Visitors to Newport this weekend will find the historic harbor city’s Touro Park transformed into a Japanese cultural bazaar for the Black Ships Festival, which runs from July 18-21. The festival, which will mark its 30th anniversary this year, commemorates the first treaty between the United States and Japan and celebrates the friendship between Newport and its sister city, Shimoda, Japan.
The weekend features demonstrations of Japanese arts from Origami and calligraphy to Samurai swordplay and several martial arts. Two sushi and sake tastings aboard the schooner Aurora sell out every year, according to festival organizers.
The workshops can be a real learning experience for Americans, said Discover Newport President Evan Smith. “How much does that family know about Japan?” he said of vacationing families who stumble on the event. “It’s kind of like a geography 101 class for people.”
Several formal occasions highlight the festival’s significance as well. At the opening ceremonies July 19, a naval color guard and artillery salute will welcome a delegation from Shimoda and mark the start of festivities.
A black-tie gala the following night at Marble House will host Naval War College President Rear Admiral Walter Carter and Mayor Shunsuke Kusuyama of Shimoda, along with other representatives of both countries. Together they will crack open a wooden sake drum, a Japanese tradition for opening a grand event.
One thing absent from the Black Ships Festival, however, is any actual black ships. The name comes not from what festival-goers see today but from what the Japanese saw on their horizon more than 150 years ago.
In the early 19th century, Japan had isolated itself from the outside world for two centuries. That policy meant almost no trade or interaction between the island empire and the increasingly global naval powers in the West.