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Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999

Celebrating opening of old doors


By ANNE PEPPER

NEWPORT, R.I. -- It's hard to faze the sophisticated residents of Newport, R.I., but Konishiki succeeded. The former ozeki was the star attraction at the Black Ships Festival here July 22-25.

This festival, an annual event for 16 years, celebrates the city's longstanding association with Japan. Matthew Perry, commodore of the "Black Ship" fleet, which forced Japan to open its doors in 1853, after almost 250 years of self-imposed isolation, was born in Newport. Thus, the level of interest in Japan and things Japanese has always been high here.

But never had a 270-kg sumo wrestler appeared in the narrow streets of this old port city. Konishiki was a sensation everywhere he went. He was guest of honor at a black-tie gala held in one of the opulent mansions for which this seaside resort is famous. Also attending were local dignitaries and a delegation from Shimoda, Newport's sister city since 1958.

Shimoda initiated the idea of a Black Ships Festival in 1934, and holds its Kurofune Matsuri every May.

The four-day festival in Newport consisted of over 50 events, several of which dealt with sumo or the martial arts. Excited kids turned out to watch sumo demonstrations and to get autographs.

Konishiki also hosted a 90-minute seminar where he talked about his life as a sumo wrestler in Japan. It was hard work, he told the mostly young audience, and it required fierce determination not to give up. He encouraged his listeners to go after their goals without giving up, and to respect their elders along the way.

In Providence, Rhode Island's capital, Konishiki gave a similar presentation to 150 inner-city boys and girls aged 4 to 16. The mayor gave him a key to the city.

A highlight of Newport's Black Ships Festival was the opportunity to try a wide variety of Japanese food. While Americans were sampling sushi and onigiri, Konishiki was rumored to have downed 40 New England lobsters. It turned out to be only four.

For $20, festival-goers could join a sushi and sake sail aboard a 100-foot schooner in Newport Harbor. Other events on shore introduced Japanese culture at several venues throughout the city, from kite-flying to ikebana, calligraphy to shiatsu and lots of music.

Newport's Tennis Hall of Fame was the setting for an exhilarating Festival of Drums. Taiko groups from across the U.S. gave such a thunderous performance that a speaker bounced off a fence. The Soh Daiko drummers from New York and the Taiko Dojo troupe from San Francisco appeared separately, and later together. Also on stage for part of the evening was the Kubota PowerJazz Unit.

A U.S. Navy band gave an open-air concert, the Naval War College put a set of Black Ship scrolls on display, and the Museum of Newport History mounted an exhibit of items owned by the Perry family.

No one is sure how many people attended the festival, because it consisted of numerous events occurring simultaneously around the city. But what is sure is that people in Newport and Providence will be talking about Konishiki and their encounter with Japanese culture for a long time to come.



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