With the arrival of the David Bowie Is exhibition in Tokyo, Chris Mitchell discovers David Bowie’s favorite places in Kyoto
When David Bowie passed away on January 10 2016, amongst the deluge of tributes were several well-written pieces about Bowie’s fascination with Japan. To celebrate the opening of the David Bowie Is exhibition in Tokyo on January 8 2017, (what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday), here’s a collection of the best stories and anecdotes about Bowie’s time in Kyoto.
Long before he ever visited the country, Japan had a hold on David Bowie’s imagination. The pre-famous Bowie had studied with mime artist Lindsay Kemp in the 1960s, whose style was heavily influenced by kabuki. Bowie in turn drew on Kemp’s teachings in the construction of his Ziggy Stardust persona. The iconic Ziggy lightning bolt across the face reflects the boldness of kabuki makeup, as did his appearance in the Life On Mars video.
Touring allowed Bowie to visit Japan frequently. Some of the iconic Ziggy Stardust costumes from the early 70s were designed by Kansai Yamamoto and, indeed, Bowie’s most famous alter ego is referenced in his own theme song as "some cat from Japan". You can see many of those stage costumes in the David Bowie Is exhibition. You can also read more about Yamamoto and the kabuki connection in this BBC article.
Kyoto was Bowie’s favorite city in Japan, to which he returned several times. As Scottish musician and fellow Japanophile Nick Currie, aka Momus, points out, he almost made Kyoto his home.
There is a well-known collection of black and white photos of Bowie in the late 70s wandering around Kyoto, taken by his trusted collaborator Masayoshi Sukita. (Sukita also shot the iconic "Heroes" album cover amongst many other Bowie images. His Speed of Life book recaps their 40 years of working together. See also this great overview of Sukita’s career). According to RocketNews24’s Meg Murphy, one of these photos was taken at a small food stall called Nodoya which still proudly displays the photo of Bowie making a purchase from the owner!
Saiho-ji “Kode-dera” Moss Temple image © Damien Douxchamps
The track Moss Garden on the "Heroes" album was inspired by Saiho-ji temple or Koke-dera, the moss temple. (See Chris O’Leary’s comprehensive rundown on the genesis of the track). There’s also another Kyoto temple that reportedly moved Bowie to tears in the rather bizarre context of filming an advert in December 1979. Many famous Western actors and musicians make lucrative adverts in Japan (a process immortalised by Sofia Coppola in Lost In Translation). Bowie had agreed to shoot an advert for Crystal Jun Rock shochu. The advert features a Bowie original composition, Crystal Japan, and was shot at Shoden-ji Temple, a relatively obscure Zen temple in northern Kyoto. In the advert itself, Bowie is surrounded by darkness and the Zen garden is visible for about 2 seconds at the most, with just the cones of sand denoting its presence viewed over Bowie’s shoulder.
The track Crystal Japan was originally intended for inclusion on the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) but never made the final cut, thus becoming a single originally only released in Japan. (The album opener, It’s No Game (No 1), features a strident spoken Japanese language vocal by Michi Hirota).
Inside Kyoto’s Chris Rowthorn recalled another booze-related Bowie anecdote in his essay for Deep Kyoto:Walks
"I wanted to see another side of the night – something that wasn’t a bad memory. So, I followed Kiyamachi south, back across Sanjo. I walked south until just before the former Rissei Elementary School, where I turned right down an alley. I walked down until I reached Tosa Inari Shrine, where I turned left into an even smaller alley. I was looking for a bar I used to go to called Zappa.
…Zappa was a funky little joint with a vaguely Indonesian theme that was run by a lovely Japanese lady named Hiroko. It was a good place to drink, but the main reason anyone went there is because they had heard that David Bowie once dropped in by surprise. I thought the whole story was bullshit until Hiroko pointed out a picture of Bowie chilling out against the wall, with a few Japanese on either side looking very pleasantly bemused. When you went to Zappa, you went with the expectation that Bowie might just drop by again. The patrons waited for Bowie to reappear like eager Hasidim waiting for Elijah at a particularly happening seder. With the sound of footsteps in the alley, heads would turn toward the door and you would feel the air tighten. Is it Bowie? Bowie-san ka naa? But it never was Bowie, just another random character, perhaps another gaijin who had come to join the Bowie vigil, or perhaps a young Japanese dude squiring his woman to a place where they could drink with scary creatures like gaijin."
Bowie was fascinated by art of all kinds, and Japanese art was no exception. Antique dealer Yasuyoshi Morimoto explains in an interview with Arts And Antiques magazine how he and his partner David Kidd helped Bowie explore Kyoto incognito after he became mega famous in the 1980s.
In the world of Asian art collecting, Kidd and Morimoto became the go-to experts for a range of inquisitive, discreet clients, like the rock star David Bowie. “We met Bowie through his Japanese makeup artist,” Morimoto recalls. “He liked to come to Japan to present concerts, and we became good friends with him and his wife, the fashion model Iman.” Photos in the collector’s home show Kidd, Morimoto, Bowie and his companions dining together in tatami-matted rooms. “We used to drive Bowie, disguised, around Kyoto — in the Cadillac,” Morimoto recalls with a chuckle.
Bowie and Iman spent their honeymoon at Tawaraya ryokan, the most exquisite traditional Japanese inn in the country. Iman recalled in a 2012 interview with FurtherMore "My honeymoon was my best vacation ever! We got married in Florence, Italy and then went to Bali for two and a half weeks, then to Kyoto, Japan for one week. Just a divinely sexy trip."
The David Bowie Is exhibition will open in Tokyo on January 8 and run to April 9 2017. It’s located at Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district.
You can buy tickets online at the official David Bowie Is Japanese site (English language).
See also the official press release on DavidBowie.com
If you’re planning to visit Tokyo to see the exhibition, see Inside Kyoto’s companion website TrulyTokyo.com for a comprehensive travel guide.
Thanks to Michael Lambe of Deep Kyoto for his help and suggestions for inclusions in this article.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, save a ton of money with a Japan Rail Pass – here's my explanation of why it's worth it
- A prepaid Icoca card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world