Mixing alcohol with religion isn’t a new idea – in fact, I tried wine for the first time when I made my First Communion in second grade. Though not totally related, I recently read about a bar in Tokyo operated by Buddhist monks that offers unique cocktails and medicinal concoctions.
Vowz Bar has been running for 17 years in the city’s Yotsuya neighborhood, complete with a staff of practicing Buddhists. Munchies reports that while everyone is welcome, this bar is more of a local spot than a tourist destination. That doesn’t stop curious visitors though – a review on Trip Advisor praises this “amazing find,” detailing how the music is periodically turned off, people stop eating and drinking and “the monk assumes his position in front of a tiny shrine and begins to chant.”
“These days, young people don’t go to temples anymore. We wanted to spread the teachings of Buddhism to the people, so we started this business,” says Yoshinobu Fujioka, one of the bar’s employees, a member of the ōdo Shinshū sect and lead vocalist in a rock band.
“We want people to remember that Buddhism isn’t just for funerals. It tells us how to live easier and how to live properly.”
Drinking alcohol is actually not supported by Buddhism, a religion that warns against intoxicants. But the 10 monks who work at Vowz Bar are more liberal. With cocktails named “Never-Ending Suffering in Hell” and “Nirvana in the Pure Land” and medicinal drinks infused with turtles and snakes, these monks don’t see a problem with small, occasional indulgences.
While the idea of a Buddhism-centric bar run by monks seems completely foreign to me, most of the literature I consulted in my research suggests otherwise. Locals feel that Vowz fits in perfectly with the Japanese bar scene, and the monks say that tending bar re-connects them with their roots.
“In the old days, temples were the center of community life, head monk Gugan Taguchi told NPR in 2011. “But then the temples grew powerful. Monks started getting rich, running funerals. They started to feel superior to their followers. That’s not what the job is about.”
So what is it all about, and how does their religious message tie into all this? For young people, social places like bars are the very center of their community. Additionally, the ideals of Buddhism aren’t forced upon you when you enter Vowz – rather, people are able to ask the monks about anything, whether it’s romantic advice or a specific spiritual question.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood, make sure you get there early – NPR reports that by 7:30, the bar stools and tables in this tiny, second-floor spot are nearly filled up.