Food & Drink

Challenge your senses with Dinner in the Dark

by Kirsty Bouwers

Contributing Writer

The low tables are laid out with a standard dining set — placemat, napkin, wet cloth, chopsticks. Rather normal, bar one addition: a black eye mask.

This is the setup for Kurayami Gohan, or Dinner in the Dark, a three-hour dining experience in which blindfolded participants try different dishes while attempting to communicate with one another without visual aids.

Kakuho Aoe, the MBA-holding head priest of Asakusa’s Ryokusenji temple, originally started the supperclub over a decade ago as, primarily, a “mindfulness through food” experience — simply becoming more aware of what you’re eating by dining with a blindfold.

“I was working in the U.S., and I realized I was not really paying attention to what I ate,” Aoe says. “When I came back to Japan, I wanted to change this, and that is partly how Kurayami Gohan started.”

Eventually, Aoe realized that it wasn’t just eating in the dark that was interesting, but the communication between participants. Thus, in February 2017, Aoe reimagined the format as Kurayami Gohan Kenshu, or Dinner in the Dark Training, which places a stronger emphasis on group dynamics and communication.

Guests are asked to identify the different ingredients in the dishes and discuss them with their dining partners. During this process, Aoe notes, “a group leader often naturally emerges.

“The group leader could say, ‘Oh, it’s nattō (fermented soybeans)!,’ and the person sitting next to them who thought something completely different — and may actually be correct — will start doubting themselves. It’s very interesting to see how that works.”

The language participants use changes the experience as well. According to Aoe, sessions require a form of communication that may feel natural in English, but isn’t innate to many Japanese speakers. In low-context languages, such as English, descriptive words are used frequently, and word choice doesn’t change much when describing food with or without a blindfold.

High-context languages such as Japanese, on the other hand, rely greatly on the interpretation of nonverbal expressions and gestures to glean meaning. Kūki o yomu (reading the air) becomes difficult when you suddenly can’t use your eyes, so the need to use descriptive language grows dramatically.

Allegory of the plate: Kakuho Aoe is the Buddhist priest behind Dinner in the Dark Training.
Allegory of the plate: Kakuho Aoe is the Buddhist priest behind Dinner in the Dark Training. | KIRSTY BOUWERS

Given the growing focus on clear communication in diversifying workplaces, it’s unsurprising that Aoe now primarily conducts Kurayami Gohan as corporate training sessions. Clients come from a variety of backgrounds, from design companies to the U.S. Army. Takeaways are often different depending on the company, but the experience undoubtedly teaches participants the value of communication.

The meal’s final mind trick is in the presentation of the food itself. The precise contents of the menu are a secret, but all of the dishes — which include a simple soup, salad and small side dish — come with a twist.

I come face to face with these tricks myself when I attend a recent Kurayami Gohan session. Actually eating them is my first challenge, as I have to locate my chopsticks and bowl blindfolded. Nearly every participant, myself included, guesses the main ingredient of the soup correctly when wearing the blindfold. But, according to Aoe, only two-thirds manage to guess right if shown before eating, as the clear liquid belies its flavorful, vibrant base. I try the side dish, which initially seems to be made of two different ingredients: one firm, one softer. It turns out to only be one, having made use of parts of the ingredient that are usually discarded, yet taste fine when kept in the “dark.”

The tricks continue once I remove the eye mask and am presented with a bowl of rice with toppings. Suddenly able to use my eyes again, I (along with a good number of other diners), promptly misidentify the amount of ingredients used for the toppings, even after eating them.

This might be one of Kurayami Gohan Kenshu’s main revelations: Sometimes it’s better to trust your other senses. They could serve you better than deferring to sight and group pressure alone.

For more information about Dinner in the Dark, visit nakamichi.world. Sessions are available in Japanese, English and Mandarin for groups of 14 and up, from ¥20,000 per person.

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