Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

Morikami Hatsume Festival

If the dictionary defines enclave as “a distinct territorial, cultural, or social unit enclosed within or as if within foreign territory,” then the The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida meets every criteria. It’s hard to imagine a more foreign surrounding—and nationality is the least of the difference.

All About The The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is a place for learning culture, a place of beauty, a place not always quiet but almost always reserved and serene, a place for taking your time and savoring. Meanwhile, just outside its perimeter, busy Southern Palm Beach County is happening. Everyone has someplace to go and seems to be in a rush to get there. Work. Lunch. Dinner. A movie. Shopping. Church. Thousands of motorists every day buzz past gardens property on Jog Road, a thoroughfare not named for its traffic speed.

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens offers a glimpse of Japanese culture, tradition and history. Stretched over 200 acres of former farmland, the property includes six gardens each designed to replicate an era in Japanese history plus a bonsai garden, two museum buildings and an Asian café. You can spend hours upon hours admiring the gardens’ beauty before you even begin to explore museum exhibits and collections.

Morikami Museum Japanese Gardens
Your stroll through the gardens covers 1 mile and 12 centuries. You’ll traverse arched bridges over placid lakes and view displays that trace the evolution of influences from Jodo Buddhism to Zen to Western culture. You‘ll begin with a stroll through Shinden, evocative of an era between the ninth and 12th centuries. Next comes Paradise, inspired by settings that date to the 12th century. Then come Early Rock (14th), Late Rock (15th), Flat (17th and 18th) and Modern Romantic (late 19th and 20th).

The bonsai collection now exceeds 50 specimens. Bonsai are miniature trees grown in containers, and styling them to replicate trees grown in nature is an art form. The bonsai at Morikami Gardens range in height from 6 inches to 50 inches and are up to 400 years old.

Inside the museum buildings, you’ll see a rotating selection from more than 7,000 Japanese artifacts. The older of the two buildings, Yamato-kan, houses two permanent exhibits. One, Japan Through the Eyes of a Child, introduces younger visitors to the history, culture and wonders of Japan. The other traces essentially the story of how the museum came to be – the history of the Yamato Colony.

If you’re not familiar with that story, you aren’t alone—even locally. Every day, a couple miles to the south in Boca Raton, thousands of busy, preoccupied South Florida motorists buzz along Yamato Road—some even on their way to work at Bluegreen’s corporate offices, a half-block off – without knowing the connection. They’ve even Americanized the pronunciation of the name, from the Japanese YAH-ma-toh to Yuh-MAH-toh.

Morikami Museum Japanese Culture
The story begins with Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railroad, an enterprise responsible for commercializing much of Eastern and Southern Florida in the 1800s, creating a subsidiary called the Model Land Co. The intent was to develop agricultural tracts along Flagler’s tracks—preferably using inexpensive immigrant labor—for the production of transportable goods. The State of Florida hoped several such farming outposts would help cure an economy that hadn’t recovered in four decades since the Civil War.

The plan dovetailed with the ambitions of a Japanese-born recent U.S. college graduate named Jo Sakai. When Sakai learned of this opportunity, he agreed to buy land in 1903 and returned to his homeland to recruit farmers being eased out by growing industrialization. They came back to Florida and in 1905 began the Yamato Colony, Yamato being an ancient name for Japan. The farmers worked their land—in the area now the site of Boca Raton Airport and parts of Florida Atlantic University—for pineapples and other produce. It never was easy. Problems plagued the colony throughout its existence until the U.S. government finally closed it not long after Pearl Harbor.

Only three farmers remained by that time. One of them, George Morikami, bought land in Delray Beach near the end of World War II and farmed it into the 1970s, when he was in his 80s. Near the end, he made it his goal to donate the land back to Palm Beach County for development of a park honoring the Yamato Colony. The Yamato-kan opened in 1977, a year after Morikami’s death. The main museum opened in 1993, the same year that work began on the gardens.

Today the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens not only honors the memory of those colonists, it promotes a broader understanding of Japanese culture. Besides daily activities and garden-strolling opportunities, visitors also can enrich their understanding during three major annual traditional festivals. One observes the Japanese New Year, another observes the first bud of spring and a third honors ancestors. More regularly, visitors can enjoy various cultural demonstrations such as the Tea Ceremony.

Whether you’re staying at Solara Surfside or Gulfstream Manor, or perhaps even up for making the under-3-hour trip from The Fountains (virtually all Turnpike and interstate), the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is a hidden treasure yours to discover and savor.