The roots of the Lantern Festival at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens stretch back to centuries-old Japanese customs, but over the past 37 years, the annual Delray Beach event has grown into a South Florida tradition all its own.
On Saturday, festival-goers from throughout the region will descend on the 16-acre garden for taiko drumming and folk-dance displays, sweet potatoes and sake, and the sight of 1,000 handmade lanterns floating on Morikami Lake, as fireworks explode across the sky.
Evidence of the occasion’s popularity: Its 5,000 tickets sold out weeks ago.
Limiting the number of attendees was a response to visitors’ feedback, says Samantha Levine, the venue’s marketing and events manager. “They love this event, but they said there’s just so many people.”
For a few years there, the Morikami festival was almost a victim of its own success and timing, scheduled for August so it coincided with summertime Obon observations in Japan.
In 2011, roughly 9,000 people showed up to what was then called the Bon Festival — “That was the year we decided we needed to limit attendance,” says Levine — and in 2012, summer squalls delayed the festival.
Last year, the Morikami team retooled the event, changing its name, moving it to October and re-imagining it as a seasonal celebration with a final, heartfelt act borrowed from Obon customs.
Festivalgoers who purchase lanterns can inscribe them with personal notes to ancestors. As the lanterns are set adrift on the water, they’re said to symbolize the departure of souls who’ve returned to this world for a brief visit.
“That’s what keeps people coming back,” Levine says. “It’s certainly a bittersweet moment. It’s outside of our culture, but it’s something that anybody can relate to.”
And, it’s visually stunning. But the colors, sights and tastes of fall will permeate the day.
“Since it’s a fall event, we’ve tried to incorporate different fall Japanese flavors, because food in Japan is so seasonally focused,” says Levine.
Sweet potatoes, roasted nuts, candy apples and a traditional rice-and-mushroom dish will be among the culinary offerings, while the all-American activities will include sack races and corn-hole matches.
There’s really nothing like the Lantern Festival in South Florida, says Levine, “and I would venture to say in the country.”
NO TICKET? NO GO
Tickets to this year’s Lantern Festival, taking place Oct. 18 at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, sold out weeks ago.
“We don’t want anybody to make the trip and be turned away,” says a Morikami spokeswoman.
Mark your calendars now: Tickets to next year’s festival will go on sale late next summer.
TAKE IT FROM SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN THERE
Post photographer Thomas Cordy has shot multiple images at the Lantern Festival. He shares his advice on getting the most out of the experience:
- Arrive early for a good parking spot, particularly if you’re carrying camera gear. (The Morikami, however, does not encourage the use of tripods.)
- Pack insect repellent. “Bugs can be bad as the sun sets,” Cordy says.
- Be respectful. Says Cordy, “People are there to remember dead family members.”