Have you ever wondered what it would be like to throw back a cold beer as you sit before chanting monks? Last night, I got a taste at the Bōzu Bar 坊主バー, or literally “Monk’s Bar.”
As friends and I stepped into the small, but intimate space of the second-floor establishment, we were immediately welcomed by a lively table of patrons, accompanied by the owner – a jolly, heavy-set monk wearing dark shades. On the walls hung mandalas, an altar and tatamis sat in one corner, and two monks poured drinks behind the bar.
These monks, known as ikemen bōzu (literally, “the good-looking monks”), draw in a fare share of single ladies who line the bar on any given night. Ikemen bōzu, including our bartender, have even appeared as guests on TV shows to respond to questions in the audience, including of course, details related to their bachelor lives.
At ten o’clock, right on the hour, the owner stood and announced he would answer any question – Buddhist or otherwise – from his patrons. A woman immediately sparked up, “Why do companies go bankrupt?” (Her husband’s business had apparently gone out of business a few years back. He had since found employment.) Amidst the heckles of his drunken audience, the monk hurled a few one-liners and then went into his response.
Then, a few minutes into it, he and the bartenders abruptly began chanting (something from the Pure Land scriptures, as we later found out). After finishing, he returned to the topic, eventually coming around to the Buddhist notion of impermanence (mujō 無常).
These so-called monks’ bars seem to be a small, but rising, trend in recent years. A number of them can be found in at least Tokyo and Kyoto, and perhaps elsewhere. While some pious voices might regard this phenomenon as ill-fitting or even profane, it may be more appropriate to consider it in Japanese terms. Unlike the dichotomies of recreation and ritual, or sacred and profane, that shape Judeo-Christian cultures, those lines are typically blurred here.
As such, there’s less of a perception that a bar owned by an older cleric and staffed by handsome, bar-tending monks poses any threat to religious practice.
With that said, consider listening to the harmonious chants of Buddhist monks next time you’re swilling back a frothy brew. You might catch a glimpse of enlightenment. Then again, it might just be buzz kicking in.