The Japanese village was quaintly cozy. It seemed like a prime destination for Mona Numera, one of the growing number of young, chic women from the nation’s urban centers who are taking such trips on their own. But Numera says such locales have yet to acknowledge, much less capitalize on, this burgeoning group of customers.
By Kyle Mullin
“I traveled solo all over Japan in December of 2013, and some eating establishments in the countryside wouldn’t seat one person,” Numera, a content and media strategist living in Tokyo, tells Tokyo Weekender, adding that Japan’s tourism industry needs to “adjust to the change.”
That lag may be attributed, in part, to the rate at which this change is occurring. Rakuten Travel, a popular travel booking site, recently released a report saying its solo female reservations have leapt a shocking 40.2 percent this winter, more than the 35 percent increase of single men booking such trips. The report also notes that “[g]rowth rate for solo female travels [sic], or ohitori-sama trips also beat families, couples and group travels. Similarly, solo female travels surpassed the growth rate of all domestic travels for this winter, which measured at 21.5 percent.”
The study also determined that these ohitori-sama women are spending 2.2 percent more for those bookings, while every other demographic’s spending only increased by 0.8 percent. Rakuten isn’t the only tour company looking to cater to this growing number of ohitori-sama travelers. One recent article pointed to a popular solo package that features several “appealing promises” such as the following: “All participants are on their own. You will get a room on your own. You will get to use two seats on a bus. This means that no one will be sitting next to you!”
Other experts say the trend is not isolated to tourism—The Debrief recently ran an about urban Japan’s booming ohitori-sama dining scene—including a Moomin cafe where you can enjoy your meal in the company of a large stuffed table-mate. Meanwhile, nihonagogo.com has listed a number of ohitori-sama themed businesses and services, including solo karaokes.
“All participants are on their own. You will get a room on your own. You will get to use two seats on a bus. This means that no one will be sitting next to you!”
As Rakuten’s report explains that “the term ‘ohitori-sama’ is derived from the polite form of ‘hitori,’ meaning alone. It is often used to confirm whether a guest will be dining alone. As of late, ‘ohitori-sama’ took on another meaning with a more positive and empowering connotation, to categorize active and financially independent women with the luxury of splurging on pricey commodities and leisure services as they please.”
But that modern interpretation of the term was lost on many of the proprietors that Numera encountered during her travels. Masahisa Takaki, a tour guide based out of Tokyo and Fukuoka, is unsurprised by their outdated outlook.
“When I was young, most hotels and ryokans in Japan tended to refuse female solo travelers … because they were regarded as a prospective suicides,” Takaki says of the deep-seated stigmas that single Japanese women have endured through the years.
“Recently, this old way of thinking in Japan has gradually changed,” Takaki added, before conceding that some lingering ignorance has still kept much of the industry from tapping into the the growing ohitori-sama market. He clearly thinks this needs to change. “Japan’s domestic tour-related facilities should change their focus from group packages or elderly people to solo women.”
Customers like Numera are surprised that such a reallocation hasn’t yet become more mainstream. After all, statistics on Japan’s growing number of single youth have made headlines around the world as of late—from a 2013 Guardian story describing the demographic’s plummeting sexual activity, to a more recent The Week article that says self-sufficient women are eschewing “career ending nuptials,” to a viral Vice video that delves into the growing appeal of no strings, paid companionship.
“Statistics show the number of Japanese in their late 20s and 30s choosing to stay single is increasing,” Numera says, adding that the cultural shift will inevitably prompt industries to cater to ohitori-sama. “As more of us become single, our behaviors will be modified accordingly, such as travel and leisure, dining habits, allocation choices of income distribution, and so on.”
She adds: “If the number of solo women travelers is increasing, does that maybe show that women are just adapting more quickly than the men?”