For lovers of Japanese culture and language, living in South Florida can be tough since there is a limited number of native Japanese speakers and authentic Japanese restaurants.
One thing that goes a long way to compensating for this is the Morikami Japanese Museum & Gardens, located in Delray Beach, Florida.
The Morikami gardens are quite expansive, and if you take your time you can easily spend a few hours exploring them. There is a long, curvy path, dotted with beautiful flowers and other plant life. The small bamboo forest is amazing, along with a few rock gardens, waterfalls with gentle streams, and some areas that have turtles and koi fish to watch.
A permanent bonsai exhibit is also on display, and near that is a Japanese-style building that has several rooms where you can learn about various aspects of Japanese culture. There are signs giving names to some of the garden areas as well as a few fountains which serve up fresh water.
The exhibits in the museum rotate and typically cater to artsy stuff using media including sculptures, paintings, jewelry, and clothes. The last time I attended, Dec 2013, there was some “Lolita”-themed dresses, as well as some pictures from Harajuku that were interesting. Near the exhibits there is a traditional Japanese tea ceremony（茶の間）room, where they occasionally perform a real tea ceremony, including traditional clothes. There’s also a small library containing Japanese textbooks (in English), as well as Japanese books targeted for both children and adults. Several years ago I asked about loaning books and I believe they said at that time many (if not all) of the books were not loaned out, though things may have changed since. Either way you can still peruse the books inside the library. Just make sure you check the hours before you go, as both the library and tea ceremony have very limited hours.
Of course, no museum would be complete without a gift shop, and theirs is small yet packed with many types of products, from porcelain bowls to imported snacks to books on Japanese gardens and art. I reviewed a chocolate bar I purchased there on my other blog here.
There is a restaurant as well, but the food I had there was mediocre and not much better than other local Japanese restaurants. There is also a small movie theater which periodically shows the story of Mr. Morikami, as well as some other rooms that host classes to things like ikebana (生け花 – traditional Japanese flower arranging).
If you happen to live nearby or planning to visit South Florida on a vacation, be sure to visit this The Morikami Japanese Museum and Gardens. To get your money’s worth, try to visit during one of the special events, such as New Years (お正月) festival, where you can play a game similar to badminton (羽根つき), watch rice cakes (お餅) get pounded, or learn calligraphy. These events can bring quite a crowd, so be sure to get your tickets online far in advance. Also try to leave a little before the event ends, since you can get stuck in the large parking lot for over an hour on occasion.
If your going primarily to try and find a native speaker to practice conversation with, don’t expect too much since a vast majority of both the staff and typical customers are not Japanese and know little to no Japanese. Your best bet is to come during one of the festivals where you can likely find a Japanese family or two, though you’ll probably also run into a bunch of cosplaying kids that don’t know much Japanese. I recommend just going to enjoy the gardens, and if you are lucky you may learn some culture and even get to hear some native Japanese spoken.
I’ve been going to the Morikami from long before I learned my first Japanese word. The gardens have improved somewhat, but what’s disappointing is the festivals there have gradually started catering to money-making enterprises over all else. For example, in the last few years there have been many booths appearing which sell wares only vaguely related to Japan, and some services that appear to have absolutely no connection. There’s beer tents and food that can barely be called Japanese, and the one tent that used to sell used Japanese novels for very cheap ($1 a book) wasn’t there last time I checked. The most common performance during the events is a group of Taiko drummers, which is cool but gets old to see it year after year. It would be nice if they had a little more variety of authentic Japanese things – and by this I don’t mean anime and manga, which you can purchase at about any bookstore nowadays. To be fair – I don’t go to every festival every year, so it maybe I just showed up at the worst times.
Having said all that, I highly recommend Morikami for any one interested in Japan or Japanese culture. It’s a rare gem is hard to find anywhere else in the southeast. On a final note, make sure to check the weather forecast before you arrive, since they do not give rain checks or refunds if the weather goes bad. I think that’s a pretty unfair business practice, but you have to put up with it to experience all Morikami has to offer.