Buddhist bars: Whisky, beer and spiritual enlightenment

Buddhist bars: Whisky, beer and spiritual enlightenment

At Buddhist-run Tokyo bars you can pass off your drinking habit as a metaphysical journey
Buddhist bars
Two trainee priests pause between mixing Manhattans to strike a reverent pose behind the counter at Vow's Bar in Nakano.

Tokyo's Buddhist bars may seem like an affront to the religion's famously staid asceticism. But the casual believer can't always hold himself to Buddha's lofty standards. The great Siddhārtha Gautama was able to reach enlightenment, but most of us are happy to just reach for a cold one once in a while.

Just listen to Yoshinobu Fujioka, Buddhist priest and owner of Vow'z Bar, who assures skeptics that alcohol pairs perfectly with the pilgrim's path.

"When people have had a few drinks, it’s often easier to communicate with them on spiritual matters here than it is talking at a temple," says Fujioka, while sucking down a lungful of cigarette smoke.

Vow'z looks much like any small watering hole in Japan, with a full display of whisky and shochu bottles behind the counter. The Buddhist touches to the interior are subtle: a small butsudan shrine sits in the corner and mandala-like imagery hangs on the walls.

Located in Nakano just outside the Broadway shopping mall, Vow'z sister establishment is Vow’s -- it's run by another priest, Shaku Genko. Like Fujioka, Genko hails from the liberal True Pure Land school of Buddhism, the most popular sect in Japan. Though similar to Vow'z, Vow’s has a large wide-screen TV set permanently to cable news.

Since there is no "v" sound in the Japanese language, both Vow's and Vow'z are pronounced 'bozu' -- the Japanese term for Buddhist priest. The names work both as a joke on Buddhist "vows" in English, and a Japanese pun.

Buddhist temples get most of their income from funerals, so many of them don’t make an effort to reach out to people—Yoshinobu Fujioka

Buddhist happy hour

Both bars have standard drink menus, but what attracts customers is the open conversational atmosphere in which discussions can range from personal problems to spiritual matters to global issues. At both bars the rough aroma of alcohol and tobacco is veiled by the calming smell of incense.

The priests established the bars out of a belief that mainstream Buddhism in Japan has grown out of touch with ordinary people.

"Buddhist temples get most of their income from funerals, so many of them don’t make an effort to reach out to people," says Fujioka. Now in his early 30s, Fujioka was a professional boxer for seven years before becoming a priest.

Genko holds his fellow brothers in alms in similarly low regard.

"I never liked organized religion, and I particularly didn’t like Buddhist priests," he says, explaining that he became a priest only after a succession of personal catastrophes that included losing his house and several friends in the 1995 Kobe earthquake and having both of his legs broken in a car accident. Buddhism rescued him, he says.

Despite the small size -- 15 people would fill either bar -- the priests hold organized gatherings where guests come to talk about Buddhism and its teachings. Otherwise, patrons can come in for drinks at any time and pick up a few moral instructives free of charge.

Visiting the Buddhists bars

Vow’z Arakicho: AG Building 2F, Arakicho 6, Shinjuku-ku, tel. 03 3353 1032, 7:30pm–late

Vow’s Nakano: Nakano 5-55-6, Nakano-ku, tel. 03 3385 5530, 7:30pm–4:30am