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Monks venture into bars, and rap

Meet "Mr. Happiness," and other monks trying to bring a little more music, and a lot more life, to Japanese religion.

Across town, fellow evangelical Buddhist monk Kansho Tagai, also known as Mr. Happiness, might nod to that and add one word: happy.

The 49-year-old monk writes a blog, runs a dial-a-monk help line, a Buddhist radio program a la Billy Graham, and — most recently — has set Buddhist sutras to rap music and performed — backed by young and hip professional musicians — in his 420-year-old Tokyo temple.

“At first many monks criticized me, playing this sort of music in the main hall of this historic temple,” said the affable Tagai, whose personal taste in music leans more towards mellow Carly Simon and Pat Metheny tunes. “But Buddhism has a long tradition of incorporating music in its ceremonies. In the old days, the famous Shiten Nouji Temple in Osaka held ceremonies with traditional Japanese music. That was 2,000 years ago. All I am doing is updating the music.”

Watching Tagai in his brown and tan robes rapping, surrounded by Buddha statues and other religious accoutrements in his temple’s main hall, it is clear he’s not going to take the Billboard charts by storm. Kanye West can rest easy.

Still, his performances seem to be having the desired effect — lending Buddhism a hip luster and a bit of publicity. Membership in his temple has increased from 200 to 300 families.

“Many ordinary people come here for the first time for one of the concerts and then later come for a day-long Buddhist retreat and then learn more about the religion,” Tagai said.

Other Tokyo-area monks from the Shingon sect of Buddhism have taken up surprising second jobs for the same cause. They have opened a chain of bars, called Vows, where the monks behind the bar offer not only stiff cocktails, but also advice on spiritual matters. The bars, which have a confessional air to them — they're cozy, quiet, and decorated to evoke a sense of otherworldly peace — feature occasional guest lectures. But don’t expect anything resembling a Sunday morning sermon here. This month, one of the bars hosted a discussion with a former Yakuza member (Japanese mafia) turned monk about his spiritual awakening.

Monks at Tokyo’s Komyoji Temple, meanwhile, have set up cafe tables in their compound.

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Hongwanji Temple hosted a fashion show which featured monks and nuns strutting the catwalk in hip clothes. The temple has also installed an organ to attract more weddings.

The challenge of retaining and expanding the flock of the faithful is not foreign to U.S. religious leaders either, and has in recent years prompted an Orthodox rabbi to host a TV talk show and a Baltimore Catholic priest to host cooking shows.

So why not a rapping or cocktail-shaking monk?

“In the modern world,"  Natori said, “we need to deliver. If people won’t come to my temple because it still feels like a foreign place, I must take Buddhism to the people. I am a delivery man.”

Eiko Aoyagi and Yukiko Abe contributed to this story.

For more GlobalPost Dispatches on Japan:

The buzz in Japan

Japan's manga man

Japan's sumo scandals