I would go so far as to say that the common stereotype for a bartender doesn’t look at all like a disciple of Buddha, but if one were to venture into a bar called Vow’s in Nakano (中野区), this innocent assumption is easily challenged.
Nakano is one of the 23 special wards in the greater Tokyo area, known for its multiculturalism, community spirit and memorable eccentricities. One of the many dive bars in this small municipality is operated by Shaku Genko, a Buddhist monk. The concept is perhaps a little blasphemous as Buddhist asceticism doesn’t really allow any room for drinking, let alone the type of drinking that goes on at a bar. But, as Genko himself will probably tell you, what he is doing is completely in line with his spiritual beliefs, especially since he is a follower of the popular Jōdo Shinshū (浄土真宗) school of Buddhism.
The vision behind Vow’s Bar, and its sister bar Vow’z (also operated by a Buddhist monk of a similar profile), is the creation of an open space for people to speak about their problems (spiritual or not) and find some sort of closure or peace, particularly if they cannot find it at temples. And if alcohol happens to be the magical elixir that catalyzes conversation, so be it. So, the small establishment that fits just over ten people is an unorthodox, albeit strangely effective, sanctuary for those weary people in need of a drink and a few sensible words of advice from the Buddha-Dharma.
I know if I ever tire of the numerous Buddhist temples in Japan, I can look for better one-on-one spiritual service at these Buddhist bars!