- What is VOWZ BAR?
- Funny names drinks and shojin-ryori
- The relationship between Buddhist monks and alcohol
What is VOWZ BAR?
When Mr. Shigenobu told me our next destination was VOWZ BAR, I got a little excited as I had always wanted to go there but never dared to. About two years ago, the place was a popular conversation topic among the Japanese. It was often covered by the local media and everybody wanted to have a drink in this peculiar place where Buddhist monks pour your drinks. Today, the number of foreign customers has also increased significantly – thanks to word of mouth and videos about the place you may have seen on your favorite social media sites.
The name of the place, VOWZ BAR, is a clever pun on ‘vow’ (Buddhist monks take the vow to follow more than 200 rules of conduct) and the Japanese word bouzu (坊主), one of the words used to designate Buddhist monks.
We pushed the door of the bar and were immediately welcomed by the smell of incense.
Even if the place has many points in common with a typical Western-style bar, like jazz music playing in the background, it is also decorated with a lot of traditional Japanese or Buddhist elements. The main one is a butsudan (a kind of Buddhist altar. You can find it in many Japanese homes because they are often used to pray for deceased family members). Other items include a mandala, Buddha statues, praying bells, etc.
But the Buddhist aspect of the bar is not limited to the décor. Every day at 21pm and 23pm is the ‘otsutome’ time, during which Mr.Fujioka, Buddhist priest and bar owner, sings a prayer and then does a short Dharma talk.
Mr. Shigenobu and I arrived shortly before the beginning of the first ‘otsutome’. We were given a copy of today’s prayer. Then the bar, which was full with customers, became silent as the bell rang and Mr.Fujioka began chanting.
Even with the katakana transcript on the prayer text, it was a little difficult for me to follow the high speed and peculiar rhythm of the chanting. While I was struggling, I realized I had been in a similar situation before- during the funerals I attended in Japan. Not a very pleasant memory, but this would come up in our talk with the priest later.
The Dharma talk also included some words and concepts I didn’t know, but I understood generally that Mr. Fujioka was talking about how Buddha used to adapt his teaching to the people he was addressing. The priest included a few anecdotes about his young daughter- yes, you read that well: in Japan, Buddhist priests are allowed to marry and have children. Apparently, some days someone is there to translate the Dharma talk in English, which certainly will make the experience more meaningful. For example, my friend Anthony had a slightly different experience. You can read about it here: Vowz Bar: Spirits for the Spirit
If you collect goshuin (sacred calligraphies), you can also get one just like in Buddhist temples! As I didn’t bring my goshuincho with me, the priest gave it to me on a separate paper. Mr. Fujioka’s strokes are beautiful, and the calligraphy comes with a pretty Buddha foot stamp.
For more information about these collectible calligraphies, check my friends Anthony’s article about goshuin here!
Funny names drinks and shojin-ryori
After this short spiritual introduction, Mr. Shigenobu and I had a look at the menu. I first enjoyed looking at the Japanese version of the menu, which is in the shape of a small Buddhist
prayer book. I was soon brought an English version of the menu, in a more usual booklet, but with the same nice drawings and accurate translations. The cocktail names were very funny and I hesitated a few minutes between ‘Nirvana in the Pure Land’ and ‘Never Ending Suffering in Hell’ but as I was more in an optimistic mood, I chose the Nirvana – a mix of the French blue liquor ‘HPNOTIQ’ and fruits juice. It was very pleasing to the eye and sweet – exactly how I like my cocktails. Mr. Shigenobu and I were not the only ones to be amused by the menu: the Japanese couple sitting on our right, who also seemed to be first-time visitors, were laughing a lot. The bar serves a lot of Japan-made western-style alcohol, like gin made in Kyoto or ‘Ryoma’ rum made in Shikoku.
The bar also serves a few shojin-ryori dishes. Shojin-ryori origins can be found during the 7th century. It is the food eaten by the ‘mountain monks’ and is completely vegan, as it is based on Buddha’s teaching of not making other living beings suffer. Even though I am a vegetarian, I had not tried shojin-ryori yet, so it was a good opportunity. I noticed there was natto (fermented soybeans) made in Daitoku-ji temple. I am one of these people who really like natto (don’t judge me) so I ordered it immediately.
Mr. Shigenobu warned me: ‘Be careful. This natto is not made the way you are used to. The taste is much stronger.’ It was true. First its aspect was very different: small, dry black beans. Where were all the sticky strings? I tasted one with a slice of cucumber as Mr. Shigenobu advised me. The taste truly was different from usual natto. It was very strong (not for the faint of heart) and it reminded me of something else- maybe some very strong cheese? It was surprising at first, but it went well with alcohol. Among the other items we ordered, I enjoyed the tofu because its taste was much more pronounced than the tofu you can usually buy in the supermarkets.
The bar also had a small dessert menu. I decided to try the lotus tea, which was very mild.
The relationship between Buddhist monks and alcohol
I personally don’t identify myself as a Buddhist, but I do have a great interest in this religion.
I used to practice meditation and traveling in Asia has led me to read books about Buddhism to have a better understanding of my surroundings.
However, I am more familiar with Theravada Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism that is mostly practiced by monks in Thailand or Sri Lanka. To sum it up very roughly, it is supposedly based only on the teachings of the Buddha, while Mahayana Buddhism, the one that can be found in Japan, has a lot of different faces and traditions, because it has adapted itself to the local cultures.
In the former, monks are supposed to observe strict rules, among which not receiving money, not trading goods and not drinking alcohol. I knew that Buddhist rules in Japan are very different: monks here can have a family and receive money for organizing funerals, for example.
Mr.Fujioka, who is only 40 years old, is the embodiment of peacefulness. He has been running the place for 18 years. I was eager to ask him about how he viewed the relationship between serving alcohol and his practice of Buddhism. I didn’t want to seem rude and I was waiting for the right timing… but Mr. Shigenobu frankly asked him first!
“Being a Buddhist monk and serving alcoholic drinks… is it… okay?” asked Mr. Shigenobu, half-jokingly. But I could feel he was as curious as I was.
We both were all ears when Mr. Fujioka answered with a peaceful smile:
“I wanted to spread Buddhism in a way closer to people. In Japan, for most people, Buddhism is often associated with death and the only times they can get to talk to monks is during the funerals. I wanted to show that Buddhism is also a religion of life! As I explained in my lecture earlier today, the Buddha himself adapted his way of teaching according to the people listening to him.”
I had to admit it made sense. Drinking in groups is such a big part of Japanese urban culture that this bar very well might be the easiest place for Japanese adults and Buddhist monks to meet.
Mr. Fujioka continued: “Also, I am a monk of the Jodo-Shinshu sect, and in its principles, drinking alcohol is actually seen as something positive. In Jodo-Shinshu, communication between beings is very important and we believe that drinking reasonable amounts of alcohol can help people to open their hearts.”
If you’re ready for an experience which is both spirituous and spiritual, what about paying these gentle monks a visit and open your heart too?
Check out a live stream video of after dinner drinks followed by sutra singing at Vowz bar:
For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website that includes the place information:
Please click here for another article on this place from the perspective of a Japanese person (written in Japanese):