Ben Hills, Herald Correspondent

Osaka, Friday: It’s Thursday night, and Fumihiko Kiyoshi, a Buddhist priest, is slipping into his vestments for another evening’s devotions in downtown Osaka.

He will spend the next three or four hours propped against the bar in a dive in the raunchy entertainment district of Namba, knocking back bourbon and bringing enlightenment to lonely young women.

“Some of the older priests think it is irreverent for me to be seen in a bar in my robes, and they get angry,” says Mr Kiyoshi, “But that doesn’t worry me – they are rock-heads.”

In a religion that eschews the pleasures of the flesh, Mr Kiyoshi is one very unusual bozu, a Japanese Buddhist priest. Not for him ascetic meditation, the banging of gongs and a diet of bean curd. He eats meat, refuses to shave his head, enjoys his liquor – and takes the temple to the people, if the people won’t come to the temple.

And so far it seems to be working. In a country where congregations are falling away – 10 per cent of the country’s temples can’t even find a chief priest – Mr Kiyoshi’s unorthodox approach is winning followers.

Until six years ago, he was a hard-drinking salaryman in Tokyo selling Portland cement for one of Japan’s big trading companies. Then he fell in love.

His bride, Yumiko, was the daughter of the head priest of the Zuikoji Temple, a beautiful tiled pagoda in a wooded garden in the suburbs of Osaka which was established 450 years ago by the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism.

As in most Japanese Buddhist sects, high priest is a hereditary job. Yumiko’s father, who is now 77, had no son, so Mr Kiyoshi agreed to train for the priesthood and prepare to take over the job from his father-in-law.

“The first thing I discovered was that the temple has become irrelevant to the lives of most Japanese,” says Mr Kiyoshi. “In the old days, people used to often drop in to worship, but now it’s mainly ‘funeral Buddhism’ – they come only when there’s someone to be buried.”

A few years ago, to try to make his religion more accessible, he began holding monthly meetings at the temple for a few friends and neighbours. He began bringing out a bottle of sake, and a few more people started turning up.

Then, last year, one of the regulars, Manabu Yoshida, who runs a bar in the Namba district, made a suggestion: “Why not a Buddhist pub?” The priests of Zuikoji jumped at the idea.

The name was changed from the Four Roses to The Vows, a mandala was installed on the wall, and Mr Kiyoshi and a dozen other priests from the temple began attending, offering advice and fellowship to the clientele.

This Thursday night, word had got around and the bar was crowded. Not that it takes much to fill it – it has just seven stools around the counter in an area not much bigger than a telephone booth. Incense is smouldering in the corner and rock music playing on the sound system.

“We get all sorts,” says Mr Kiyoshi, polishing off his bourbon. “Lonely people, particularly women with problems – problems with relationships, careers not living up to family expectations …”

In next to no time he is chatting up Eriko Kojima and Akiko Morimoto, two unemployed women in their 20s, who have dropped in for a quiet drink.

“I think it’s a good idea (to have Buddhists drinking in the bar),” says Eriko. “It makes it comfortable – you are not going to be picked up.”

“It is true most Buddhists have five commandments – to not kill, lie, rob, drink or have sex,” says Mr Kiyoshi. “But the founder of our sect taught that it was impossible to seek nirvana when you deny basic human instincts … so I am happy to break the last two.”

And how does his wife feel about a priest going off to “work” in a bar with a glass in his hand, chatting up young women? “She understands,” he says. “I think.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 9 October 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 24
Word count: 792
Herald Correspondent
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: The path to enlightenment may pass through some unlikely places … Fumihiko Kiyoshi, a priest, offers spiritual guidance – and a drink – to two young women in Japan’s only Buddhist bar.