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.
I grope carefully for a dish. It is a cold teacup, and I drink the liquid, which is clearly tomato soup. The taste is strong and tangy, though I am later told that Kaku has removed two-thirds of the seasonings from his dishes because he says our taste buds are more sensitive when we cannot see what we are eating. I'm not sure I believe it, based on my inability to sense his wife's movements around me.
Photo by David Nakamura
The second course is skewers of beans, one pair of which is generously salted. (We are later told that they were ginko nuts.) The dinner quickly becomes a guessing game among the Japanese, who shout out words of different vegetables (Buddhists do not eat meat, though Kaku's sect, being so relaxed, does not ban it outright). Gen mutters, "oishii" (delicious) after each bite. Olsen, a half-British, half-American guy from London in town on business, insists that nothing we are eating is what we think it is, even the water, because the whole thing is a big mind-game designed to knock us out of our comfort zone.
Sometimes, though, water is just water, fortunately for Kimiko.
Sweet, cold eggplant; deep-fried yam; a plate of mozzarella and konnyaku jelly; and fried tofu topped with lavender-colored kiku flowers soon follow. At some point, I realize that it is pointless to use my chopsticks and pick up the food with my fingers instead. 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.