In Tokyo, Dining in the Dark


Photo by David Nakamura

Being the hip, technologically savvy, modern Buddhist monk that he is, Kakuho Aoe, 32, coordinates almost everything about his monthly kurayami gohan (eat-in-the-dark dinners) through cell phone, email, blog posts, and, yes, the temple's Twitter account.

When he sent out notice for his October meal, more than 80 people responded for just 14 spots. The guy who won the final seat on the tatami mat told me he replied just three minutes after receiving Kaku's email--at 6:17 in the morning.

Time to put on your blindfold and, as we awkwardly sit down around the low lacquered black table on the second floor of a five-story temple in Tokyo's historic Asakusa neighborhood, forget everything you know about Japan's Buddhist monks.

I am not sure my taste buds are any sharper, but I do find myself focusing on the food more intently than usual, in part because just getting it to my mouth is not easy.

Buddhism is on serious decline here, with, by some accounts, hundreds of the country's estimated 75,000 temples, overseen by just 20,000 monks, closing each year for a lack of followers and funds. This dilemma, Kaku explained, is why his Jodo Shinshu sect is doing everything it can to modernize the movement and gain young disciples: staging free rock and rap concerts, opening trendy cafes, and going into Shibuya's loud and garish bars to spread the word.

And, in Kaku's case, preparing a nine-course meal for a group of blindfolded Japanese and gaijin, one of whom has, upon sitting down, knocked over a glass of liquid onto my friend Kimiko, a Tokyo-based reporter for an international wire service.

"That better be water!" Kimiko exclaims.

Kaku--whom I met at his sect's rock concert and later hung out with at a bar where he drank shochu (distilled alcohol made of rice or potatoes)--is doing the cooking. His wife Michiko--they have two children, ages three and nine months--is serving us. The children are upstairs, being watched by Kaku's parents, who are also monks.

Leading up to the dinner, Kaku had explained that it was as much a communication event as an eating one. Michiko instructs us to get to know one another by warming up with a game of junken (rock, paper, scissors), in which we feel the hands of the person across from us to see who wins, then introduce ourselves. I play paper and I am a winner! Or maybe not: Turns out my date for the evening is a 47-year-old Japanese man named Gen who works as a bread and pastry consultant for two convenience store chains.

Michiko interrupts to say we can taste the first course. Surprisingly, I have not been able to sense that anyone has set anything in front of me. Instead of my other senses being sharpened to an animal-state of hyper-awareness by the loss of my eyesight, as I expected, I realize that humans have, in some ways, devolved as we have evolved.

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David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who believes that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy. More

David Nakamura is a staff writer for The Washington Post who missed authentic Japanese food so much that he took a year off to escape to Tokyo on an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. He has written about politics, education, sports and, every now and then, Japanese food for the Post. He headed a team of reporters that was awarded the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting after exposing excessive levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water and the government's failure to notify the public. His general philosophy is that safe tap water is an important ingredient for any city that aspires to food supremacy.

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