I arrived at “Dialog in the Dark” not knowing what to expect.
Sure, the Web site for this unusual installation, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Dialog in the Dark Japan, had provided a hint of background: Visitors to the Tokyo venue, it said, would spend an hour going about daily tasks in total darkness, relying on hearing and touch to lead the way.
Visually impaired “attendants” — people accustomed to navigating the dark — would serve as guides. The experience would introduce us to a whole new world of sensory perception and help us to understand the world of the blind, promised the site.
Originally conceived in 1989 by German radio journalist Andreas Heinecke as a means of increasing respect for people without sight, the exhibition, in various forms, has today attracted more than a million visitors in 17 countries around the world, with about 15,000 in Japan attending.
I was excited to be next in line, but a bit nervous, too. Who, after all, wants to be blind, even for an hour?
I began to relax upon meeting 24-year-old attendant Kenji Saito. Addressing our group of seven guests in a soothing voice, he told us to “just take a deep breath.” We all, including an 11-year-old blind girl named Yumi and her mother, did as we were told.
With that, Saito waived us past a black curtain. Clutching the white walking canes that we’d been issued, we were soon stumbling forward into total blackness.
“Please go down the hallway,” Saito called out from somewhere.
“Hallway?” I thought, banging my cane against a wall to my left. “This is a hallway?”
Not 10 seconds had passed and I was already pretty disoriented. All the same, my mind was busily adjusting, sopping up whatever nonvisual information it could to make sense of things.
For example, synapses were hard at work distinguishing voices. The timbre of Saito’s voice as he confidently zoomed about in the dark — one moment behind me, the next some distance ahead — was clearly different from the other two men’s.
And I also discovered that there was a flow of information coursing from the bottom of my feet to my brain. My feet had become my main point of contact with the environment, and they detected what I now assume was a strip of bumps like those laid out along pedestrian crossings and the platforms of train stations to guide the blind.
My other physical connection was the cane. Its tip was essential for scanning floors and walls — though too often I also scanned a neighbor’s ankle or the inside of a shoe.
But just as every violin novice learns many ways to use a bow, I found more than one way to use the cane.
The area just above the tip detected curbs and other things that threatened to trip me up, while the middle region was useful for tracing the contours of tables and furniture. When I wanted to know the shape of something above me I extended the handle straight upward, rather than swing the tip in an arc and risk gouging somebody.
I followed the strip as long as it lasted, but then drifted into bewilderingly open space. There, I was overpowered by the fragrance of cypress. Actually, the scent had been there all along, but suddenly, as my senses indeed were coming alive, it was as if I’d been fitted with a new nose.
“You are now in a forest,” Saito told us.
I crouched and scooped up a handful of leaves and twigs; below that was earth.
Gripping my cane for support with one hand (crouching is surprisingly difficult when you don’t know up from down), I ran the fingers of my other hand over the leaves and smiled. The word “beautiful” was flashing on my mental screen.
I thought about how peculiar that was. We apply “beautiful” to paintings, landscapes, faces — even non-visual things like music and aroma. But to the texture of leaves?
Call me flaky, but I found myself repeating the word throughout the remaining 50 minutes — sometimes aloud, for instance, when Saito placed my hand in a pool of startlingly cold water or as I sipped peach juice at a jazz bar run deftly by a blind staff.
Other strange things happened, not least of all the fact that I somehow avoided falling on my face — even during the obstacle-course-like challenges we were put through. My body figured out how to manage.
(I also never panicked from fear of the dark; hardly any visitors do, an official assured me. For such contingencies, though, a therapist is always on stand-by to calm frazzled nerves.)
Stranger yet, I had the notion that though there was not even a hint of light, I knew the locations of everybody in the group and could sometimes even “see” them floating by, ghostlike.
Admittedly, it was hardly more than a notion; little Yumi, though not yet as adept at getting around as Saito, would occasionally speed off to explore on her own, and none of us knew where she was at those times.
Still, my notion may not have been entirely off base.
After the “Dialog” came to an end, my group passed a few minutes in a dimly lit chamber to re-accustom our eyes to light. Other members described having become aware of kehai, which my Japanese-English dictionary translates as “an indication; a sign” but which can also be rendered as “a presence.”
For her part, Yumi’s mom, Yoko, deepened her understanding of blindness. “As a mother, today I’ve learned so much more about the importance of words, of touching,” she said as Yumi listened. “I’ve always known it in my head; now I’ve experienced it.”
Later, as I made my way home, the smell of fresh rain was in the air, and that air — after the heat of summer — was wonderfully cool on my skin. The sensations were vivid, yet calming.
The sight of the Friday-night throng, however, was irritating and only that. As implausible, ungrateful and, yes, naive as it may sound coming from someone blessed with sight, I started looking back fondly to my time in the dark.