Café Unites Monks With Urban Seekers

One of Japan’s oldest, most prestigious Buddhist sects has set up shop — literally — at a café in downtown Tokyo, offering a taste of tradition to the city’s dwellers.

The Koyasan Café — named after the mountain in Wakayama prefecture near Osaka where the Shingon Buddhist sect is based– opened Friday, Aug. 30 for a 10-day stint, on the seventh floor of the posh Shin-Marunouchi Building in front of Tokyo Station.

This is the café’s eighth summer in Tokyo, co-sponsored by Nankai Electric Railway in western Japan. While the cafe’s is in town, visitors can eat dishes created by chefs according to Buddhist vegetarian rules, drink tea, listen to chanting, talk with the monks and practice shakyo—copying Buddhist scripts by hand.

In past years, “we have had many visitors — mainly ladies in their 20s and 30s,” said Kunihiko Yabu, a monk and the public-relations director of Koyasan. Hironobu Watanabe, business planning director of Nankai’s Tokyo branch, said the cafe has attracted between 7,000 and 8,000 people during each of the past two summers.

Some Japan-watchers attribute the popularity of Buddhism — particularly with young women — to the recent trendiness of traditional, Japanese culture.

Mr. Yabu said he doesn’t care why the women come to the café — what’s important is that they’re getting exposure to Buddhism. “Buddhism is generally associated (in Japan) with funerals and memorial services,” he said. “But its teachings are actually for the living, not for the dead. It’s about how we live our lives fully. We’d be happy if this café works as an entrance.”

“There are many people who seek peace and serenity out of their busy city lives,” added Nankai’s Mr. Watanabe. “We want to reach a wider population here.”

Even as some urbanites are yearning for a taste of Buddhist culture, many of Japan’s monks are reaching out the other way as well.

More and more Buddhist monks have opened cafés and bars in recent years, as they search for venues to interact with potential practitioners, according to Hideo Usui, a Tokyo-based business and financial consultant for religious organizations. “It’s been a quiet trend in the past 10 to 15 years,” said Mr. Usui.

Among the drivers of that trend are the peculiarities of modern Buddhism in Japan, said Mr. Usui. The stewardship of many temples in Japan — particularly smaller ones — is hereditary, passed down in families through the generations, rather than left to devotees. Many of those temples have historically supported themselves with money followers pay for funeral services and maintaining family graves — a pattern bolstered during the early 17th century, when the feudal government obliged all Japanese to belong to a Buddhist temple in order to block the spread of Christianity, and temples took on duties like registering births and deaths.

Now, roughly 90% of funerals in Japan are thought to be performed in the Buddhist tradition, said Mr. Usui. Yet that practice is widely seen as a matter of custom rather than religion, he said: Many of the same people these days prefer Christian-style wedding ceremonies.

What’s more, financial support for temples is withering as well. After World War II, when the public started rethinking many traditions, some people stopped paying offerings to monks, while many others cut the amount, said Mr. Usui.

All that has left many temples with a dwindling and weakly committed base of followers — and set the monks looking for new ways to connect with practitioners.

“Nowadays, few people regularly come to temples,” said Mr. Usui. “Monks are looking for their raison d’etre. For visitors, it’s much easier to talk to monks at a café than at the temples where their family graves are.”