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Japanese Gardens of South Florida
--Vestige of the Morikami Colony

By Stephen Kelly, managing editor






The main Morikami waterfall, constructed with a 10' reinforced concrete wall, gunnite and various reinforcement techniques to secure 80-90 tons of granite boulders, recycles 1,200 gpm from the main lake. The foreground plants are azaleas, mockorange shrub (Pittosporum tobira), Indian hawthorn (Raphiolepsis indica), and pinwheel jasmine (Ligustrum japonica). The trees are black olive (shady lady).


"...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,"–Hoichi Kurisu

To fully appreciate the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens (Roji-en) in Delray Beach, Florida, you must venture back to the 1904 World Exposition in St. Louis, a time and place when the U.S. was introduced to the style and order of Japanese gardens.






Kirusu International has been sculpting pine trees for 25 years, primarily in the Pacific northwest. Kurisu's sculpted pines are trained and pruned for 8-10 years in traditional Japanese style, producing 10 to14 foot-tall specimen trees. However, because Kirusu-trained trees are viable only in northern climates such as Illinois or New York, native indigenous pines (Pinus ellottii) along the lake shore toward a rocky point were used on this project. These pines were pruned by Kirusu to give them the right Japanese feeling.


For some of the Japanese visitors to the exposition, the vast, open lands of the U.S. were a revelation, and beckoned those of an adventurous spirit. Land was at a premium in Japan, but here the possibilities seemed limitless. One Japanese citizen, Jo Sakai, a graduate of New York University, also saw some commercial opportunities, signing an agreement with the Florida East Coast Railway to bring Japanese farmers to the Boca Raton area to grow pineapples. Sakai returned home to recruit 20 of his countrymen. Land, land, everywhere, but the enterprising Sakai had brought his fellow immigrants to a land of heat, humidity, swamps, and the denizens of that environment–snakes, alligators and mosquitoes. The immigrants dubbed the settlement the Yamato Colony and did indeed manage to grow pineapples, but were not able to compete with the Cuban growers. Clearly not the most hospitable locale for a settlement, people began to leave the colony by the 1920s until only one man remained, Sukeji Morikami, who stayed until his death in 1976. Morikami donated 200 acres of his land to Palm Beach County, with the wish that it be park land in memory of the colony.






The Paradise Garden incorporates Buddhist imagery of jodo (the pure land), a heaven described by Amida Buddha. Paradise gardens of the 14th century exhibited the first steps toward abstraction in Japanese garden design by the use of shinden island gardens on a small scale. The pond resembles kanji (the heart), a favored pond design in Japan.





The soothing sounds of wind through the bamboo grove calms the spirit. Pine and plum trees nearby complete the triad, all auspicious symbols in the Japanese culture.

In 1977, the county fulfilled his wish with the construction of a small museum (the Yamato-kan) that exhibited the history of the Yamato Colony and featured an outdoor courtyard with a "dry" garden (gravel, pebble and small boulders). Seishiro Tomioka, who worked with the county planning department, designed the Japanese gardens that surrounded the museum. Tomioka later became a professor of landscape architecture at Louisiana State University.The museum and gardens became a center for Japanese arts and culture in South Florida, including Japanese traditional festivals.

In 1993, a museum 10 time the size of Yamato-kan was built to house some 5,000 objets d'art and included a 225-seat theater, library, classrooms, cafe, and a lakeside terrace and Japanese courtyard garden. The 200 acres that surround the two museums included large Japanese gardens, tropical bonsai, small lakes with koi, nature trails and pine forests, among other amenities.

In June 1999, a major garden expansion and renovation began. Hoichi Kurisu, president and principal designer of Kurisu International, was selected for the task. He studied at Waseda University in Tokyo, and later under the tutelage of landscape architect Kenzo Ogata. Before founding his own firm in 1972, Mr. Kurisu was the landscape director for the Japanese Garden Society of Portland, Oregon for five years.






An atypical foggy morning looking toward the Harriet D. and George W. Cornell Bridge. Constructed of Japanese cypress using traditional methods of joinery, the bridge connects the museum to the Shinden Island gardens on the manmade lake. Kurisu reshaped the shoreline to create coves and vistas. The prominent tree on the right-side slope is a gumbo limbo, Bursera simaruba.





The shoreline's shape and curve gracefully create a sense of distance and destination, what Hoichi Kurisu refers to as Ki-sei (ki=air or energy, sei=force), the relationship of the mass, angle and size of elements and the distance between them that interact to create space and movement. The tall trees are native slash pine (Pinus ellottii). Tabebuia, juniper (Pittosporum tobria) and a groundcover of liriope complete the palette.


Kurisu International is a landscape design-build firm with offices in Portland, Oregon and Lake Worth, Florida. The design/build component is key, as you will see. Mr. Kurisu insisted on a design/build contract with Palm Beach County to create the six new gardens at the Morikami. There was no precedent for such a contract with Palm Beach County. Mr. Kurisu knew that the building regulations in Florida were some of the strictest in the nation, and getting the permit would be onerous. Palm Beach County, for instance, require all park slopes to be 4:1, a slope that would work within certain areas of a Japanese garden, but would destroy the effect in other areas. There were other design restrictions; the ADA requirements: The slope of a walkway could not be steeper than 1 to 20, otherwise it was considered a "ramp" and must meet strict requirements for ramps usage; a turn in the pathway must be at least six feet in length; any feature of the garden above ground level (footbridges or railings, for example) could not have openings larger than four inches and had to be at least 48 inches high. A wall facing the street, even if decorative, required plantings along the wall's full length.






The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida, resides on 200 acres of land donated to Palm Beach County in 1976 in memory of the Morikami Colony, a Japanese immigrant community that came to south Florida to grow pineapples at the turn of the 20th century. In June 1999, a major garden expansion and renovation was undertaken by Hoichi Kurisu, president and principal designer of Kurisu International.





The Morikami Memorial, a tribute to the Japanese colony that worked the land here in the first two decades of the 20th century.


Further, there were hurricane construction requirements: metal plate strapping fastened with bolts for all joints; gates requiring eight inch diameter posts buried four feet deep and set in concrete. Even using the traditional Japanese cypress would require proving to the county the wood could withstand the heat, humidity and bugs of Florida.

Mr. Kurisu believed the building regulations would diminish the spirit and beauty of his garden design. He knew, for instance, he didn't need metal straps on the joints of wood structures when Japanese carpentry relied on traditional joinery which "gave" a bit under heavy winds and are less likely to be damaged than joints strapped with metal and bolted down.






The Yamato-kan Falls ("Ykan") recycles 150-200 gpm from the main lake. Kurisu renovated and structurally redesigned the falls. The hardscape comprises Florida limestone and field stone from Tennessee. Southern maple; sea grape (Pittosporum); azalea; liriope; ferns; and coco plum constitute the plantings. The koi pond is a favorite place for people to congregate.







To allow the design he sought, Mr. Kurisu signed a design/built contract with the county that basically exempted Palm Beach from any responsibilities for designing/building decisions incorporated by Kurisu to create authentic Japanese gardens not spelled out on the plans.

The six new gardens built by Kurisu represent Japanese garden design from the eighth to the 20th century. Mr. Kurisu said his intent was not to duplicate gardens in Japan, but to express their character. Though there are separate gardens, he strove to flow the transitions between the gardens to create the sense of one garden. Containment, openness, light, shade, proportion and the harmonious, dynamic sense of space were the qualities Kurisu sought to create.

The new gardens that complement the Morikami Museum are officially called Roji-en: (Garden of the Drops of Dew) George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Japanese Gardens. Larry Rosensweig, the museum director, asserts the six diverse gardens are "the only venue in the world to include a sweep of historical garden design, a conceptual theme that is unique to a cultural museum."






The Modern Romantic Garden is the last of the six gardens designed and perhaps the least formal and most naturalistic. A shellrock path leads along the creek to a view of the falls or the slight slope along the path of the creek to the pond and gardens beyond. The tall trees on the left of the path are black olives (“Shady Lady”). The quiet waterfall and creek flow into a reflecting pond. Golden raintree, crepe myrtle, ferns (Pittosporum) and granite set the scene. From the pond (right) is a view of Meditation Hut on the hill. The lantern (suishoen) on the rock is designed for placement by water.












Mr. Kurisu believes that the love of nature and careful study of it are fundamental to garden design. "For a designer, learning from nature is as much the discovery of natural landscapes as of how a person responds physically and emotionally to them," he explains. While botanical gardens are intended to provide knowledge and information about specific plant species, these gardens eschew plant identification signage, as it would detract from the garden experience.






Dry rock gardens, developed by Zen Buddhist monks to better meditate (the "infinite in a microcosm") are the most abstract of Japanese garden styles. They are traditionally entirely enclosed by a wall, but Kurisu left a gap in the wall, breaking tradition. These gardens were meant to be experienced from a sitting position.


"Like a musical composition's crescendos and decrescendos, creating a sense of anticipation, of progression and resolution, Roji-en's elements relate to each other through complement and contrast," Mr. Kurisu offers. "Immersed in society's materialism, increasingly boxed into a systematized world, we have become immune to a simpler, more natural way of living and thinking," he asserts. "Despite our accomplishments and possessions, our deeper desires often remain unfulfilled. We find ourselves preoccupied with modern society's demands, drawing us away from cultivating a more fundamental relationship with life."






Raked granite chips, Tennessee boulders and a ficus hedge are the key materials.


Mr. Kurisu believes his gardens are "an invitation to stop momentarily and ponder anew what we are, where we have been, and where we are heading." His own words bests describe the import of his gardens. "My hope is that visitors will let the gardens speak to them of timeless truths and rhythms which can provide therapeutic insights for today. I hope visitors will listen to, cherish and act upon the inspiration the gardens impart. 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. We exchange burden, boredom and despair for renewal, inspiration and hope. Or, from the joy we already feel, we discover an even greater capacity for good. This is the tremendous power of Japanese gardens."



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June 17, 2019, 8:43 am PDT

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