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.

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.

The final course, as I later learn, is a rich, pasty lump of minced vegetables mixed with cereal and tofu, then served with gluten. As is often the case with Japanese food, the flavors are subtle and nuanced, almost bland.

We are instructed to remove the blindfolds, and Kaku emerges from the kitchen to explain each course and answer questions. Despite his sect's liberal ways, Kaku looks the part of a traditional monk; he has a shaved head and wears blue work robes most of the time, even when we went to the bar. He initially rejected following his parents into the temple, attending business school at Fresno State University (he speaks good English) and founding an aroma therapy sales company.

But he felt a tug back to Tokyo and the temple after deciding he could help change the world through Buddhism. His temple has 800 followers, of which about 10 percent have subscribed to the Twitter feed.

Despite his job, Kaku hasn't lost his sense of humor. After sheepishly confiding that he has a master's of business administration degree (Buddhists are supposed to eschew money and materialism), he joked that he sometimes tells people it stands for something else: Masters of Buddhism Association.