A live performance is held on May 22, 2018, in the main hall of Inryoji temple in Okayama. (Honomi Homma)

There's no shortage of live houses in Japan, but when it comes to finding the right vibes, many musicians yearn to perform in Buddhist temples.

Acoustically, the spacious wooden beam interiors offer a superior setting to the cellars and clubs that most musicians are used to.

Priests are getting in on the act, too, offering spiritual guidance during musical events, ever hopeful of attracting a new generation of worshipers.

It is not only Japanese musicians who crave to perform in such aesthetic surroundings. In 1994, Bob Dylan famously played against the majestic backdrop of Todaiji temple in Nara, Nara Prefecture.

And so it was that on the evening of May 22, 2018, music lovers streamed into the main hall of Inryoji, a Rinzai sect temple built three centuries ago in what is now a busy downtown area of Okayama’s Kita Ward. Thirty or so seats were occupied before the lights dimmed.

The audience was there to watch a performance by Hajime Sakita, 47, who produces ethereal sounds on a musical saw, accompanied by pianist Masaki Hayashi, 40.

When Sakita bent the blade, sounds similar to a bird chirping echoed through the venue. Hayashi played a gentle melody that enveloped the hall in a feeling of harmony.

Shinyu Shinohara, 53, the temple's 15th-generation chief priest, was at the back of the audience operating a sound console. He taught himself acoustics before opening the temple to musical performances and other events in 1999.

“Earthen walls are good at absorbing sounds,” Shinohara said. “Sounds echo because the timbers are dry.”

One musician raved about the temple's acoustics on grounds it was a finer venue than anything available before.

“Art is not absolutely necessary in our lives, but it can stimulate our thoughts,” Shinohara said. “I want the temple to be a venue that provides music that enriches and makes people want to visit.”

Hokeiji, a temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Akaiwa, also in Okayama Prefecture, has also offered itself as a setting for live music performances about three times a year since 2016.

The effort was initiated by Josei Sekito, 47, the second-generation chief priest, to provide a forum for local children to feel “real” music.

He came up with the idea because he had an acquaintance who is a musician. After the first live music event was held, the performer invited other musicians for another gig, which subsequently led to others.

“Both music and sutras can provide emotional support when you have an aching heart, and help a person find a middle ground when his or her feelings are wavering,” said Sekito, who finds a commonality between music and religion.

Explaining his decision to host live music events at the temple, he said, “I don’t see a problem in listening to music at temples, where you pray and worship.”

Komyoji, a Jodo Shinshu sect temple in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, has been holding live events, coupled with spiritual advice, at its main hall since 2003.

Musicians, both Japanese and from overseas, have performed there.

Some performers are eager to take the stage there again because they find the atmosphere so pleasing and intimate.

But an acquaintance of the priest who organizes music events at the temple said the acoustic qualities are largely due to the quality of the sound equipment.

“I think the ambience of the building and uniqueness of the place are what the musicians like so much,” the individual said. “Since temples are designed to be places where preaching can be easily heard, they are eminently suitable for listening to something else.”

Josenji, another Jodo Shinshu sect temple in a district dotted with many old temples in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, has held 60 or so live music events in the past five years, often featuring popular musicians, such as Japanese bands Hanaregumi and Bonobos. The 15th-generation chief priest, Shinsho Yukiyama, 45, is also a music lover who continues to play with friends from his school days.

“Wood absorbs sound, and the sounds spread throughout the space because the ceiling is so high,” Yukiyama said. “That’s why music resonates and you hear sounds three-dimensionally.”

Prior to the live proceedings, the priest spends five minutes talking to the musicians and audience about the temple's history and Buddhist teachings.

“People used to come to temples to listen to a priest preaching. Children used to play in the temple grounds, and the temples themselves served as a meeting place for young people,” Yukiyama said. “I want to restore that old way of life through music.”

Nationally renowned temples have also hosted live music events. But many of them are organized to dedicate works of music, and the main halls are used as musical venues.

Popular musicians Masashi Sada and Ayaka Hirahara have performed live at Todaiji. According to temple officials, concerts are held in the Great Buddha Hall and other locations a few times a year at most for memorial services and other purposes.

All-female idol group AKB48 gave a concert on a special stage set up in front of the grand hall of Yakushiji temple, also in Nara, in 2010.

“Our main purpose is to have music dedicated,” a temple official said.