TOKYO • The hum of conversation and the clinking of spoons and coffee cups fills the wood-panelled cafe in a fashionable Tokyo neighbourhood as more than a dozen customers sip drinks and nibble desserts.
At first glance, the cafe, which also serves alcohol, looks like any other - except for an altar next to the countertop bar with a Buddha statue set against a gold backdrop.
Its name, Tera Cafe, is a another hint: Tera is Japanese for temple.
The menu confirms this is something different. It lists classes for 1,500 yen (S$19) in weaving prayer beads, calligraphy with sutras, or lines of scripture, and consultations with a Buddhist priest.
Tera Cafe is part of a flourishing phenomenon in Japan where Buddhist monks are seeking to make inroads in the modern world as the public's connection with a 15-century-old tradition fades.
Famously areligious, many Japanese observe rituals from different traditions, perhaps going for a church wedding and worshipping at a Shinto shrine at the New Year.
Head priest Hirotake Asano at the Shingyoji temple near Tokyo, who opened Tera Cafe in 2013, said Buddhist priests had to venture into society to build links.
"Instead of lamenting that people no longer visit temples, I wanted to bring the temple to the people," said the priest, who owns four restaurants and a golf shop.
Many sects of Japanese Buddhism allow priests to drink alcohol, eat meat, and marry. Such acts are forbidden for monks in places like South-east Asia.
It's still a surprise for some in Japan. "Temples are kind of hard to enter," said Ms Aya Nishi, a 23- year-old customer at Tera Cafe.
"I have a dark image of them, like with funerals. But this cafe is well-lit and welcoming. I was also surprised that they even serve alcohol."