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Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011

Authentic slice of Japan preserved in South Florida

Morikami museum, gardens help spread traditions, culture dating to 1905 colony

Special to The Japan Times

The first two weeks of the new year are over, and Tom Gregersen, 61, is putting away the kine and usu, the traditional wooden mallets and mortars used in the mochitsuki (rice-cake pounding) event held as part of the O-shogatsu Festival at The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens.

News photo
Tom Gregersen takes part in the mochitsuki rice-cake pounding event this month at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, in Palm County, Fla. COURTESY OF THE MORIKAMI MUSEUM AND JAPANESE GARDENS

As well as pounding glutinous rice into mochi cakes, the annual New Year's event included the traditional hatsugama (first tea ceremony of the year) and a booth where participants could make nengajo (New Year's cards).

None of these celebrations would seem out of the ordinary to anyone in Japan, but Gregersen lives in Delray Beach, in Palm County, Fla., a city otherwise famous for palm trees, white beaches and alligators. How a museum and garden dedicated to Japan ended up in the swamplands, across the state and below Gator Land and Disney World, is a story that has long fascinated Gregersen.

Gregersen, cultural director at the Morikami, started work at the museum from its early days in 1978 as assistant to the curator.

His love for Japan started earlier, through his high school sweetheart, Sandi. "When I was in high school, I dated a fellow student who had been an exchange student in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture. She had many interesting stories to tell about Japan and her time there."

Something sparked in Gregersen, and he majored in Japanese studies at Michigan State University the following year. In 1972, the year after he graduated, he married Sandi and traveled to Japan to teach English in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

The couple returned to the U.S. three years later, and Gregersen furthered his Japan studies by getting a master's degree at the University of Michigan. When he heard about a new museum on Japan "somewhere in the southern United States," he was intrigued.

The story of the Morikami is indeed fascinating. In the early part of the 20th century, a group of Japanese from the town of Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast, settled in South Florida with the goal of combining traditional Japanese farming techniques with the tropical paradise of Florida.

"The Florida economy, largely agricultural, had been in a depressed state since the Civil War, and state leaders wanted to strengthen or revitalize the agricultural economy of the state," Gregersen said. "One idea was to bring to Florida people from some area known to be successful in agriculture. State leaders thought, 'Japanese are ingenious agricultural specialists.' Of course it was a cliche or stereotype, but this was their idea."

Led by Jo Sakai, a young Japanese man who had just graduated from New York University in 1903, and supported by the Jacksonville Board of Trade in Florida, the Yamato Colony was founded in 1905 with the idea of introducing new crops to the state and bringing new methods of innovation to share with its farmers.

As cultural director at the museum, one of Gregersen's roles is to preserve the memory of the colony, which thrived for 30 years before dwindling numbers, competition from Cuba, and ultimately World War II ended the dream. One of the original group of farmers, George Morikami, who passed away in 1976, stayed on in South Florida, and it was his generous donation of land that made the Morikami museum possible.

"We are here, in one sense, to remember and to recognize the contributions to life in Florida by the Yamato colonists. We have a permanent exhibition that we refurbish every several years, telling the story of the colony and how this group of Japanese happened to come to Florida, which at the time was a remote destination for Japanese to travel to: Across the Pacific and then across the entire North American continent to find their way to southern Florida."

Gregersen is an expert on the colony, and is currently working on a book, "The Yamato Colony: Japanese Pioneers in Florida," to further document their story. Although Morikami's donation of land honors their achievements, the museum and gardens have grown to become a true oasis of Japanese culture in the sweltering Florida sun.

Gregersen has been a part of its growth. He was not even 30 when he joined as assistant curator in 1978. At that time, there was one building on the site: "The original building, the Yamato-kan, is a square building with a courtyard garden in the middle of it, and a series of rooms are arranged around the courtyard and garden, linked by an interior veranda. It is not air conditioned, and therefore lacks the climate control that every museum needs."

There was also not very much of a collection, just a few personal articles from Morikami. Still, the museum showed potential, and Gregersen worked together with then curator Larry Rosensweig to create a truly Japanese experience.

Slowly, they built up their collection, but a priority was to raise funds to properly house and maintain the collection, and keep it out of the Florida heat. "Very early on, there was discussion about raising funds for a new building," Gregersen said. Although it took more than 10 years, the new building opened in 1993, and a few years later the museum enlisted the help of Hoichi Kurisu, a noted Japanese landscape gardener and president of Kurisu International, to design the gardens.

"Kurisu created a wonderful environment that invites you to linger, with benches and coves and the use of traditional Japanese structures, like gates and pavilions," Gregersen said.

Gregersen's favorite spot in the gardens is also a favorite with visitors: "The garden is designed with some smaller garden sites within it that can be related to historical garden development in Japan, for 1,000 years of Japanese history. There is a rock garden, a dry landscape, an expanse of raked gravel with a few judiciously placed boulders reminiscent of Ryoanji in Kyoto."

The Morikami gardens are named "Roji-en, Garden of the Drops of Dew," and opened in two stages, in 2000 and 2001. They are currently ranked 14th out of more than 300 Japanese gardens located outside of Japan by the Journal of Japanese Gardening.

Gregersen is proud of the environment he has helped to build, first as assistant curator, then as senior curator from 1987 and, since 2005, as cultural director. Gregersen coordinates all cultural aspects of the park, from the three yearly festivals showcasing Japanese culture to the temporary exhibitions that strive to educate visitors on Japan and its rich history and culture.

Over 160,000 people visit the park each year, and their Bon summer festival has become important to the local community: "O-bon attracts so many visitors (nearly 8,000 each year) because we have developed a real emotional connection in our community with the practice of toro nagashi, the floating of lanterns on a body of water. We now have over 800 lanterns that we light and set off, and people really connect with the idea that they are lighting the way back to the other world for the departed ancestors. Certainly, no one else is doing anything like it in Florida."

In addition to Bon and O-shogatsu, the museum hosts a spring cultural festival, Hatsume Fair, showcasing Japanese arts and performing arts. The museum's educational outreach also involves regular visits to local schools to introduce the typical lifestyle of Japanese schoolchildren.

Current or recent exhibitions include a feature on Yoshu Chikanobu, a print designer from the Meiji Era, a celebration of Japanese pop culture titled "Kaiju Monster Invasion," featuring vintage Japanese toys from the 1950s and '60s, and Japanese lacquerware from the Edo Period.

"A lot of young people come here, hoping to get more information to feed their interest in manga and anime," Gregerson noted. "We try to satisfy their curiosity in those areas but also teach them about other aspects of Japanese culture." A soan-style tea hut built inside the new building is used for "demonstrations or practice" of chanoyu, the tea ceremony, and Gregersen credits the efforts of Chieko Mihori, who oversees the tea hut.

Stepping onto the grounds of the Morikami is like entering an authentic version of Japan, and Gregersen welcomes the chance to share his lifelong passions with new visitors, a celebration of both the past and the present in Japanese culture.

"Morikami was still alive when they first started work on the Yamato-kan, and he was very pleased to see the direction in which his gift to Palm Beach County was developing," Gregersen said. Take one look around the gardens and you can imagine him here.

For more information on the museum or the Yamato Colony, visit www.morikami.org/

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