It was a mere sliver visible through a slit of a window. But beyond the window was a miniature universe - a gentle alpine stream, rocks arranged just so, a place of wholeness that unified and lifted up its parts.
The window was placed as carefully as the rocks, the view's effect on these unsuspecting tourists surprisingly, but purposefully, moving.
"They get it," Dagit says of the unknown designers of this unforgettable garden, which he learned about from architecture students and has never found in a guidebook.
"Getting" Japanese design is a complicated proposition, given that there is no single Japanese garden style and that American sensibilities, particularly on the East Coast, are far more attuned to the color, fullness, and symmetry of European design.
"One of the stereotypes of Japanese gardens is that there is only one kind. Actually, there's a lot of complexity," says Harriet A. Henderson, an architect and landscape architect in Unionville, Chester County, who designs Japanese gardens and frequently lectures about them.
Dagit, 67, is a self-taught gardener who studied architecture with Louis I. Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1960s. Now a consultant, he formerly had his own firm, specializing in higher education.
Alice Dagit, 65, does public relations and fund-raising for nonprofits, primarily Stop Child Abuse Now, or SCAN. The couple have two sons and four grandsons.
Since their Asian adventure almost two decades ago, Dagit has been studying Japanese garden design on his own, using now-well-worn books bought in a Kyoto gift shop. Almost daily, he reads the text and examines the photographs, trying to absorb the fundamentals of an ancient genre infused with symbolism, subtlety, and simplicity.
He has also been creating a Japanese-style garden behind the house he calls "a white piece of sculpture," which he designed and helped build on a steep hillside in Gladwyne back in the '70s.
The house took a decade. The garden is a never-ending project that would frustrate most folks. But Dagit seems at peace with the incremental nature of his task. "They'll have to carry me out of here," he says.
There are many joys in this garden.
Dagit eagerly notes how sunlight hits the rocks at different times of day, in every season. He discovered most of these rocks "on the site," as he so architecturally puts it, hauling each to its assigned spot and arranging them vertically or horizontally, individually or in groupings, in very deliberate fashion.
Traditionally, rocks have been used in Japanese gardens to symbolize islands and mountains. They're so important to design, Henderson says, "that when a new garden is constructed, they are placed first. They set the scale of everything else."
Dagit admires their solidity and texture, which are also characteristics of the water basins and curved bridges he cast in concrete, and the stone bench he built. He likes to sit here, to look and think in solitude, surrounded by massive beech and hickory trees, and a couple of 150-year-old oaks.
From the road below, and almost any other spot on this mostly wooded 3/4 acre, Dagit's garden resembles a layered green tableau defined by many features, rather than a single, central one.
The sandstone pavers, stepping-stones, cobblestones, and pebble paths zig and zag up the hill. They're intentionally meandering, sometimes misaligned, "throwing the path off the path," Dagit says.
They're not made to get quickly from A to Z. They're meant for exploring. They promise surprises around the bend and different views at every turn.
"Japanese gardens excel in eccentricity and they're asymmetrical, off-axis," Dagit says. It's a concept many American gardeners find discomforting.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, there was no such discomfort. In fact, Japanese gardens were quite fashionable in North America then.
John and Lydia Morris, for example, traveled to Japan in the 1880s and returned with a Japanese gardener and a landscape architect to work at their Chestnut Hill estate, which eventually became Morris Arboretum.
"We even have a picture of Lydia wearing a kimono," says Paul W. Meyer, arboretum director.
More recently, Diane Eyer, a psychologist from Newtown, became enamored of Japanese gardens and hired Henderson to design one for her. It's 20 feet by 80 feet and incorporates a pond for koi and goldfish, Japanese maples, bamboo, rhododendron, and other traditional plants.
"We wanted a Japanese garden because of the peacefulness and water features," says Eyer, who often meditates in her spare, mostly green, garden.
Dagit's garden, too, is very green, although fall brings pops of red from seven Japanese maples. But for the maples and some azaleas, the garden's colors are subdued and the plant list short.
That is by design. Although Japan is blessed with a temperate climate and a wide range of plants, displaying this variety, or emphasizing color, has never been the point of gardens there.
Most commonly used trees include pine, maple, plum, cherry, magnolia, Hinoki cypress, and cedar. Also popular are bamboo; azalea, iris, hydrangea, and chrysanthemum; and green ground covers, such as moss.
In Dagit's garden, the red, white, and pink azaleas bloom for three weeks in April, then fade into a green sea of pachysandra, or Japanese spurge. A small rock garden sports more green - ivy, vinca, hosta, fern - and in summer, the colorful (and decidedly un-Japanese) impatiens Alice insists upon every year.
Dagit dug out five small ponds connected by small waterfalls, taking care to follow the contour of an existing water swale. The idea was to harmonize with nature, rather than look man-made.
While the falls are not visible from every corner of the garden, the faint sound of rippling water can be heard throughout. (In dry landscapes, water can be represented symbolically with sand and gravel that are raked in patterns.)
Dagit pauses on a path to savor the sound of the falls and notes the sunlight arcing through the trees, before proceeding slowly on his way. This garden, he says, strives to be a Japanese stroll garden.
Being in a traditional stroll garden, says Henderson, the Japanese garden designer, "is like being on a large scroll painting that unfolds as you move along. You can never see the garden in its entirety. You might catch glimpses, but just when you think you're about to see the whole thing across the pond, it's obscured by trees or islands.
"There's a lot of complexity in that," says Henderson, who studied in Kyoto 30 years ago with Kinsaku Nakane, considered one of Japan's foremost landscape architects.
Dagit understands that "we can never make a truly Japanese garden because that isn't us. It will always be an American garden."
But he's trying. So for now, let's call his garden style what he calls it: "totally eclectic Japanese." Which means he and Alice can revel in the beauty and simplicity of their Japanese-influenced garden, while sitting on the terrace in their utterly American Adirondack chairs, sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc.
It means they can freely enjoy those bright impatiens. And they can, with healthy abandon, rev up the outdoor stone bar, which Dagit built, of course, for parties.
Gardens, whatever their ancestry, are meant to be enjoyed, after all.
Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at
Japanese Gardens in the Region
Here's a sampling of Japanese gardens in this region or gardens with a Japanese influence:
Shofuso: Authentic 17th-century, shoin-style Japanese house and garden on Lansdowne Drive in West Fairmount Park. Built in 1953 as a gift from the Japanese people. House designed by Junzo Yoshimura for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, relocated to Philadelphia in 1958. Garden designed by Sano Tansai. Open Thursdays through Sundays. Information: 215-878-5097 or www.shofuso.com/.
Morris Arboretum, 100 E. Northwestern Ave.: Rockwork by Japanese designers dating to 1898, found in the Fernery, Overlook Garden, Hill and Water Garden, and Teahouse Garden. A cherry allee was created around 1912. Information: 215-247-5777 or www.morrisarboretum.org.
370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford: Teaf Japanese Garden in the college Dining Center, designed by Hiroshi Makita, and Denis Asian Garden, designed by Harriet A. Henderson of Cushing & Henderson. Information: 610-896-1000 or www.haverford.edu/.
Swiss Pines, Charlestown Road, Malvern: Private 19-acre Japanese-style garden created by shoe magnate Arnold Bartschi. Small groups only, limited hours. Call ahead. Information: 610-935-8795, Swisspines2@cs.com
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or firstname.lastname@example.org.