture, to Tokyo on her day off in order to indulge in some solo time.
Her destination was R-za Dokushokan, a silent café on a narrow street near Koenji station, where she planned to drink tea, draw some illustrations in a sketchbook and savour the silence.
Speaking quietly at the entrance of the cafe, Miss Higashikokubaru said: "I heard about this place in magazines and via Twitter and I liked the idea of coming here.
"I work as a nurse and it’s always very busy. There are very few quiet places in Tokyo, it’s a big busy city.
"I just wanted to come and sit somewhere quietly on my own. I’m going to drink a cup of tea and maybe do some drawings. I like the idea of a quiet, calm atmosphere – they’re difficult to find."
Miss Higashikokubaru is one of more than 200 visitors who pass through the doors and sit in silence at the café every week, according to Taiki Watanabe, its 45-year-old owner.
Tucked away at the top of a small staircase, the first floor café, which opened seven years ago, is a serene haven of one-person seats, antique wooden tables, forest-like green plants and a wall of books complete with the soothing sound of flowing water from an aquarium.
"I used to work in another café before opening this place,” said Mr Watanabe. “It was very different, busy and loud. I really liked the idea of opening my own calm and quiet space. Some silent time is very important for people living in cities.”
While visitors may be banned from talking, electronic devices such as phones (without speaking) are generally permitted, reflecting how the concept is as much about avoiding the stresses of human interaction as switching off.
Mr Watanabe added: "The rules are: you cannot speak, you must order a drink, and a drink should last no longer than two hours. If you need to communicate, there are notepads to write in.
"Most people come on their own and read a book, work, write or draw or enjoy a hobby. A few do nothing. It’s a way for people to forget their daily tasks and give their brain some silent time.”
Another example of the rise of solo activities in Japan is the one-woman wedding: Cerca Travel offers single women the opportunity to enjoy a wedding, minus a husband, with a two-day wedding package in Kyoto.
A special wedding dress, beauty treatments, dinner, hairstyle, limousine service, a hotel stay and photo album are among the treats the “bride” can enjoy as part of their packages starting from around ?1,666.
More than 100 women have enjoyed the solo wedding experience since it launched last year, according to Akai Natsumi of Cerca Travel.
"Women want to have solo weddings to make their dreams come true,” she said. “It is something they do for themselves.
"Nowadays women have many different ways to live their lives. Not everyone wants to get married. But many women still want to wear the wedding dress that they dreamt about as a child.
"It’s becoming very popular. Many women feel very gratified and impressed by the experience, they often shed tears."
The desire to be solitary is not a new concept in Japan, a nation famously home to an estimated 3.6 million "hikikomori" - a more extreme example of social recluses who withdraw completely from society.