I VISITED JAPAN LAST SUNDAY, through the eyes of Dean Riddle. A garden designer based in upstate New York, Dean spoke at Madoo Conservancy here in Sagaponack about his trip last fall to Kyoto (that’s Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, top and below) and Tokyo.
Though the highly controlled and obsessively manicured Japanese gardens, some centuries old, couldn’t be more different from Dean’s own exuberant, ever-changing gardens here in the Northeast, they share the same essential purpose: to showcase the beauty of nature. Dean mentioned tearing up more than once at gardens as uplifting as a symphony or great work of art.
Beyond the pristine plantings, Dean showed pictures of the stone block paths he loves for their “homemade feeling” and dry gardens of stone — the most famous being the Zen rock garden of Ryoan-ji, below, with rocks still in place where they were positioned 500 years ago. Considered by some the greatest masterpiece of Japanese culture, there are 15 stones at Ryoan-ji, though you can never see more than 14 from any vantage point.
As Dean presented his photos, carefully shot to avoid crowds of people, he pointed out elements of traditional Japanese garden design, like the use of borrowed scenery to make designed gardens “look like they melt into the mountainside,” and the extensive use of moss — almost exclusively at the otherworldly Siaho-ji, below, where 150 species of lovingly groomed, emerald-green moss long ago took over two acres.
At the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, a fallen cherry tree, instead of being chopped up and hauled away, was protected with mounded soil, surrounded by a small fence, and allowed to remain, where it put out new branches from the fallen trunk, and is revered.
“Everything is so highly aestheticized,” Dean says. “Sometimes I feel I was born in the wrong country.”