Travel


Florida Travel: Visiting Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

The Delray Beach attraction makes you feel you’re in Japan—until a touch of wild Florida intrudes.

 

Inside a traditional Japanese tea house, I’m watching a tea ceremony unfold with perfect decorum. The tea house is named Seishin-an, which translates to “peacefully resting in the forest”—the forest a reference both to the 16 acres of gardens that surround it and to the character “mori” in the name Morikami. The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens is one of Delray Beach’s most striking gems, a vast expanse of carefully tended gardens landscaped in the Japanese fashion, a museum with rotating exhibitions and a tea house where monthly tea ceremonies are held. To visit the Morikami is like taking a voyage to Japan.

A woman in a pale blue kimono bows in order to enter the nijiri-guchi, the guest entrance, to the tea house. She leaves her slippers outside and slides the wooden door closed behind her. Inside the tea house, she moves ceremoniously around the room, bowing to the hanging scroll, the kettle and the objects used to prepare the tea. When she has finished, she sits on her knees and waits as a woman in a kimono the soft pink of peonies enters from the right. The two exchange formal greetings in Japanese.

A tea ceremony traditionally takes four hours to complete, but we’ve been given the 45-minute version. When the women have completed the ceremony, they serve sweets to the audience and cups of hot, bitter matcha tea. The woman next to me swallows her tea in one gulp and then says to me in an exasperated tone, “Four hours to make tea.” I laugh with her, but I don’t share the sentiment. I find the tea ceremony and its emphasis on harmony, respect and tranquility to be lovely. What’s more, I’m amazed at how the Morikami has managed to extend this tranquility and peace to all of its grounds—right smack in Florida.

After the ceremony lets out, I leave the tea house for a terrace that surveys a wide, flat lake. A wooden bridge arcs gracefully across a section of the lake, and I watch as people drop fish food down to the golden koi in the water below. The gentle sound of a cascading waterfall contributes to the feeling of serenity in the gardens. Though the plants are sculpted in the Japanese style, they are all familiar to Florida landscapes: gumbo limbo, desert rose, plumbago, sea grape, silver buttonwood.

I stroll the gardens as if through a dream, moving from one still and quiet spot to the next. Shoots of bamboo creak as they lean into each other, and crickets chirp from cool and shaded places. The air smells of pine. I pause at a raked Zen garden, breathing in its air of thoughtful tranquility, before moving through the rest of the garden and back toward the museum. I’d swear I just spent the last hour walking through the gardens of Kyoto rather than the acreage of east Florida.

Almost.

I’m at the end of the pathway when I pass a small group of visitors taking photos beside the lake. A woman stands at the edge of the water, smiling brightly. The man with her snaps pictures. I’m already past them when I hear the woman squeal, part surprise and part delight. I whirl around and crawling near her is the largest iguana I’ve ever seen. Bright orange and neon green, it slow-steps its way across the ground, oblivious to the gathered group. Just past the iguana, in the same waters where the golden koi swim, the round eyes of an alligator periscope above the surface.

I laugh to myself. Even here in the midst of so much Japanese tranquility and decorum, a little bit of wild Florida manages to poke through.

Related: The Best Florida Day Trips

If you go … 

  • The Morikami Museum and Gardens is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $9 for children. Visit morikami.org for more.
  • The sado or tea ceremony is held one Saturday a month at noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets are $5 with paid admission to the museum. They are sold the day of the ceremony on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • After you’ve strolled the gardens, be sure to save time for lunch or a snack at the Morikami’s Cornell Café. Overlooking the lake and gardens, the café is the perfect spot for a moment of reflection with a cup of tea or a bowl of red bean ice cream.