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Society no longer shuns solitary pursuits

by Michael Hoffman

“A solitary cloud wafted by the wind.” Thus the 17th-century wandering haiku poet Matsuo Basho described himself. Not an ordained priest, he nonetheless wore priestly garb on his journeys and was steeped in the principles of Zen Buddhism, among which solitude ranks high. Japan’s days as a Zen country are long past, but might solitude be staging a comeback? Spa! magazine for one thinks it might be, though neither Zen nor poetry figure conspicuously in it. What does is a new sense that it’s rather fun to be alone.

Away with the melancholy connotations of loneliness! They had their place back when companionship was easy. A person had family, friends, a community, colleagues, almost as a matter of course. To venture alone into public haunts was more or less to confess that you — you alone — had none of these. Unless you were a poet or a monk, that was a painful admission. Better to stay home, where no one would see you, stare at you, exasperate you with a stranger’s condescending pity.

But times have changed, society has moved on, and the solitary individual — unmarried and alone in the vast impersonal urban hive — is no longer an anomaly but a fairly representative type. It’s only fitting that he or she acquire confidence, and that is what Spa! sees happening. There’s even a new word to describe the phenomenon — botchi. Formerly it came exclusively coupled with the word hitori (alone). Hitoribotchi means pathetically lonely. Botchi means alone and proud of it.

It’s a little surprising in view of the pride taken in kizuna, the social bonds of spontaneous affection and mutual support that became a symbol of the national character when the March 11, 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake brought those encouraging qualities to the surface. Be that as it may, in an informal poll of 100 solitaries, Spa! records no fewer than 89 saying they spend their days off alone because they prefer to. One reason clearly is the freedom to do what you want when, how and at what pace you want to do it. Another is expressed by a 30-year-old man who enjoys going to crowded restaurants alone. That is not a pastime for the acutely self-conscious. All around you are couples, foursomes, boisterous parties, the couples blissfully wrapped up in each other, the parties punctuated by shouts and laughter; everyone is happy, celebrating, in a holiday mood — and then there’s you, the dark, brooding presence. More power to anyone who has the strength of character to fling aside a natural shrinking dread of prying eyes and plunge into a purely introverted enjoyment in extroverted surroundings; more power, too, to an evolving society that fosters that strength of character. Besides, observes the 30-year-old man, “during the hour or so of waiting for a table, you don’t have to wrack your brains making conversation.” Decidedly, that can be a plus.

Going to a movie alone is relatively easy, the surrounding darkness tending to fuse all spectators into one many-eyed body. And you needn’t defer to anyone else’s taste in deciding what to see. Still, admits a 32-year-old man, it’s a little sad afterwards, not having anyone to share impressions with. But no arrangement is perfect, and this imperfection is no more glaring than any other.

Vast nature opens her maternal arms wide to the solitary partaker of her charms. “There’s nothing like it,” enthuses a 26-year-old woman who climbs mountains alone. “People see me and think, ‘She must be a real nature lover.’ That makes me feel good.” It’s not exactly Zen, but surely Basho, a rather good-natured fellow for all his austerities, would have flashed her an understanding smile.

Then there are the places that you’d never dream of venturing to alone — or would you? Sometimes there’s no choice. Shopping must be done, Sunday’s the time to do it, and the suburban shopping mall is where the bargains are. If you’re alone, you must grit your teeth a bit. “Kids running around all over the place, making all kinds of noise, and their parents don’t say a word!” fumes a 28-year-old woman. “But being alone you can hardly go up to them and complain, can you? I get so angry sometimes it gives me indigestion.”

An amusement park. Who would want to go there alone? A Spa! reporter certainly wouldn’t have, had she not been a Spa! reporter with a story to write. But she was, and so off she went — and unexpectedly discovered in herself previously untapped confidence: Yes, she really could cast off her reserve and draw attention to her solitude by screaming in happy terror on the roller-coaster!

But here’s the acid test, the ultimate hurdle on your way to supreme botchi-hood. Rise to this challenge, and you are a king or queen among loners — or among independent spirits, if you prefer that designation.

Would you go to a love hotel alone?

Why not? shrugs a 27-year-old woman. “I can’t sleep in an Internet cafe, so when I want a nap during a work break, I go to a love hotel and ask at the desk, ‘Is it OK alone?’ “

Those who can stare back when being looked at funny are the ones who get ahead in life.