Following David Bowie to the World’s Most Exclusive Garden

Four years ago, I visited Kyoto with the goal of seeing the city through David Bowie’s eyes. Should have been easy, right? He lived there for a few weeks in 1979 in Togendo, a house and school dedicated to teaching traditional Japanese arts, returned on his honeymoon with model and philanthropist Iman in 1992, and even flirted with the idea of making Kyoto his permanent address.

But for all the friends, inspirations, and experiences he racked up along the way, what I discovered was a city that, despite its traditionalist reputation, was in constant flux. Nightclubs go bust, restaurants close, and close friends pass away—all important landmarks which means any attempt to recreate Bowie’s formative experiences would be a pale echo at best.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, indeed.

But sometimes, you just want to crawl inside your creative hero’s mind for a one-for-one experience. Which is why, on a cinematically gray and drizzly morning, I am hunched behind a low table on the floor of the main hall of Kokedera (also known as Saihō-ji) temple, carefully copying sutras. While the temple enjoys an impressive nearly 1,300 years of history, from its construction during the Nara period on one of the Prince of Japan’s former retreats, to its “modern” era that began in the 1300s with its revival, it’s safe to say not much has changed since the 1970s, putting Bowie and me on nearly equal footing.

I didn’t talk, but I did gasp. Frequently and emphatically.

The goal is to explore the gardens—an inspiration for Heroes track “Moss Garden.” But before we’re allowed to wander the gorgeous grounds, visitors are asked to gain access by participating in the introspective tracing practice, which dates back to the Buddhism of centuries past.

After taking the prescribed moment of silence and five deep breaths, I lean into the assignment. The text we have been asked to meditate on is the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyō, aka the Life-Extending Ten-Line Kannon Sutra. Although my knowledge of Japanese is limited to convenience store interactions, I diligently trace the figures with my temple-gifted calligraphy pen. Later I’ll learn that they’re a call to mindful remembrance of the Buddha, karmic affinity, and eminence, ease, selfhood, and purity—attributes which, combined, make up the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. I try not to crunch my papers too badly as I accept a rubber band from the waiting monk and place them in my bag.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

It’s easy to see why Bowie would be attracted to a temple that actually asks guests to actively participate in religious rites rather than passively experiencing the spiritual highlight reel. The musician was interested in philosophy and had studied Mahayana Buddhism so intently he briefly considered becoming ordained. (“I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” he told biographer George Tremlett.) It’s difficult to assess his life long-devotion—after all, the 2022 documentary Moonage Daydream contains the telling quote, “I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday.” However, while Bowie ultimately chose a more decadent path, his curiosity remained, even going so far as to request that his ashes be scattered in line with Buddhist rituals in Bali.

Having proven our respect for the temple and its traditions, we are allowed to explore the gardens, arguably Kokedera’s crown jewel. Guests are asked to take the walk at an introspective amble. Whispering is encouraged to maintain the meditative environment, which turns out not to be an unreasonable ask. In 1977 the temple moved to a reservation-only system, where visitors must fill out an electronic application two months to a day ahead of a proposed visit and pay roughly 30 dollars upon entry. The booking oversight that got me bounced on my previous visit has turned out to be a blessing. Not only are there fewer people present than tourist favorites like Kiyomizu temple and Fushimi Inari, we’ve done the work to be here—of course we’re going to follow the rules.

I didn’t talk, but I did gasp. Frequently and emphatically.

Japanese gardens thrive on a sense of manicured, curated beauty, but while many trend minimal, Kokedera takes that aesthetic to a wilder place, almost as if the Arashiyama mountains, just beyond the temple gates, have been tamed into something far more artful than their wild sprawl. The half-hour-long walk winds through a grove and around Golden Pond, a body of water shaped like the Chinese character for heart, with three islands sitting at its center: Asahi (朝日島), Yūhi (夕日島), and Kiri (霧島). Impressively the garden’s namesake feature, the thick, carpet-like layer of 120 different kinds of moss, was an accidental detail. As reported by historian François Berthier, in 1339, when the temple tapped famous Japanese gardener Musō Soseki to revive the garden design, initially the temple islands were covered in white sand. The namesake vegetation crept in on its own accord in the late 1800s, due to landscaping budget restraints.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

As promised on the temple website, “You can re-discover and return to your original self, reflect on the past and begin on a new path. Saihoji Temple is the garden of origins, and new journeys.” While that might seem like an overreach, there is something to be said for taking a meditative walk in a location so surreal it forces you to briefly question reality. Kokedera in the autumn is a visual riot of reds and greens, the kind of otherworldly sight that makes you question the scarcity of big-city daily beauty, why you must accept a life of rushing (capitalism probably), and if you should just give up and throw your phone into the pond. (It seemed impolite, so I didn’t–although the temptation was strong.)

As with most of Bowie’s time in Kyoto, there are more vibes than facts surrounding his visit to Kokedera. Although it’s clear that, like me, he was touched by his visit to the temple. Heroes was Bowie’s 12th studio album, and second installment of the Berlin trilogy, a clutch of releases recorded a stone’s throw away from the wall. However, “Moss Garden” has its roots firmly in Kyoto.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

“David told me about this place in Kyoto called The Moss Garden and then we just started to work,” Brian Eno told NME in 1977 about the nonchalant recording session behind the ambient track. “There was this very sloppy sort of technique—I was just playing around with this chord-sequence on the Yamaha synthesizer and I said, ‘Give us a shout when you think it’s long enough’, you know, and sort of carried on. And then David looked at the clock and said ‘Yeah, that’ll probably do’, and we stopped.”

The album is a series of larger-than-life, often improvised abrasive rock songs—no doubt inspired by the haunting specter of East Berlin. However, “Moss Garden” shifts the mood considerably. Across the five-minute piece, the mood of the temple is thematically recreated, with Bowie playing the koto, a six-foot-long, 13-string traditional Japanese instrument that mimics the sound of distant thunder, wind, water and bird call.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

Before visiting Kokedera, I had listened to the slow-moving track with one finger on the skip button. It’s glacially paced—even in comparison to the following track, a moody tribute to Berlin neighborhood Neukölln—and without the pop hooks that defined his Ziggy era (a personal favorite), I’ve never given it much consideration.

But after my morning at the temple, I gave the track another spin. Like shuffling around the Golden Pond, “Moss Garden,” is an sonic invitation to slow down, reflect, and find beauty in stillness. It’s a feeling you can’t always take with you–despite the joy stirred by my walk in Kokedera, by the time I took the train back into the Kyoto city center I was already answering emails and plotting out where to get my next matcha fix. That dramatic shift back to reality made Bowie’s musical reminder all the more poignant. No matter the era, we all need to slow down, reflect, and remember that even when everything changes, some beauty remains unchanged.

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