Florida’s hidden gem is its rich Japanese culture

Florida is known for being a melting pot of global influences thanks to the immigrants and millions of tourists who visit the state on a yearly basis. A short drive can immerse you in an entirely different culture without even having to leave the country, giving you the opportunity to experience different foods, customs and, most importantly, communities. 

A popular way people can appreciate these diverse backgrounds is through a meal. Asian cuisine is found in almost every city but is often grouped into a broad category of foods from several countries instead of the unique flavors that define individual nationalities.

Ryoko Monfalcone is a mom of three from Okinawa, Japan who moved to the United States with her family 15 years ago due to her husband’s career. 

“There are pros and cons to living in both Japan and America,” said Monfalcone. “The two countries are so different and the way of life is significantly different, but I appreciate them both.” 

Monfalcone tries to incorporate Japanese traditions and customs in her family’s lives, but faces challenges doing so. 

“It’s hard to find ingredients when trying to make authentic Japanese food, and during the holidays it can be hard to find the materials needed for the dishes.” 

One of the biggest celebrations in the country is the Japanese New Year, when people come together, commemorate the new beginning and express gratitude. Monfalcone makes sure to include Japanese traditions into her household for these important holidays, but has also started incorporating American customs, such as eating black eyed peas for good luck.

Homemade soba noodles by Ryoko Monfalcone. (Photo courtesy of Ryoko Monfalcone)

“We have to eat soba noodles on New Years because they represent living a long, healthy life, but now I also make black eyed peas for my family as well.” 

Monfalcone makes the soba noodles from scratch with a pasta machine along with other dishes like dumpling wrappers and mochi that would typically be bought ready-made at a Japanese supermarket, but are unavailable at her local grocery store.

“When I was living in Japan, I was always so mesmerized by American and Western culture and didn’t see the beauty of Japanese and Okinawan culture,” she said. “Since moving to Florida, I have become more appreciative of my own culture and traditions.” 

Monfalcone now finds herself cooking more traditional Japanese dishes than when she was living in Japan, especially since most of her meal staples aren’t easily accessible. The extra steps she takes to stay in touch with her roots makes her feel closer to her homeland and ensures that her children are raised understanding their Japanese heritage. 

According to an October 2023 Statista study, 400,000 Japanese residents live in the United States. With a population of 1.6 million, Japanese Americans are the sixth largest Asian American group.

View of the Japanese Garden from the central entrance of the Morikami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Katie Kelly / Caplin News)

Places such as the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens give Floridians the opportunity to experience and learn more about Japanese culture through its gardens, special events, workshops and Asian-inspired cafe. 

The museum was created by the Yamato Colony, a population of Japanese farmers who were led to Boca Raton in 1904 by Jo Sakai before declining in the 1920s. The museum opened in 1977 and was modeled after the original Yamato-Kan village’s exhibition rooms and traditional architecture as well as the garden designs of Hoichi Kurisu, a Japanese landscape artist. 

Wendy Lo, the curator of education at Morakami, explained that the mission of the museum is to engage a diverse audience by presenting Japanese cultural experiences that educate and inspire.

Tatami room inside the Morkami Museum tea house. (Photo courtesy of Katie Kelly / Caplin News)

“This can be through the various offerings we have at the museum such as our exhibitions, 16-acre gardens, education programs, or special events,” said Lo. 

Morakami’s classes, workshops, lectures, films, cultural demos, and tours give people various opportunities to experience Japanese culture, customs and traditions. 

Matcha is a popular powdered green tea that is used in many dishes, from drinks to desserts, and plays an important role in the Japanese sacred tea ceremony. 

The ceremony takes place in a special tea house called the chashitsu, where several grades of matcha such as dark matcha or koicha are used.

There are many deep meanings behind the ceremony, however, it mainly serves to create a sense of calm between the host and guests as well as promote mindfulness and wellbeing amid the stresses of everyday life.

The tea ceremony is just one of the many traditions that can be practiced on the grounds. For those who wish to participate, museum experts provide an in-depth explanation of the ceremony and its symbolism. 

“The local Japanese community sees the museum as a way to connect with their homeland and ancestral roots, especially since they are so far from Japan,” said Lo. “They are proud to see their culture, art, and history represented through our museum.” 

Although the Yamato colony came to an end, the impact of the farmers are shown throughout the Delray community. The 610-acre plot of land established by the Japanese settlers is now the vicinity of present day Yamato road as a part of a new agricultural method to grow Florida’s economy. The plan unfortunately didn’t not go as planned due to the outbreak of World War II the colony did have successes in their fruits, the most impactful being the pineapple that were sent to the imperial household in Tokyo. The influence of pineapple can be seen throughout the area on street signs and artwork found in the community.

Katie Kelly is a senior majoring in digital journalism with an area of concentration in Psychology. Once she graduates, Katie is interested in pursuing her career in the journalism world.