Monday, September 6, 2010

Japan's Monk Cafe

Koyasan, a sacred Buddhist site located over 400 kilometers from the capital, offers some solace, albeit temporary, to would-be Tokyoite pilgrims by opening the doors to “Koyasan Cafe” in the central business district of Marunouchi.

Buddhist monks attending the café won’t be offering the early morning liturgy practiced at Koyasan, a Unesco World Heritage site that dates back about 1,200 years on the densely forested mountain southwest of Tokyo. But the café which opened on the seventh floor of the Shin-Marunouchi Building near Tokyo station on Sept. 1, monks from Koyasan would give instruction in Buddhist teachings during seminars that proved popular with local office workers during last year’s version of the now-annual event.

The purpose of the café, which remains open until Sept. 12, is to promote travel to Koyasan. Last year’s edition, the third, drew about 3,500 visitors in just six days. And organizers — the event is led by the Kongobuji temple and the Nankai Electric Railway Co. that links Osaka to Koyasan — say it’s a particular hit with female office workers in their 30s or 40s stopping by after work, accounting for more than 80% of all visitors.

Koyasan Café-goers can try making a handwritten calligraphic copying of Buddhist sutras called “Shakyo” (free of charge with no need for reservation in advance). Also visitors can experience “Ajikan” meditation (similar to “zazen” practices), as well as attend seminars about Buddhist statues — reservations required, and already those seminars are fully booked. For the more casual visitor, typical Koyasan dishes are on offer, including versions of “Shojin Ryori” vegetarian cuisine.

It’s not just contemplative Japanese citizens who’re coming to appreciate the charms of Koyasan: While the overall number of tourists to Koyasan in the year 2009 grew 3.2% to 1.265 million, according to Wakayama Prefecture data, the number of overnight foreign guests among the total grew 7.8% to 38,108. Tourists from France accounted for about a third of the overseas visitors.