Set sail for Newport's Black Ships Festival

Chris Bergeron

A century and a half after Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships pried open Japan's doors, the Land of the Rising Sun will bring its exquisite culture to historic Newport, R.I.

Starting Thursday, July 17, visitors can sample sushi, sumo, sake and much more in a four-day festival of cross-cultural family fun in Rhode Island's grandest seaport community.

The Newport Black Ships Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year by offering new activities and more events to honor the city's and state's long historic ties with Japan, said festival Director David Rosenberg.

He said the festival will provide "the best way to enjoy all the experiences of taking a trip to Japan without leaving Newport."

"I just can't emphasize enough how fascinating this festival will be," he said recently. "It's really designed to have something for everyone."

From 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, you can sail aboard one of the world-famous Tall Ships, the 101-foot schooner Aurora, sipping sake as you view the scenic harbor. Tickets are $35. Call 401-846-2720 for reservations.

The highlight of this year's festival will be the Governor's Gala tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. in the Island House at Belle Mer, Goat Island, Newport. R.I. Gov. Donald Carcieri will greet Japan's consul general and the mayor and visiting dignitaries from Newport's sister city of Shimoda, Japan. Reservations are required.

Rosenberg said the festival commemorates the historic role played by Newport's native son, Commodore Perry, who established friendly trade relations between the United States and Japan.

On July 14, 1853, Perry sailed four "black" U.S. Navy vessels so called by the Japanese for their color and smoke from coal driven engines into present-day Yokosuka Harbor, opening Japan to commerce and political relations with the United States after 200 years of self-imposed isolation.

Considered the father of America's steam Navy, Perry led U.S. forces in battles with Spain and Mexico. After his death in 1858, his remains were reinterred in 1866 on Cemetery Island, off the coast of Newport.

Organized by the Japan-American Society of Rhode Island Inc., the festival offers a mixed bag of spectacular events like Festival Opening Day Ceremonies and the Governor's Black Ship Gala, as well as other activities such as a film series and martial arts demonstrations that provide intimate glimpses of Japanese traditional and modern arts.

The festival's opening ceremonies will kick off Friday, July 18, at 10:30 a.m. at Touro Park on Bellevue Avenue. A wreath laying at Commodore Perry's statue will honor his role opening relations between the two countries.

On Saturday, Touro Park will be transformed into a Japanese-American Cultural Center featuring day-long activities in aikido, calligraphy, sword etiquette, pottery making and the art of feng shui.

Coming from the Walt Disney Epcot Center, "candy artist" Miyuki will demonstrate the traditional art of cutting rice dough into miniature dragons, horses, cats and more.

To give the feel of traditional Japanese life, Brick Market will be transformed into a Japanese American Market where visitors can meet a gigantic sumo wrestler, learn the secrets of ninja warriors or how to play ancient instruments like the shamisen and koto.

Rosenberg hopes visitors to this year's 25th annual rain-or-shine festival exceed last year's 30,000 to 35,000 attendees. "We'd like to see it getting bigger."

Judging by size alone, American sumo wrestler Emanuel Yarbrough, who stands 6 feet, 8 inches and weighs around 600 pounds, will "meet and greet" mere mortals to discuss his career as a mixed martial artist, actor and motivational speaker.

The festival offers demonstrations and workshops for visitors interested in Japanese arts and crafts, music and martial arts.

Most demonstrations will be held at Brick Market and Touro Park while several special events will be at different locations. A few of the events are:

  • Friday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., classic Japanese film, CCRI, Newport County Campus
  • Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., origami workshop, Touro Park
  • Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., tea tasting, Brick Market
  • Saturday, 3:15 to 4 p.m., kimono demonstration, Japanese Language and Culture Tent
  • Sunday, 11 a.m., Taiko Drum festival, Cardine's Field

Rosenberg described the festival as a "great cross-cultural experience for families."

"Where else can kids learn to fly Japanese kites or learn to write their names in Japanese characters? The whole family can enjoy the world-famous Taiko drummers or watch Japanese mime," he said. "Whether you're familiar with Japanese life or completely new to it, this festival will introduce you to an intriguing culture."


Many events at the Newport Black Ships Festival are free. Others require tickets for admission. Prices range from $6 to $8 for some workshops. Prices for the Taiko Drums Festival range from $4 for children to $12 for adults depending on performance's location.

For a complete schedule of activities, call 401-846-2720 or visit