It was time, the day had finally come: once more I stood in front of the modern building that was Ryokusen-ji. From the outside, you likely wouldn’t guess that a calm and atmospheric Buddhist temple awaited behind the big sliding doors – and a one of a kind experience along with it. I had waited several weeks to be a part of Kurayami Gohan, or the Dinner in the Dark, hosted by the temple’s head monk Kakuho Aoe, who also goes by the nickname of the Cooking Monk. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him before my actual Buddhist dinner experience, learning of the philosophy of the event and of the multitalented monk himself.
But enough with the theory, let’s get a first-hand experience of the Dinner in the Dark! Unlike the last time, it wasn’t the chef himself who greeted me but his wife. After a very warm greeting, she immediately instructed us to pick an eye mask of our choice. We were among the first guests to arrive and the room was still brightly lit, so we used the time to cheerfully chat about our expectations of this unique experience and to try on our eye masks. As expected, no peeking possible! I was genuinely excited – while Kurayami Gohan is by no means the only dark restaurant in the world, it is the only one that has a Buddhist background. And, besides, I never went to eat in complete darkness before, and while I was mentally preparing myself to make a huge mess with my chopsticks in the dark, I couldn’t help but feel pleasantly impatient.
Ready, Set, Go! Entering the Dark, Preparing for Dinner
Then, one after another, we were called upstairs to the temple’s second floor and instructed to put our eye masks on – and to keep them on from this point onward. I was a bit confused as I had expected to engulf myself in darkness just right before the food arrives. No, there I was, standing in the middle of a room, gingerly holding on to the warm hands of our hostess who lead me up a single stair, then around the corner, and yet another turn, until I felt a soft seating cushion under my socked feet. “Please sit down carefully, and don’t take off your mask!” she said and left me alone.
I remember what Aoe-san had said about Kurayami Gohan during the interview: one can feel lonely in the darkness; and as I was sitting all by myself in the dark, I did see his point. Only when I heard the voices of Fujita-san and Holly to my left and right, my dinner company for the evening, I felt an almost weird wave of relief wash over me and realized that, despite my knowledge of what the Kurayami Gohan experience entails, I had involuntarily tensed up.
Finding a Friend in the Dark: Rock-Paper-Scissors, the Kurayami Gohan Edition
Before the first dish was served, the twenty people in the room chatted excitedly and I had my first little success by finding my chopsticks and even managing to drink from my glass of water without drooling on myself! “Let’s play jan-ken-pon!” our hostess encouraged us suddenly. I had almost forgot about that! Jan-ken-pon is the Japanese name for Rock-Paper-Scissors and Aoe-san had told me before that it is the ice breaker of Kurayami Gohan, done to find “a friend in the dark” and fight against the somewhat scary loneliness I had undoubtedly felt earlier.
And so we played, me and whoever sat opposite the table. His voice was cheerful and pleasant, and I and my friend in the dark had a good deal of fun as we struggled to find each other’s hands. “Eh? Where is your hand?” he laughed as I just shook my head and reached around in the dark rather helplessly. “Right there!”
Of course, that direction didn’t help him much but after some initial struggles, I managed to feel his fist – rock. I sighed as he snickered a “Scissors! I won!” and we went from the little game to some small-talk. I learned that it was his first Dinner in the Dark experience as well and of course, he was curious on my perspective on the entire event.
The Dinner Begins and Thus We Meet Again, Colorless Tomato
Then it got serious, however, as our first dish was served. “Is it already here?” I asked my surroundings, gingerly reaching for the table in front of me until my fingers hit something hard and cool. It was a very small object, much like a shot glass and therefore easy to grab. As soon as I raised it to my nose, I knew what it was – tomato! The very tomato dish that Aoe-san had showed me on his laptop during our interview, the one that I had totally failed to identify. This time around, though, there were no doubts. It was just a sip but a deep and rich tomato flavor spread throughout my mouth and lingered pleasantly for a rather long while. Was it because this method of preparation made the fruit’s unique taste particularly deep, or did my temporary lack of vision made me focus more on my other senses, especially taste and smell?
People all around the room agreed that this was, without a doubt, tomato, and it did not take long until the next dish was served. The tomato soup was fairly easy – but the rest certainly wasn’t. Every single dish served at Kurayami Gohan is one from Buddhist cuisine which puts particular emphasize on the vegetarian ingredients’ taste of their own, letting no part of the fruit or vegetable go to waste. I’ll be honest, I am not too familiar with traditional Japanese cuisine, at least not enough to identify a dish by its name and ingredients while blindfolded – much less with Buddhist cuisine! So while the Japanese diners of Kurayami Gohan had a marvelous time guessing and theorizing about what exact dish they were given to eat, I just sat there, completely oblivious to what I was eating, and focused on the taste, texture, and smell instead. Clearly, I – and Holly next to me – had a different experience from the majority of the other guests.
Giving Up on Guessing and Rediscovering “Eating”
That was by no means a bad thing, however – I greatly enjoyed discovering every plate, every bowl that was put in front of me, oftentimes raising them up to my lips and shoveling whatever on it in my mouth as not to drop anything and slobber all over the place. I’m sure it must have looked rather unsightly and far from elegant, but who cares? It was dark after all and I was having an amazing time! While I failed to identify the dishes’ names but one – I will get to that later – I did manage to taste individual ingredients, such as mushroom, carrot, and broccoli, identifying them by their texture as much as by their taste.
Aoe-san hadn’t been kidding when he said that the lack of sight robs you of any distraction and you’re basically forced to focus entirely on the food. After my second or third dish, I didn’t even want to think about anything anymore and just sat there, in the dark, completely at ease and looking forward to what culinary mystery awaited me next. I’m used to eat while doing something, such as reading a newspaper or watching videos on the internet, so Kurayami Gohan was an almost unfamiliar way of eating. One that I found to enjoy much more than I had imagined.
Hesitantly Returning to a Brighter World
The food itself, by the way, was extraordinarily delicious. I will admit that “Buddhist food” didn’t get me too excited, but what I had on my plate at the actual event proved Aoe-san right once again: “We cannot find the right answer when prejudiced” he had said during our interview. This was certainly true, made blatantly obvious by a couple of incredibly tasty dishes enjoyed in the dark.
I will also admit that I was sad when our hostess announced the last dish. The amazing experience was over sooner than I wanted, even though we had enjoyed a total of eight dishes, including the last one. It was just the right amount of food to satisfy both hunger and appetite but didn’t make me feel full in the slightest. Then came the hardest part of Kurayami Gohan – taking off the eye masks. The light pierced my eyes and it took me a couple of minutes to get properly used to a bright room again but I clearly wasn’t alone with that. The other guests all blinked and peered with grimacing faces while the chef himself, Kakuho Aoe, joined our cozy dinner, not only for a little meet and greet but also to reveal the dishes he had served us and tell us more about them.
Of Tricky Onigiri and The Subtlety of Dashi
As already mentioned, for most guests, the event was mostly about trying to figure out what exact dish they were eating while I had just sat there and now got everything explained afterwards. I did have two moments of success, however – the first one was when Aoe-san held up a bowl of sliced eggplants which people have had trouble to identify. Pretty much everyone had thought that it was different kinds of vegetables now were surprised to find out that it really was a bowl full of eggplant. “They aren’t exactly the same, though” said Aoe-san with a gleeful smile and left his guests thoroughly puzzled – until I hesitantly raised my hand.
“I think the dashi was different”, I replied without much confidence but Aoe-san’s smile got brighter. “Yes, exactly!” he exclaimed. Dashi is Japanese-style soup stock and people usually think of bonito and seaweed, the most common ingredients that the stock is made out of. However, Aoe-san explained that dashi can be made from pretty much any ingredient of your choice and every one of the three eggplant pieces had been soaked in a different kind of stock.
My other successful answer was a dish called hiryuzu, one that I knew from the manga Sachi no Otera Gohan, a work about Buddhist cuisine with a monk-chef that closely resembles Kakuho Aoe himself. So technically, I had cheated but was nonetheless pleased with my taste buds as I turned out to be th7e only one who was able to identify the dish!
Kurayami Gohan and the Message of Food
While Aoe-san went over the different dishes one after another, we were served a small snack of two onigiri that everyone enjoyed while listening to the chef. At the end, though, Aoe-san asked: “So, did you notice the difference between the two rice balls?” Naturally, everyone groaned and laughed – of course not. The good ol’ distraction was back, distracting both our attention and taste buds. With this last reminder of what a difference the way of eating makes, Kurayami Gohan officially ended and once again, I thought back to the interview that I had with the multitalented monk.
“Food has a message” Aoe-san had said back then, when I still didn’t have a very good idea of what he meant by that. Now, having done the Kurayami Gohan experience by myself and looking back on it, I smiled to myself and agreed. What this exact message is, that is entirely up to you and what you take away from this uniquely Buddhist Dinner in the Dark.
If you want to learn more about Buddhist cuisine, follow us to Kakuho Aoe’s launching event of the third volume of the manga “Sachi no Otera Gohan” and discover more!