Shimoda

Evert year, Shimoda hosts a three-day Black Ship Festival the third Saturday in May. The event attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors throughout Japan.

Commodore Matthew Perry and his black ships first arrived in Shimoda in 1853. And it was here that Japan ended its self-imposed isolation with the signing of the Japan-U.S Treaty of Peace and Amity in March 1854.

The first Shimoda Black Ship Festival to commemorate the historic day was held in 1934.

As a U.S. Navy Sailor, I LOVE seeing new ports. This love is balanced against the keen awareness that no society ever receives foreigners without disruption. Indeed, Japan’s rapid modernization resulted in the uprooting of cherished traditions, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the decline of the samurai class.

I can only imagine the emotions the original villagers felt when they first beheld Perry’s black ships. And yet somehow, the atmosphere of Shimoda’s Black Ship Festival has evolved over decades to become a celebration of cultures. It is an atmosphere of joy, of mutual respect, and…of hope.

Shimoda as a Safe Harbor

Shimoda played a leading role for what would become modern Japan. Long before Perry’s arrival, it was a harbor where many a mariner stopped to await safer conditions. Two of the city’s most prominent temples, Daianji Temple and Gyokusenji Temple, highlight the dangers many faced at sea.

In 1683, a ship from Satsuma bearing lumber intended for Edo castle encountered a typhoon. Concerned about the stability of the ship, the Sailors jettisoned much of the lumber. Upon reaching safe harbor, the captain and sixteen samurai took responsibility for the lost stores by committing suicide. Their bodies were buried at Daianji Temple, and some of the ship’s material was used to construct.

Similarly, Gyokusenji Temple is the resting place for both American and Russian Sailors. Since for health reasons their remains could not be returned to their country of origin, Japanese authorities permitted their burial in Shimoda.

It is a myth to think that modern technologies have entirely erased the danger that comes with the profession. Case in point: the U.S. Navy ship selected to participate in the festival had anchored out. The day was so windy, and the sea state so rough, that for safety reasons the liberty boat had only been able to transport one group from the ship to the port.

The Sailors that had made it were beaming. I knew the expression on their faces well. It was the disbelief and heady joy of being ashore.

Black Ships, Gray Ships, White Uniforms

In the 21st century, black is not a customary color for a modern warship. In fact, U.S. Navy ships use a very specific paint scheme known as “Haze Gray”.

Why were Commodore Perry’s ships black? The color was less a deliberate tactical scare technique than the fact that they voyage had been a long one. The hulls were coated by the coal used to power the steam ships. They must have looked intimidating.

If black is intimidating, I’m always intrigued that Navy Sailors wear WHITE for so many official warm-weather events. It looks great and conveys a sense of cleanliness and purity. That said, the uniform itself is super hard to keep clean!

Commodore Matthew Perry

Commodore Perry achieved a great success with the signing of the Japan-U.S Treaty of Peace and Amity. Within the U.S. Navy, he’s a legend. Many U.S. installations have streets or buildings that bear his name. However, it is unlikely anyone looks at his photos and thinks: “My, that man was handsome.”

Commodore Perry’s image has quite literally evolved over time. Within Japan, there now seems to be an undeniable affection for him. Although not photo-shopped to the point of movie star good looks, the monuments and posters in his honor appear dignified. Those who know Japan understand that every city takes pride in the designs of their manhole cover. That Shimoda (and Yokosuka) should feature Commodore Perry and the black ships on their manhole covers says a great deal about how he is perceived today.

Black Ship Parade and Pageantry

One of the most striking things about the Shimoda Black Ship parade is its easy, unforced sense of intimacy. There are no barricades. The Japanese and U.S. flags fly and are waved together. Japanese school-aged bands march with the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet band, followed by children on unicycles. There is a delicious sweetness and wholesomeness to it.

The festival schedule includes events such as a re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty and cultural performances. It is a festival designed to celebrate Japan’s gorgeous traditions. In addition to geisha dances, expect to see taiko drum performances, a kimono fashion show, a traditional dances.

One thing that deeply moved me was not just the joy the performers took in sharing their skills and culture, but their utter generosity. A few foreigners in the audience tried to mimic the dancers’ moves. A few moments, they were given fans and brought to the front to join the performers.

Black ship festival. Commodore Perry monument.

Food

What would any occasion in Japan be without food? The path leading up to Shimoda Hachiman Shrine was packed on both sides with food stalls. Vendors throughout town offered everything from whiskey to afternoon tea; from succulent grilled meat to fresh fish; from candied grapes on a stick to French cakes.

My two personal favorites were fresh-grilled aji (horse mackerel) and “Perry’s Rich Black Sesame Shake”. I was very amused by the shake, which was a clever homage to the black ships. Many seaside towns offer a vanilla soft cream or shake made colored with bamboo charcoal. Watch out!!! I have tried the charcoal variant – it will leave your lips, teeth, and tongue black.

I triple-checked to make sure the lead ingredient was sesame seed, not charcoal. The ¥520 shake was delicious and refreshing. Haze gray, baby!

What to Wear

One of the best things about the festival is seeing different eras and styles come together. You are likely to see clothing from the late 19th century, beautiful kimonos and yukatas, modern day dress, and U.S. Navy Sailors in whites. Everyone is out taking pictures of each other.

The Japanese have no problem with foreigners wearing or renting a kimono themselves. Far from being viewed as cultural appropriation, wearing a kimono is considered a great sign of respect. With so much gorgeousness walking around, it is natural to want to capture so many elaborate costumes and styles of dress. Just be classy and request permission first.

What to See

There are many places that make Shimoda well-worth a visit. History and Naval buffs will appreciate Shimoda’s contribution to the Japan that exists today. Consider:

  • Gyokusen-ji Temple: This small Buddhist temple was where the shogunate negotiated terms of peace for foreign treaties. Later, the temple doubled as the site of the first American consulate in Japan. It is also the resting place for five “black ship” U.S. Sailors who died overseas.
  • Shimoda’s beaches: The beaches are so pristine and beautiful that they regularly draw a Tokyo clientele during the weekends.
  • Take a hike: The Izu region is famous for stunning hiking, waterfalls, and wasabi forests. Many people are familiar with wasabi as a condiment for fresh seafood, sandwiches, and wasabi crackers. Who would have imagined you can also get cones filled with cold wasabi soft cream?

Getting There

It is a 3.5 hour drive if you are coming from Tokyo or Yokosuka. Because Shimoda is in a comparatively remote part of Japan, it is one of the few places where taking a train will NOT save you time. Expect to spend just under four hours by train.

If you’re a Navy Sailor (or authorized to use Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) services), an option that simplifies logistics is to take the MWR bus. Be forewarned: it is a long day that will start early. Expect to spend upwards of eight hours round-trip on the bus. Is it worth the $51? MOST DEFINITELY!!!

Shimoda Black Ship Festival.

Personal Reflection

My thoughts are no doubt colored by the fact that the festival was held at the same time world leaders were gathered in Hiroshima for the G7 summit. I was struck by the realization that Japan had gone from self-imposed isolation to a leader on the world stage in a very short period of time.

I love the festival’s playfulness and sense of humor. The Black Ship Festival embraces the idea that in the process of trying to understand another viewpoint, you are going to get it wrong. As such, no one takes anything too seriously.

If anything, the festival is a poignant reminder that effort, respect, hard work, sincerity, humor, and – above all, a sense of humility – can go a long way in establishing meaningful ties.

I have often thought that Commodore Perry and Godzilla have a great deal in common. Both are icons forever linked to Japan and whose arrival changed society. A Japan that once viewed them with fear and foreboding has come to view them with something that feels a lot like affection. Commodore Perry’s memorial statue is marked with wreaths. As for Godzilla…he’s a bona fide citizen of Japan.

If You Go

Shimoda’s hotel rooms book up very quickly during Golden Week and the Black Ship Festival. If you plan on staying all three days, I recommend booking early.

Here’s wishing you a safe and happy adventure!

By Katie Cerezo

Thank you so much for visiting. 😊 I have always loved traveling, and my legs are my primary means of transportation. It's a beautiful world, and I'm eager to explore it…one step at a time.

One thought on “Shimoda and the Famous Black Ship Festival”
  1. Fascinating! Your observations and tips are incredible. I will definitely be on the lookout to avoid Bamboo charcoal in my food! Thanks for explaining why the ship was black.

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