Trickling water, the sound of bamboo clapping against each other, the wind whispering through the trees, ancient stones standing guard like samurai in a field of sand. These things bring a sense of peace in a Japanese stone garden. If you can’t make it to Japan for the Spring Cherry Blossom festival, you can still experience peaceful Japanese gardens right here.
Traditionally, a Japanese stone garden is a type of a Zen garden, a place to promote peace and restoration. A Japanese stone garden often uses a large stone at the entrance to welcome guests. Likewise, stones may also symbolize Buddha, as a sign of strength and power. At Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, subsequently, you can experience that feeling of Zen. Zen gardens differ from botanical gardens in that the purpose is not to educate visitors about local plant species, but to provide visitors with a restorative experience. Often in Japan they use Zen gardens for forest bathing.
Certainly, Hoichi Kurisu designed these gardens, called Roji-en, or Garden of the Drops of Dew, using famous gardens in Japan to inspire him. As a result, an almost mile long pathway meanders through 6 peaceful gardens. Highlights include Japanese stone gardens, bonsai gardens, and bamboo groves.
I want to share this peaceful place with you. While the summers in Florida are hot, my husband and I visited the gardens at the end of December. Winter is the best time for enjoying nature in Florida. So if you are planning to be in south Florida, make sure you take time out of your busy schedule to center yourself with the peace from these gardens.
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History of these Japanese stone gardens
During the early 1900s, a group of Japanese farmers immigrated to the north Boca area of Florida. In fact, they named the area the Yamato colony, which is an ancient name for Japan. Likely due to soil that is mostly sand and rock, their farming did not pan out. Sadly, the majority of the members of the colony eventually returned to Japan.
However, one of the remaining colonists, George, Sukeji Morikami, donated his land to Palm Beach County in the 1970s. After all, his goal was for the county to use the land to create a park in memory of the Yamato Colony. This is currently, the only museum in the USA dedicated to Japanese living culture.
Consequently, the park opened in 1977. Now, visitors can stroll the 16 acres of Japanese gardens, eat Japanese food in the outdoor cafe, and visit the museum which has changing exhibits. I had some delicious sushi for my lunch. My husband had curry. It smelled ot of this world.
Upon arriving, you can watch a short film loop detailing the history of the gardens.
Japanese Stone Gardens
These Japanese gardens provide a landscape with peaceful views of flowers, plants, water, and Japanese style stone lanterns.
Chie no Wa Wisdom Ring
This Japanese stone garden ornament decorates the beginning of the path through the gardens. This Japanese lantern replicates the 500 year old lantern which is a symbol of the city of Miyazu in the Kyoto prefecture in Japan. The original is a temple to the Buddhist god of wisdom.
During the 9th through 12th centuries, Japanese nobility created gardens after the Chinese style. Chinese gardens utilize water, stones, and plants. The water represents a constantly changing nature. On the other hand, the stones represent stability and strength. They use plants for beauty and texture. The Chinese use pavilions and teahouses as places of reflection in the garden.
At Morikami, benches stand at certain intervals to provide reflective areas. The Shinden Garden uses the elements of water by featuring lakes and islands to appreciate nature. Traditionally, people viewed these gardens from a boat rather than from garden paths.
After leaving the Shinden Garden, you will pass through this Ancient Gate. The Tokyo craftsmen who created this took inspiration from entrances to large homes of high ranking samurai from the Edo period. The craftsmen built this gate from Japanese Cyprus.
During the Edo period, the Japanese purposely enforced parameters for building gates of the samurai homes. The size, type, and ornaments, were indicative of the samurai’s status. During my research I noticed that the highest ranking officials had gates that looked very similar to the Torii gates for entering shrines to the gods. Food for thought.
After passing through the gate, you will stroll through the bamboo grove. Bamboo symbolizes flexibility. Take time to soak up the beauty of nature, letting the sights, and sounds, thoroughly cast an inner peace over your body.
In contrast to the Shinden Garden, which is meant to be viewed from the water, the Paradise Garden is meant to be walked through. Popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, these gardens represented the Buddhist form of Heaven.
In between the Paradise Garden and the early rock garden is the Shishi Odoshi. Almost hidden by the foliage, I almost missed this. Because I was unaware of the significance of it, I did not stop to photograph it. I learned later that the name means deer chaser. A swinging bamboo arm collects water. Once it fills, the weight of the water moves the arm to hit the rock basin below it. The sound frightens animals away that get into the garden.
Japanese stone garden – Early rock garden
This rock garden takes inspiration from Chinese landscape paintings during the Muromachi period in the 14th century. Japanese stone gardens are typically created by reducing nature to a bare minimum to stimulate meditation. They use sand and rocks to create garden spaces, also called dry landscapes.
If you are wondering how to make a Japanese stone garden, it involves more than just throwing a few rocks and stones together. Japanese gardening requires carefully selecting stones and other materials. Setting stones is not an arbitrary placement. Gardeners carefully place various sizes and colors of stones to provide harmony. Creating a Japanese rock garden is an art. They carefully rake the sand or gravel into patterns as seen in the Japanese stone gardens of the later periods.
Japanese stone garden – Karesansui late rock garden
This garden design uses a dry landscape, where Japanese rocks take the main focus rather than plants. The gardeners place the stones on a bed of gravel. In Japan, these raked designs are often found at Zen Buddhist temples. This is typical of Japanese stone gardens during the 15th and 16th centuries.
During the Edo period in the 17th and 18th centuries, flat gardens evolved from the traditional rock gardens. They incorporated plants and other elements. The Japanese garden lanterns were originally introduced from China back in the 6th century, according to Japanvisitor.com. They used them as votive lights which symbolized overcoming the darkness of ignorance.
Romantic gardens characterized the 19th and 20th centuries by using more plants than stones.
Near the romantic garden is an elevated contemplation pavilion. Intentionally, the pavilion has no view, as it is meant for internal reflection.
Continuing down the path, you will find the Nelson family memorial garden which houses the Peace Pole inscribed with the words May peace reign in the world.
After crossing Do-bashi, which is an earth and bamboo bridge crossing over pinecones, you will reach the Morikami memorial. Here you will find gravestones of George Sukeji Morikami as well as other founders of the Yamato colony.
Before crossing the Yamato-kan bridge, you will be greeted by Hotei, the god of happiness. This island houses the original museum building. The island also has the Ishidoro Japanese stone lantern, erected in memory of the 4th Tokugawa shogun in 1681. Traditional water basins, Tsukubai, decorate the gardens, and were originally used at tea houses for guests to purify themselves. There is another stone lantern on the island memorializing the Challenger astronauts.
Are you a bonsai fan? Did you know that bonsai means tray planting. Basically it means that the plants or trees are grown and kept trimmed to fit in a container. Stroll through the bonsai exhibit and then head to the far side of the museum house where you will see where they are training up numerous new bonsai.
Past the bonsai garden you will have an excellent view under shaded trees. This section is called Turtle Island. It is obvious why. You will see numerous turtles swimming in the area. Asian legends say turtles live 10,000 years. From this viewpoint you can look across to the Tenryu no Taki, Heavenly Dragon Waterfall, a great place for spotting koi. Although the koi must have been hiding when we visited, we did spot several turtles and giant lizards.
This peninsula has an excellent view of the area. I noticed several small vertical stacks of stones here. This made me wonder, “What does stacking stones in Buddhist culture signify?” After some research, I discovered the practice is most likely a form of worship. However, it is also seen as a way to ask the gods for good fortune. Each stone signifies a wish or family member.
You can learn all of this and more by visiting Morikami in Palm Beach County, Florida.
Donna Emperador is a travel and food blogger and copywriter. Donna believes in learning about different cultures while sharing good food and cocktails. She has lived in South Florida for over 20 years and enjoys spending time exploring the road to find unique places to share with readers. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.