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Morikami Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida

Tucked away in the midst of sand, palm trees and the ever-present strip malls of southern Florida there's an oasis of Japanese beauty and tranquility. The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach does more than delight visitors with its introduction to and celebration of the art and culture of Japan. The Roji-en, or Gardens of the Drops of Dew, like its name adds a sparkling freshness to the day. "The morning dew sparkles like a star rising in the sky," says Hoichi Kurisu, the award-winning landscape designer who wanted to "capture that beauty forever in people's minds and hearts."

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The story of The Morikami Gardens actually goes back to the early 1900s and the vision of Jo Sakai, a graduate of New York University who organized a group of Japanese farmers and convinced them to form a colony, named Yamato, in what is now northern Boca Raton. The experiment was not successful and the farmer/colonists gradually dispersed back to Japan and to other parts of the United States. Except for one settler, George Sukeji Morikami. He decided to cultivate local crops and eventually became a successful fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In the 1970s, when Morikami was in his 80s, he donated the land to Palm Beach County with the stipulation that it become a park to honor the memory of the Yamato Colony.

The Gardens

The 16-acre gardens, unified with a theme of the history of Japanese gardens, are reached by a graceful curving bridge designed to create a transition from the stress of day-to-day living into a gorgeous kaleidoscope of flowering bushes and sculptured trees. Black olive, gumbo limbo, Japanese Yew, several species of myrtle as well as pine and bamboo form forests. Flowering shrubs such as gardenia and orange jasmine scent the air.

A main path meanders along the lake and trees for about 7/8th of a mile. It's a fairly easy walk with no steep inclines, although if you leave the main path there are some steps and occasional rougher footing. For those who enjoy exploring, there are charming detours to unexpected bits of history and tranquil niches.

The gardens reflect the sensibilities and vision of the Kurisu. "Strolling through pine forest or bamboo grove, viewing the rock formations, arrangements of plants and cascading waterfalls, pausing to ponder the quiet surface of the lake and shoreline -little by little we are encouraged to lay aside the chaos of a troubled world and gently nurture the capacity within to hear a more harmonious, universal rhythm," he writes.

Walking among the plants, bushes and trees, you'll quickly notice the absence of identifying signs. For anyone who has spent most of their time in a garden reading the little tags placed on trees and in the midst of flowers, this might be puzzling, but it does remove the temptation to have an educational rather than aesthetic experience. The message is Don't Read -- Observe and Experience, although there is a plant reference guide in the main museum lobby for the curious.

The gardens re-create the feel of Japan. Although they are thriving in the southern Florida climate, the plants have been chosen for their similarity to plants found in Japan. "Japanese gardens strive to create a sensitive feeling," says Kurisu, "so we need plants with smaller, daintier leaves." One of his favorites is the black olive. "People use it as a shade tree because of its fast growth, but there is one species with smaller leaves that has the character of a Japanese maple." The gumbo limbo tree is another that makes frequent appearances in the gardens. "It has a reddish trunk and a contorted growth. Plus its leaves are smaller and easy to prune to interesting shapes."

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These are also gardens that reward thoughtful ambling. While strolling we'd see a small brook beckoning, or stone lanterns peeking from grasses that weren't noticed until we turned back to catch a different perspective. It's also a multi-sensory experience. Stop and listen to a waterfall, the chirps of small birds, the wind through the leaves of the bamboo. Smell the pine. Gently touch the boulders or the rough tree bark.

Although composed of six different historic garden styles each one flows seamlessly into another. As we walked along the path we knew that there were now different forms of beauty, and new delights.

Garden Styles

The starting point is the Shinden-style gardens, a style which date back to the 8th and 9th centuries. The origin of this style is actually Chinese. Japanese aristocrats adapted the concepts for their own residences featuring ponds and brooks, lakes and islands with their distinctive connecting bridges. Here, the garden is introduced by the traditional Japanese bridge crossing a peaceful lake, and followed by a bamboo grove planted along side the path. A sharp-eyed visitor might also recognize a ficus. "It's usually used as a hedge," says Kurisu, "but I use it as a big mountain of a plant to set off the bamboo."

Soon the path begins to shadow the edges of the lake providing peek-a-boo views. Around the corner could be a lake vista, a piece of sculpture, a fountain, even a waterfall. The next garden period is the Paradise Gardens, coming in 13th and 14th centuries. This style used similar design elements to the Shinden gardens but were created to provide solace and hope during a period of social turmoil and were situated near temple buildings.

Read more about Morikami Gardens at later phase in the evolution of Japanese garden design is perhaps the one most famous in the West, the rock garden. Japanese rock gardens are an unusual art form, and one that requires the viewer to pay closer attention. The philosophical underpinnings explain their austerity - they represent the acceptance of sacrifice and discipline as a means to salvation. As a garden style, they celebrate contrast, setting large boulders amid gravel raked into geometric patterns -- a spare design encompassing the essentials of nature. Sometimes a bit of greenery in the form of interesting grasses such as mondo grass, highlight the contrast between the living and the unchanging rock and stone.

Finally, the stroller comes to the newer incarnations of design. No longer stark and spare, in the Flat Garden period of the 17th and 18th centuries pagodas, water basins, stepping stones are added as accents, and vistas may beckon in the distance. The Modern Romantic Garden began when Japanese society was opened to western influence in the late 19th century. Lawns became part of the designs with more formal arrangements of flowers and bushes. Now, the visitor finds guava trees, firebush, and crepe myrtle as well as the free form gumbo limbo tree.

Yamato Island and the Bonsais
A little further down the path is Yamato Island, the site of the original Morikami Museum building, which houses exhibits on the Yamato Colony of Japanese farmers. But the island also showcases the finest exhibit of bonsai trees found in Florida, and perhaps even further.

The setting is part of the joy of these over 50 miniatures beauties. They are displayed outside all year long on stands and pedestals overlooking a pond. In the distance there's the lake and the bridges of the Shinden gardens. Bonsai are trees in miniature and survive only as a result of constant ministrations balancing feeding, pruning, and watering. Bonsai are started from pieces of existing trees, carefully pruned to create a unique living sculpture. One of the bonsai came from a 400-year-old buttonwood tree in the Florida Keys. There's also another beauty from a 75-year-old Juniper, but there's also many varieties of ficus represented. Unlike the plantings in the gardens, the bonsai are tagged with information on the species and date started. For those without a green thumb, it's quite humbling to realize how long people have kept these tiny trees flourishing.

There are some art forms that reward an openness of eye and heart. Joggers, or those in a hurry trying to fit in a quick visit to see some pretty flowers will miss the essence of The Morikami. "It's not a botanical garden with big gorgeous flowers," explains Kurisu. "We create an environment, a space for people to look and see from your heart. Everything disappears", notes Kurisu, but beauty in the heart lasts forever."

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016

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