A Visit to the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens

My wife has been learning the Japanese language on her own for a while, which means an appreciation of Japanese culture has seeped into our household beyond pop-culture mainstays like anime, manga, sushi and ninjas! Part of understanding a language is understanding the culture that uses it, that shaped it, and we’ve both been enriched by what we’ve learned. For some time now we’ve known we have a couple of locations with a Japanese connection we could visit in our general vicinity, and last Sunday we were finally able to make it to the largest of them, the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach.

For years, when heading north on I-95, we’d see the signs for Yamato Rd. in Delray and wonder why the name. Turns out there’s a very interesting history tied to the Morikami.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was a Japanese farming colony in the area now known as Delray Beach, just south of Boca Raton. It was an experiment, this Japanese colony, and though it existed for about 20-30 years, it never truly thrived or expanded much beyond the original settlers and their families (they all married in Japan; there was only one wedding in the colony right before its collapse). The Yamato colonists kept some of their Japanese customs as best they could, and enmeshed themselves into the daily life of the region fairly well. The farming experiment did not succeed and the colony began to lose members; by the time World War II broke, there were only a couple families left. These were harassed by local ignoramuses and had their land seized by the government, though they were never interred into camps as their west coast kinsmen were. Slowly the only thing that was left of the Yamato colony was the name of the area, and the presence of Mr. Sukeji “George” Morikami.

Morikami was part of the second group of settlers to come to Yamato and he never left. He farmed his land through thick and thin even when the colony was declared an obvious failure. He stayed in South Florida through the war and became a well-known and respected member of his community, eventually becoming a citizen in his late years. In the 70s, when he was in his 80s, Morikami donated his lands to Palm Beach County for the establishment of a park dedicated to the preservation of the Yamato Colony. This became a reality with the establishment of the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens in 1977. The park has continued to grow ever since.

Yeah, I just snuck in a short history lesson, but it underscores why the Morikami is such an unusual and important location. This is a chapter of South Florida history that is widely unknown and which deserves to be spoken about, taught, disseminated. South Florida is the product of a series of pioneers braving the swamps at the bottom of the state in order to carve out a new life, and the history of the Yamato Colony deserves its place alongside the history of Henry Flagler and his train, or the Cuban Exile. Ok, but what about the park? Let’s take a stroll.

The Museum

The Morikami opened originally with one building, a traditional Japanese house called the Yamato-Kan. In 1993 they opened the current museum and reception building, also built with Japanese aesthetics. It is into this building that you now arrive when visiting. It is big, comprising a theater, reception lobby, museum shop, gallery area, library and a replica of a traditional tea house, as well as an outdoor cafe.

The museum has a mix of permanent and rotating pieces in exhibition, and on our visit we got to see an exhibition on Japanese lacquerware which featured a couple dozens of inro, little purse-like boxes worn by men, most of them dating from the end of the Tokugawa period. Like everything in Japanese craft, these were exquisite in their construction and detail. Along with the inro, we saw artwork featured on the inside of a man’s kimono (the social rule during the Tokugawa period discouraged external flair, so the varied and highly individualistic pieces of art were then consigned to the inside of the apparel). The gallery also featured four complete suits of samurai armor dating from the late 1800s, when they would have been mostly ornamental, though built to the precise specifications as their once-used-in-battle kin. Jaw-dropping amazing. I never tire of seeing samurai armor because it just conveys power, raw power, mystic power, in a way which European armor, even full suits of plate, just do not.

In addition to the objects in the gallery, the Morikami was featuring a smaller exhibition on kaiju! These are the strange, atomic-age monsters made most famous by Godzilla and Ultraman, and which in a way give way to the giant robot genre. Kaiju now populate pop-culture thanks to the aforementioned fathers of the genre, as well as modern shows like Mighty Morphing Power Rangers, Voltron, and pretty much every Mecha show you can name. The exhibit featured a private collection of vinyl kaiju toys from the 60s and 70s and I just friggin loved it! I grew up watching Ultraman, among many other Japanese shows translated to Spanish, so these are the cool monsters of my childhood.

Inside the main museum building is also a replica of a traditional tea house with a cutaway view. Once a month they do a reenactment of a traditional tea ceremony for visitors to see, and we are very much looking forward to when we can come back to see this performed.

Done with the museum building, it was time to hit the gardens.

The Gardens

The Morikami gardens were greatly expanded in 2001 into the marvelous almost-1-mile loop they are today. Wrapping around a central lake, the Roji-En (Garden of the Drops of Dew) features six smaller gardens, each taking inspiration from famous garden styles in Japan’s history. The walk is leisurely, the environment tranquil and inviting to admiration and reflection. Everything about the gardens is meant to be taken in holistically: the trees, the shrubs, the flowers, the path, the sounds. They all contribute to the experience as one walks along the route. In a word, these are beautiful.

The views are at times nothing short of luscious and inspiring. This is a garden for those who don’t know what this tree or flower may be, but they know they like it; anyone can enjoy it simply on an emotional level. Along the way you will find a bridge and planked walkway stretching along small islands, a bamboo grove (did you know the sound of bamboos creaking and striking against each other as they sway is both soothing and practical, as it is used to chase away deer?), an idyllic paradise garden, and a rock garden, a style perfected at Zen Buddhist temples (which has given it the incorrect name of Zen garden). There are also various water features around the gardens, from small fountains that fill, then empty, a piece of bamboo (the rhythmic “clack” of the bamboo as it fills and empties is something I absolutely love), to waterfalls and small streams, and of course, the various lakes. As you exit the gardens through the South Gate, be sure to pay your respects to Morikami-sama and thank him for leaving this wonderful gift to all later generations.

The Yamato-Kan, accessible after a stroll through the Roji-En, now has a display showing aspects of Japanese culture as if through the eyes of a child, a perspective I welcome as it does not assume anything and presents all the information in a way anyone can understand and empathize with. It is here also that the history of the Yamato Colony has a permanent exhibition. Right outside, be sure to admire the largest collection of bonsai in the southeastern United States, as well as the nearby waterfall and Turtle Island (it really does look like a turtle).

So Much More

The Morikami also holds regular events, like their Sushi & Stroll nights, when the garden is opened after hours and sushi is served at the cafe (man, how I wish they would do a Kosher version of this!), as well as educational lectures and grand celebrations on important Japanese holidays.

I enjoyed my visit to the Morikami immensely. Even looking forward to going, I was surprised, in a good way, with the beauty of the place and the number of things there are to do. I feel I can go back and I’ll have a completely different experience than I did now, as I’ll be able to focus on other aspects I may have missed. What’s great is that you don’t have to be a connoisseur of Japanese culture to enjoy it. Even if all you know of Japan is they have samurai, ninjas and sushi, the Morikami makes the experience amenable and welcoming, explaining all you need to know to better enjoy the gardens and museum, instilling an appreciation in a most organic kind of way.

Anyone within driving distance of the Morikami should make an effort to visit and experience this hidden gem of South Florida, and I’d say that even visitors to the state that can swing by should do so, as I believe they will have a fantastic time and help promote and support an important part of our history.

Take a look at the photos I took below or on Flickr: A Visit to the Morikami Museum.

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