CAMP ZAMA, Japan (June 27, 2012) -- "Is this a Japanese sponge?" asks a blindfolded woman sat at a table after biting into a piece of cooked tofu.

The woman is taking part in "Kurayami Gohan" (Japanese for "eat-in-the-dark dinner"), a unique culinary experience that was hosted June 15 at Camp Zama by Kaku Aoe, a Buddhist monk.

The custom of "dining in the dark," as it is also known, began in Europe with a restaurant in which the food was served in rooms without light in order to heighten the diners' sense of taste. Dark dining is based on the theory that flavors are intensified when people cannot see what they are eating. Aoe combined the idea with Buddhist principles and began offering the hybrid program at his temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Col. Michael Brumage, commander of Public Health Command Region-Pacific here, who organized an eight-week "mindfulness meditation" class here earlier this year, invited 12 of the participants to his home to share the experience of Aoe's one-of-a-kind taste test.

"At the end of the [meditation] class, a couple of the students sent me an article about Aoe-san's program," said Brumage. "We were lucky enough to meet him and experience it in Tokyo, and he said he was willing to come to Camp Zama. He is bringing an international experience here to us; it's a mindfulness exercise that is not only an interesting experience, but also [involves] meditating. It gives you the chance to enjoy food in the 'here and now.'"

The opportunity to dine in the dark was a fitting extension of the meditation class, Brumage said, adding that although the two are not directly connected, they both shares many of the same principles and are meant to awaken and enhance similar mental functionality within their participants.

"I think so many times, people take for granted everything we do, and simple, active eating is overlooked," said Brumage. "This can be an experience for our lives that we can really dwell on more in the present moment, and not just pile food into our mouths, but really take the time to enjoy it for what it is."

Aoe and his partner Takeshi Kihara, a fellow monk, brought groceries and prepared a special menu for the group, comprised of courses that included traditional Japanese vegetable dishes, fish-based soups, sesame tofu with spicy sauces, sweet eggplant, squash soup, corn, and radish steak.

The participants were asked to put on a blindfold before being seated at their table. When each of the dishes was served, they took slow deliberate bites of the food. Because they could not see, table manners and correct chopstick usage were not enforced. They then made guesses as to what they were eating, most of which were items they had never tried before.

"For me, the texture came first," said Julie Pascua, one of participants. "I was surprised that I was able to eat some of the food, because I don't like soft, spongy or squishy [textures], but I ate it and it tasted good."

Had she been able to see the food, Pascua admitted that she likely would not have sampled some of the dishes. After dining in the dark, Pascua said she realized that she often anticipates what something is going to taste like before she even eats it, particularly if it is something she recognizes.

"We are used to eating so fast and getting done and doing the next thing," said Pascua. "This showed me how enjoyable it was to eat everything slowly and to really think about it. It was really nice."

After the diners finished and were allowed to remove their blindfolds, they finally met Aoe, who provided explanations about each dish and answered questions about the program.

In addition to serving as a traditional monk, Aoe attended business school at Fresno State University and speaks English fluently. He and other monks have spearheaded various outlets in addition to dining in the dark, in order to spread Buddhism to young people. They produced an iPhone application that instructs users how to perform Zen meditation, and also have a Facebook page and Twitter account through which they promote the philosophies of Buddhism. They even organize a number of concerts at their temple, in genres as varied as rock and hip-hop.

"People take too much for granted in regard to food nowadays," said Aoe. "When Japanese say 'Itadakimasu' before eating, it means 'eating to receive life.' I started [dining in the dark] because I wanted people to experience what receiving life really means and to face it directly. This is based on a Buddhist concept, but it can apply to anyone.

"I think [the participants] had a very unique experience," Aoe added. "Most foods they had tonight were Japanese 'soul foods,' and it must have been quite a challenge for them to try it because they had no idea what they were eating. I would love to come back to Camp Zama if they would have me."

Near the end of the night, before dessert, Aoe served two rice balls to each of the diners.

"Could you notice any difference between the two rice balls?" Aoe asked to the group. "One was made using an electric rice cooker, and the other was made using a traditional Japanese pot, which can give the rice a stickier texture. You couldn't tell the difference because you saw the rice balls and they looked exactly the same, which made you form a prejudice. Maybe if you had been blindfold, you would not have thought they were the same."