DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — Eerie creaking and odd groaning. I had never been to Asia and had never sat on a bench in a bamboo grove, as I was doing, watching leaves flutter and long green bamboo trunks clink and grind against each other, making weird noises in the wind. The sounds were haunting and alluring, oddly loud and surprising, especially since I was not in a sacred Japanese bamboo forest.
Rather, I was sitting on a sunny day this past January in a bamboo grove in south Florida — 7 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean between Delray and Boca Raton and 20 miles southwest of the Gilded Age mansions and designer boutiques of Palm Beach.
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is a quiet hidden gem set on 16 acres of a 200-acre property in what was once Florida pineapple country. Known to locals, the property is less well known to tourists who, if they decide to venture west from the beach for a day, are in for a most pleasant surprise.
Besides its beautifully manicured, historic, and serene Japanese gardens, with wooden bridges, benches, water features such as koi ponds and waterfalls, sculpture, rocks, tropical plants and trees, a bamboo grove, bonsai collection, and tea house, the Morikami has a good restaurant with Japanese foods including teriyaki, wakame salad, and sushi. The museum and grounds also include an extensive art gallery, tremendous programs ranging from tea ceremonies to origami workshops and lectures, a library with historical volumes on Japanese art and gardening, and a small but excellent gift shop with items imported from Asia ranging from silk jackets and bamboo purses to porcelain vases, wind chimes, and jewelry.
The connection between Japan and Palm Beach County goes back over 100 years to 1904, when the scion of a samarai family named Jo Sakai, a recent graduate of New York University, returned home from his studies in this country to his birthplace of Miyazu, Japan, a castle town on the Sea of Japan. He was there to recruit a group of pioneers who agreed to help him realize his utopian vision of revolutionizing US agriculture.
With the help of the Model Land Co., a subsidiary of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, the idea became a reality and they named their community Yamato, the ancient name for Japan. Initially only men, Yamato eventually included wives brought from Japan and children. So in the early 20th century, inland Florida became an odd melting pot of Japanese settlers in traditional costume with utopian ideas about farming who maintained their language, religion, and cultural traditions living peacefully among a bunch of pineapple farmers.
Like most utopian communities, however, Yamato eventually failed to live up to its founders’ expectations. By the 1920s, the community, which had never grown beyond about 35 individuals, succumbed to the reality of easy cash for land as speculators and developers threw around piles of cash before the Great Crash of 1929. Most members sold their farmland, gave up their dreams, and returned to Japan.
Only one settler remained, a brave soul named George Sukeiji Morikami, who arrived at Yamato when he was 19 and who continued to cultivate crops after everyone else had left. During World War II, he endured anti-Japanese prejudice; at the same time the US government was isolating and segregating Japanese-Americans, Morikami tolerated indignities like having to carry a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern” and signed by a local government official, proclaiming that Morikami, “who resides on a farm four miles south of Delray Beach on the Federal Highway has permission to travel on Saturday, July 18, 1942 from Miami to his home.”
Besides farming, Morikami also worked as a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. He eventually became rich. In the mid-1970s, when he was in his 80s and shortly after finally receiving US citizenship, Morikami donated much of his land to Palm Beach County to be used as a park to preserve the legacy of the original Yamato settlers. Now the museum and gardens are a nonprofit public-private partnership in cooperation with the county park system.
Over 20 years after Morikami donated his land, and following construction of the Yamato-kan teahouse, viewing gallery, and gardens, the Morikami Museum in 1993 opened a second large museum building. It now houses the restaurant, library, a 225-seat theater, classrooms, a permanent collection of more than 7,000 Japanese art objects and artifacts, exhibition galleries, the museum store, and an outdoor cafe with a scenic view of the lake and gardens.
There are many interesting artifacts and photographs about the history of the Yamato settlement and Morikami himself on display in the Yamato-kan, the Morikami’s original building, a teahouse inspired by traditional Japanese architectural design. Outside this picturesque building is a huge collection of bonsai trees.
When I visited the museum, I had the impression I had stepped into ancient Japan. In the main museum there was an exhibit on Japanese dolls and Kabuki theater as well as rooms full of paintings and photographs.
The Zen-like gardens, though, are what originally attracted me to the Morikami. Space, light and darkness, texture and color, sounds — of rushing water and rustling leaves — Japanese gardens are designed to be holistically sensual rather than merely visual.
Designer Hoichi Kurisu created the complex around a lake as six distinct gardens — each from a different period of Japanese history.
Shinden Garden is from the Heian Period, between the 9th and 12th centuries, when the Japanese nobility adapted Chinese garden design ideals that featured lakes and islands that emphasized informality and appreciation of nature. Paradise Garden comes from the 13th and 14th centuries when strolling gardens were introduced as an earthly representation of the Pure Land or Buddhist heaven. Early Rock Garden is inspired by the 14th century when Japanese gardens were inspired by Chinese landscape paintings in ink that depicted water cascading from distant peaks into a sea or lake.
The other three gardens are: the Karesansui Late Rock Garden, based on 15th- and 16th-century rock gardens; the Hiraniwa Flat Garden from the Edo Period of the 17th and 18th centuries, which evolved out of late rock gardens; and the Modern Romantic Garden from the Meiji Period of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, reflecting Western influences that had begun to permeate Japan.
Walking through the gardens shortly after the New Year, I left the bamboo grove, walked over a Japanese wooden bridge, and wished I could stay for a meditation retreat. Walking slowly, staring at swaying leaves, breathing deeply — it was a great way to start 2013.