Interview with Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medalist Kazuyuki Ishihara

Japanese landscape artist Kazuyuki Ishihara recently won the Best Artisan Garden award and a Gold Medal at “the biggest flower show in the world” – the Chelsea Flower Show. We had an opportunity to interview him in front of his creation, which was a source of great interest among the many visitors present.


Congratulations on winning the “Best Artisan Garden” category. Can you tell us your thoughts on your garden this year?

I wanted to re-create “Satoyama” in this garden. “Satoyama” means “mountain in the countryside” in Japanese, and I wanted to include exactly such an aesthetic vision, which finds expression in all areas of rural Japan and has a special place in the hearts of all Japanese. I visited the Tohoku region in preparation for this creation. I have called the garden “Satoyama Life – Motohara 3-chome 309-banchi”, which is the district where I was born in my hometown in Nagasaki prefecture.

It took me more than ten days to make the garden itself, but it took much longer to choose proper plants. Although I brought some agricultural tools and other items from Japan, including a well that was 100 to 200 years old, I tried to find the necessary plants in Europe.

Kazuyuki Ishihara infront of his garden

I spent more than one month going all over the UK in search of suitable plants and trees for this garden, but in the end I had to use moss from Norway and a maple tree from Italy. I moulded the moss into little balls and put ten thousand of them in the garden. (See the attached photo.) As for the maple tree, I had to bear in mind that, although the leaves would be a beautiful red in April, they would have dried out by the time of the show.

What made you go into gardening?

I was running a chain of flower-shops, but the business was not going well. I had an opportunity to make a garden, which attracted a lot of praise. Things developed from there. I’ve never studied English gardens, but I have some experience of the Ikenobo school of Kado (Japanese flower arrangement). Exposure to this approach gave me the idea of “thinning out” in gardens. For example, I planted just two irises in my Chelsea garden to give it a dash of colour.

You have been participating in the Chelsea Flower Show since 2004 and have won many awards, including gold medals. Nonetheless, have you ever felt frustrated by the judges’ apparent inability to grasp what you were trying to achieve through your creations?

It has been difficult to make them understand what moss means to us. I would say Japan has a culture of “humidity” and moss is very common there. Between May and August in particular, it is very hot and humid in Japan, and it is important to find a way to make the most of such conditions. That is when the presence of moss in the garden comes into its own. In contrast, the air in the UK is drier and moss doesn’t grow here, so it is hard to convince the judges that moss is a normal element of a garden. However, eight years after my first appearance at Chelsea, I believe I have persuaded them, and that I have created the perfect example of how a garden can accommodate the presence of moss!

We have heard that former Yokozuna Sumo wrestler Aasashoryu was your pupil. Is this true?

Yes, it is! He came to my office just before he retired. He wanted to create a forest in Mongolia, so I gave him some tips on handling moss. I hope to see his project become a reality.

Many visitors are rushing to see your “Satoyama Life”. How is it being received by British people?

People have told me that my garden seems neither completely Japanese nor Western, but is something fairies might emerge from! Nonetheless, on 22 May Her Majesty The Queen took the time to look at it. British people understand some of the basic concepts related to Japanese gardens such as Bonsai and Sekitei (stone gardens), but that is not enough to win one a gold medal. The underlying concept is critically important. In my garden I have paid attention to every detail. For example, I have made it slightly smaller in scale than the one it was modelled on and have removed some of the maple leaves so that you can the wooden shed through the tree.

Ishihara Kazuyuki Design Laboratory

"Satoyama Life - Motohara 3-chome 309-banchi"

So far you have contributed to Japan-UK friendship through gardening. What is your goal from now on?

This is the seventh time for me to participate in this show. I have just won the Best Artisan Garden award, but I don’t feel that I have mastered this approach. On the contrary, I consider this to be just the start. However, winning awards is important in the sense that it attracts attention. I hope the number of gardeners will increase in my country, motivated by my award, as gardening was an important occupation in the Edo and Meiji eras. Continuity is also a crucial factor in participating in flower shows. Participating once or twice doesn’t put one in the position of regular contenders. I wish to become a pioneer of gardening in Japan, just like Hideo Nomo from my home town, Nagasaki, did in baseball. (Nomo is considered to be the first Japanese to have become a successful player in Major League Baseball.)

To make this garden, I invited “challenge staff” from all over Japan. There were 220 applicants from the whole country from Hokkaido to Okinawa, from whom I chose 25. I have also been thinking of arranging qualification for the Chelsea Flower Show among contenders in Japan through a “Chelsea Challenge Cup”. My dream is to participate in flower shows all over the world, and for my fellow Japanese gardeners likewise to be active on the international scene.

I also hope the world will pay more attention to Japanese gardens as a result of my award, and that through this means the notion “Made in Japan” will resonate anew around the world. Furthermore, I hope more gardeners and tourists will visit Japan to see our country’s beautiful scenery. A “Gardening World Cup” has been held in Nagasaki since two years ago, and there have been some participants from Europe. I am glad to see such an example of “reverse imports”.

What advice would you give to people in Britain who wish to incorporate some of your ideas in their own gardens?

First, you have to look at plants carefully. There is always a “good side” for each plant. In most cases, they look their best when viewed while they are facing the sun. Next, you have to create space between plants. This is a specifically Japanese aesthetic. Even if you have only a few plants, if there is appropriate pace between them the garden looks spacious.

Finally, what message do you have for our readers?

Next year will be the one-hundredth year of the Chelsea Flower Show. I have been asked to take part, and I definitely will. I will be delighted if your readers (including those from Japan) can come and see my garden. I also hope to see other gardeners from Japan going in for such shows.