David Bowie was fascinated by Japan. But he loved Kyoto, to the point where he considered making it his permanent home. Although, as he explained in a radio interview with Andy Peebles in 1980, there was something holding him back.
“I’m not quite sure where to go next,” he said. “The East beckons me—Japan—but I’m a bit worried that I’ll get too Zen there and my writing will dry up.”
Sharing an idealized view of the city, I understand his mindset. But by the time I’ve made my third pass through Furukawa shotengai, I’m not so much zen as confused, as are the local shop owners watching me pace. The shopping arcade, built in 1963 but boasting a tradition that dates back to the Edo period (1603–1868), is full of food vendors and restaurants, much like its tourist-filled counterpart Nishiki Market. But instead of looking for a snack or souvenir like a sane tourist, I’m on the hunt for a vegetable stand called Nodoya that Bowie stopped at nearly fifty years ago.
After several attempts and multiple visits, I finally give up. Thanks to several Google-translated conversations, and help from the owner of nearby El Puente Coffee Laboratory, who agreed that Bowie “was pretty cool,” I finally learn that the stand, which up until recently proudly displayed a black-and-white photo of the musician making his purchase, was in fact closed for good, as indicated by several locals crossing their arms in dramatic crosses across their body. We know Bowie’s exact order (yawata-maki, or vegetables simmered in sweet soy sauce, then wrapped and grilled in thin slices of beef) but the visceral thrill of buying the same lunch at the same shop no longer exists. I snap a photo of empty, lantern-festooned walkway, and attempt to feel thankful that this mission has taken me to a part of the city I’ve never fully explored.
Even four years after Bowie’s passing at the age of 69, it’s still tempting to find new entry points into the iconic artist’s life story, which is exactly what I’m hoping to accomplish by traipsing through parts of my favorite city in hopes of finding tiny, Bowie-approved landmarks. Kyoto is an extremely comfortable place to visit. Walking along the broad boulevards near the Kamo River, or hiking through the surrounding mountain range, there’s physical space that’s unavailable in Osaka or Tokyo, the other two points in Japan’s golden-triangle of tourism. But I seem intent on using only a small corner of it. Why not break out of the routine acquired through my regular visits, and try to see the city in a different light?
However, because they are not marked up in a commercial capacity, like say, a “Beatles in Hamburg” tour, playing connect the dots to create the picture of Bowie’s Kyoto requires some detective work. This is unfortunately even more true after the passing of his friends and city guides David Kidd and Yasuyoshi Morimoto. Yet, stories of their exploits still sound enticing.
“We met Bowie through his Japanese makeup artist,” Morimoto told Arts and Antiques magazine in 2015. “He liked to come to Japan to present concerts, and we became good friends with him and his wife, the fashion model Iman … We used to drive Bowie, disguised, around Kyoto—in the Cadillac.”
Although the majority of his visits to Kyoto were for pleasure, rather than work, Bowie’s admiration of the city was a prime feature in many of his collaborations. Designer Kansai Yamamoto created costumes for both The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane, transforming his 1972 tour into a celebration of kabuki in space. It was an idea extrapolated directly from Kyoto’s Gion District, which is populated by Geiko (“person of the arts”).
Walking through the neighborhood’s narrow streets in search of similar inspiration can be hit-or-miss. During daylight hours, it’s a sea of closed restaurants, save for the neon-colored cocktail slinging Planet Hollywood. Taking an Instagram here would be a disappointing exercise in photographing non-descript wood buildings, although I do spot a geisha painted onto one of the city’s omnipresent vending machines. But that changes around dusk when the red lanterns are lit, and the iconic entertainers, dragged into pop culture through Memoirs of a Geisha (denounced as inaccurate), and tourists turned paparazzi (denounced as straight-up rude), emerge to lead clients to private clubs. Watching the women working in striking white makeup, it’s easy to see the connection between their artistry and Bowie’s trussed-up, new wave alter-egos Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane.
While the Geiko fed Bowie’s desire to become something greater than himself, the area surrounding Gion across downtown Kyoto helped establish his humanity. As photographer Masayoshi Sukita told me via email, Bowie “wasn't interested in touristic places, but places [where] ordinary people live.” Thanks to his collaborations with Sukita (who also snapped the image of his 1977 album Heroes), we have glamorous images of him appreciating those banal slices of daily life, fighting with an umbrella, lighting a cigarette in a tea house, and—most notably—casually taking one of the subways.
The Hankyu Kyoto Line, where he was photographed, still runs with startling regularity between Kawaramachi Station in Kyoto and Umeda Station in neighboring Osaka. Even now, it is outfitted with similar same low-hanging hand loops. While seemingly non-descript, the appeal to the near-silent cars is evident. Although Bowie may have physically stood out on public transit, no one seemed to care, a privilege he rarely enjoyed as his popularity grew.
“He wasn't very famous at the time [we were] in Kyoto,” Sukita recalls. “Only a few students noticed, but there were no messes. I think he enjoyed the situations.”
Even though transit across Kyoto is smooth enough to stand without holding on, I sit to enjoy the same immaculately clean green seats and yellow walls captured in Sukita’s images. No one talks to me either.
But the most satisfying stops on a David Bowie-inspired tour of the city benefit from Japan’s enduring sense of traditionalism, something that Sukita confirms was a major draw for the musician. Visitors from around the world come for the sense of history, preserved in temples like Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. Bowie was one of those seekers, delving so far into the subject that he did some training to become a Buddhist monk. Because of that interest, when he first saw Shoden-ji Temple in 1979, he reportedly burst into tears. It was an emotional connection that led him to mix spirituality with commerce when he filmed the surreal commercial for Takara Sake on the site in 1980. (“No one has ever asked me to do it before,” he said in an interview during the time. “And the money is a very useful thing.”)
Located two buses north of the city center in the Kita-ku ward, reaching the azalea bush-lined driveway of the Zen Buddhist temple requires a stroll through a feline-patrolled residential area, and a hike up a hill covered in a dense bamboo forest, empty, unlike the more tourist-infested growth at Arashiyama. This trek alone keeps most Instagram-hunters away, its non-touristic status evident by an unpainted timber torii gate at the entrance, and general unpolished, homely feeling. I pay the 400-yen entry fee, slip off my shoes, and sit quietly, staring out at the immaculately raked garden alongside several people clearly more interested in using the temple for its intended purposes. While it’s subjective what enlightenment is supposed to feel like, even the roof, which supposedly contains bloodstained floorboards from the dismantled Fushimi Castle, only adds to the building’s peaceful atmosphere. I can’t tell if it's the Japanese aesthetic at work, or if I’m just thankful not to be among the horde of tourists climbing through the endless orange gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, but I do feel calm. Omamori, wooden temple charms, featuring a gesture drawing of a cat, are available at the entrance for 1000 yen. I offer the monk my money and a deep bow, hoping to hide the fact I’m buying the charm strictly for the Ziggy Stardust reference.
Getting into Saiho-ji Temple, the second of Bowie’s inspiring temples, proves to be another long haul. The Zen Buddhist temple, also called “Kokedera” (Moss Temple) is located in the Nishikyō Ward, just out of reach of less ambitious visitors. It’s also a stretch for the less organized. To prevent it from becoming overrun, in 1977 the UNESCO World Heritage site began requiring would-be visitors to register three months ahead via postcard.
The Heroes album track, “Moss Garden,” was inspired by its immaculately manicured gardens, is walled off to all but the truly devoted. However, the area around the temple, deep into Arashiyama mountains, remains the opposite of traditional Japanese gardening, the thick beds of moss giving way to tangled, Goblin King-evoking vegetation, trees torn up by the typhoon that hit 48 hours before our visit, and a creek where a group of splashing kids ask us to take their photos. It’s not the Brian Eno-assisted tranquillity of “Moss Garden,” but it is peaceful. That is until I scream at the sight of a crudely constructed scarecrow, because I am an anxiety-prone human and not a zen-seeking rock star.
It would be a mistake to paint Kyoto as a city exclusively comprised of temples, even though there’s more than 1,600 of them. It’s still a modern city, its Family Mart convenience stores and Starbucks more prominent than places of worship. You will see women dressed in traditional kimonos with elaborate obi sashes, but you’re never far away from a Uniqlo. It’s a stop on the Shinkansen, which, when it opened in October 1964 set the standard for high-speed travel, though one of their oldest tea companies has a stand in the train station.
This ever-shifting combination of modernity and tradition makes locations that have endured simply by soldiering on even more impressive. Bowie’s reported favorite udon house, Misoka-an Kawamichiya, located in downtown Kyoto, is 310 years old—making it 67 years older than the United States. Their booths are small, with floor sitting areas that require both the removal of shoes and a cross-legged sitting position. At 5’10,” Bowie probably pulled off the pose fairly well. The Yamakake, homemade buckwheat soba and with grated yam and a quail egg, is delicious, and given at this point I’ve logged over 20 miles of walking, quickly eaten.
The restaurant is just down the street from Tawaraya Ryokan, where Bowie and Iman stayed during their 1992 honeymoon. Now 300 years old and in its 12th generation of family ownership, the traditional Japanese hotel was once called one the eight most exclusive hotels in the world by Forbes magazine and if the reports are to be believed, not much has changed since that 1974 declaration.
The establishment bridges the gap between old and new Kyoto. Its eighteen rooms feature private garden views, and large, Japanese-style wooden baths. In accordance with traditional Japanese inns guests are well taken care of, with a server that delivers in-room meals, draws baths of naturally heated spring water, and lays out a lavish bed roll each night. They also advertise internet, and in-room refrigerators. I say advertise, because despite the jaw dropping rate of $600-$800 dollars per person which, in a moment of delirium I briefly considered, there was no available rooms.
Instead of staying the night as planned, I stop by for a look, only to discover after slipping off my shoes at the entrance, that most ryokans don’t have a lobby as everything is done in the privacy of a guest’s room. And, good news for any would-be celebrity visitors, the woman behind the desk was also clearly more interested in the privacy of those staying there—past and present—than expounding on what Bowie and Iman may or may not have experienced.
“We have many guests who stay here,” the concierge said cryptically, when I bring up the topic, effectively shutting down my request. Instead, she hands me an embossed pamphlet, which ironically does name drop a few of their A-list patrons. (Shout out to Barbra Streisand, Dustin Hoffman, and Nicholas Cage for their good taste.) With that, she gently guides me back toward my shoes and the door. As my photographer and I walk down the street, I periodically turn to look back to find the woman joined by another hotel worker, vigorously bowing.
Moral of the story: if you’re going to get bounced, do it in Japan.
I walk back to my much cheaper, non-rock star approved hotel. It’s a fantastic piece of foolishness to believe you can dip into the same city someone experienced over 40 years ago. But if there’s one constant to his life and career, it was a sense of comfort in the mist of change, a message he managed to hold on to even while writing his own farewell album. My version of Kyoto, from the monkeys of Iwatayama, to the budding sakura blossoms, to the feeling of matcha ice cream melting all over my hands in the midday sun, will never fully echo Bowie’s—even when I’m attempting to manufacture an experience that follows in his footsteps. But something tells me he would have appreciated it all the same.