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Trailing David Bowie to the Planet’s Most Exclusive Garden

Four years ago, Kyoto was my destination with the mission to see the city through the perspective of David Bowie. Should have been simple, right? He resided there for a few weeks in 1979 in Togendo, a house and school devoted to educating traditional Japanese arts, came back on his honeymoon with model and philanthropist Iman in 1992, and even toyed with the thought of making Kyoto his permanent residence.

But even with all the acquaintances, inspirations, and experiences he gathered along the way, what I encountered was a city that, despite its conservative reputation, was in constant change. Nightclubs go under, restaurants shut down, and close friends pass away—all significant milestones that means any effort to replicate Bowie’s formative experiences would be a feeble imitation at best.

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

However, at times, you simply want to immerse yourself in your creative idol’s mind for an identical experience. That’s why, on a cinematically gray and drizzly morning, I am crouched behind a low table on the floor of the main hall of Kokedera (also known as Saihō-ji) temple, meticulously transcribing sutras. Despite boasting 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 objective is to explore the gardens—an inspiration for Heroes track “Moss Garden.” However, before we’re permitted to roam the beautiful grounds, visitors are requested to gain entry by taking part in the introspective tracing practice, which dates back to the Buddhism of centuries past.

After observing the prescribed moment of silence and taking five deep breaths, I delve into the task. The text we have been instructed to meditate on is the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyō, also known as the Life-Extending Ten-Line Kannon Sutra. Even though my Japanese language knowledge is restricted to convenience store interactions, I dutifully trace the figures with my temple-gifted calligraphy pen. Later I’ll discover that they are a call to mindful remembrance of the Buddha, karmic affinity, and eminence, ease, selfhood, and purity—attributes which, combined, constitute the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. I endeavor not to crumple my papers too severely as I accept a rubber band from the waiting monk and stow them in my bag.

It’s apparent why Bowie would be drawn to a temple that actually requires guests to actively participate in religious rituals rather than passively experiencing the spiritual highlight reel. The musician was keen on philosophy and had studied Mahayana Buddhism so intensely he briefly contemplated becoming ordained. (“I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” he told biographer George Tremlett.) His lifelong devotion is hard to evaluate—after all, the 2022 documentary Moonage Daydream contains the revealing quote, “I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday.” Nonetheless, while Bowie ultimately chose a more indulgent path, his curiosity persisted, even going as far as to request that his ashes be scattered in accordance with Buddhist rituals in Bali.

Having demonstrated our reverence for the temple and its traditions, we are permitted to explore the gardens, arguably Kokedera’s crowning glory. Visitors are asked to take the stroll at a contemplative pace. Whispering is encouraged to uphold the meditative atmosphere, which turns out to be a reasonable request. In 1977 the temple transitioned to a reservation-only system, where visitors must complete an online application two months to a day in advance of the intended visit and pay approximately 30 dollars upon entry. The booking oversight that got me turned away on my previous visit has turned out to be a stroke of luck. Not only are there fewer people present than tourist favorites like Kiyomizu temple and Fushimi Inari, we’ve put in the effort to be here—naturally, we’re going to abide by the rules.

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

Japanese gardens flourish with a sense of pruned, curated beauty, but while many lean towards minimalism, Kokedera takes that aesthetic to a more untamed place, almost as if the Arashiyama mountains, just beyond the temple gates, have been harnessed into something far more artistic than their natural expanse. The thirty-minute walk meanders through a grove and around Golden Pond, a body of water shaped like the Chinese character for heart, with three islands resting 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 incidental detail. As reported by historian François Berthier, in 1339, when the temple commissioned renowned Japanese gardener Musō Soseki to revive the garden design, initially the temple islands were covered in white sand. The eponymous vegetation crept in of its own accord in the late 1800s, due to landscaping budget restraints.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

As stated 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 exaggeration, 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 explosion 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 refrained–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 the second installment of the Berlin trilogy, a series of releases recorded a stone’s throw away from the wall. However, “Moss Garden” has its origins deeply rooted in Kyoto.

A photo of Kokedera Kyoto garden in Japan.

“David informed me about this place in Kyoto called The Moss Garden and then we just started to work,” Brian Eno told NME in 1977 regarding 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—undoubtedly 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.

Prior to 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 strolling around the Golden Pond, “Moss Garden,” is a sonic invitation to decelerate, meditate, and discover beauty in tranquility. It’s a sensation you can’t always carry with you—despite the delight 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 planning out where to get my next matcha fix. That abrupt return 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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