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welcome to the 2020 Koi Festival


Under normal circumstances, May 3, 2020 would have welcomed the 4th annual Belle Isle Conservancy Koi Festival.
(This is in alignment with Children's Day, which is celebrated in Japan on May 5th)  

Last year we were fortunate to have support from the local Japanese community to bring Belle Isle Aquarium visitors a rich cultural experience that celebrated the Japanese heritage of the Koi fish. Local partner organizations included the Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit, Grassroots Exchange Network Japan (GEN-J), the Japanese American Citizen's League, Japanese Business Society of Detroit Women's Club, and Ikebana International-Detroit Chapter 85.  With last year's momentum fueling the plans for the 2020 Koi Festival we were excited to share an even more elevated experience. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the health and safety of the community is ranked even higher among our priorities and we unfortunately will not gather for this celebration. 

We have collaborated with our partners, the Consulate-General of Japan and GEN-J, to maintain the momentum behind this very special event. Together we continue to work to strengthen the cultural exchange between Detroit and Japan, while raising awareness of the ties between the Motor City and the Land of the Rising Sun. This year's Koi Festival acknowledges  Tanabata (which was celebrated in Japan on July 7th), the 60 years of Sister City connection between Detroit and Toyota,  a taste of the culture in Japan, and more!


Download your own Koi Festival coloring sheet!

Share your designs on social media using #BICKoiFestival2020

Belle Isle Conservancy Koi Festival design by Bruce Gerlach, Belle Isle Aquarium Volunteer


Follow along on social media this week for programming provided by our partners and their affiliates.

Calendar of Events


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July 12 | The 4th “FeelYamaguchi” Online (Lord Ouchi) Bon Dance @ YPU,  8-9:10pm

                Practice Bon Odori with Japanese Buyo dance group from Yamaguchi Prefecture University

                Free event, registration required. Follow link for info. 

                Event page:

July 13 | Koi nobori: What is Koi Festival in Japan?, 12pm

                Hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit

                Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit Facebook


July 14 | Let's write in Kanji!, 12pm

                Hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit

                Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit Facebook

July 15 | Let's make Origami!, 12pm

                Hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit

                Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit Facebook

July 17 | Sister Cities: Toyota-Detroit / Belle Isle, 12pm

                Hosted by the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit

                Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit Facebook



                 Test your chopstick skills with Table for Two          

                 Hosted by Novi Public Library. Free event, registration required

                 Event page:

About Koi Festival

ABOUT THE Koi Festival


In 2017, the Belle Isle Conservancy hosted the first Koi Festival at the Belle Isle Aquarium.
The Koi Festival is a family friendly event that brings the community together to celebrate the Japanese 
heritage of the Aquarium’s Koi collection. In alignment with Children’s Day, which is celebrated in Japan on the 5th of May, the Koi Festival celebrates the symbolism of the Japanese carp in its native culture and offers aquarium visitors a chance to experience elements of Japanese culture. Activities include traditional games, martial arts demonstrations, 
music, and crafts inspired by Japanese traditions along with a selection of Japanese inspired cuisine. 

While we cannot gather for the Koi Festival this year, the tradition continues with the help of the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit and Grassroots Exchange Network Japan as we highlight Japanese culture and explore the connections between Belle Isle and Japan. 

Check out photos from past Belle Isle Conservancy Koi Festivals! 

how did we get here?

The City of Detroit closed the Belle Isle Aquarium. Of the over 4,000 fish and aquatic creatures, only the Koi fish remained because they were owned by the City. The Belle Isle Botanical Society took care of the Koi . 

Friends of Belle Isle Aquarium  
(FOBIA) signed a service contract with the Detroit Recreation Department to care for the Koi and move them twice a year between the lily pond and the holding tanks in the BIA basement. 

FOBIA created the “Koi Transfer - Koi Wrangling” event with their own volunteers to help transfer the Koi to and from the  lily pond. 

FOBIA, along with three other island 
affiliate groups, merged to become the Belle Isle Conservancy. The BIC re-opens and manages the Belle Isle Aquarium, now free to the public. FOBIA hosts the first 
community Koi Wrangle that got the public involved with moving the Koi and helped support their commitment to pay for the Koi’s upkeep.

The Koi Wrangle grew to be a large community event with hundreds of participants. 2016 hosted the final Koi Wrangle events. 

The Lily Pond Stabilization project was 
completed, providing  an outdoor home 
for the Koi year-round. The Koi Festival was introduced in to continue to engage the community in place of the Koi Wrangle. 

Belle Isle Conservancy partners with Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit, Grassroots Exchange Network-Japan, and Japanese American Citizen's League to facilitate strong cultural programming to the community. 

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Legend of Japanese Carp

Legend of the Japanese Carp


Japanese folklore tells stories of the Koi fish as warriors of the water who, in some tales, ultimately reach their destiny by turning into a dragon after swimming upstream and reaching the top of the falls. According to legend, if a Koi fish succeeded in climbing the falls at a point called Dragon Gate on the Yellow River, it would be transformed into a dragon. The fish are regarded as a symbol of perseverance in Japan because hey are known for swimming upstream no matter what the conditions are. 

Koi, more specifically, Nishikigoi, is translated from Japanese as “brocaded carp.” Wild koi are native to the fresh bodies of water around the Black, Caspian and Aral Seas. These fish are colorful, ornamental versions of the common, or Amur, carp native to the freshwaters of Asia. The Koi is known in Japan as the "warrior's fish". Each May for the Boy's Day Festival, beautiful Koinobori streamers in the shape of Koi are flown from poles to represent the Japanese parents' hope that their sons will demonstrate courage and strength. The Belle Isle Conservancy Koi Festival is greatly influenced by the Boy's Day celebrations and traditional Japanese festival games.

Though carp domestication is believed to have begun in China as far back as the 4th century, modern Japanese Koi are believed to date back to early 19th-century Japan where wild black carp (or Magoi, a type of common carp) were kept and bred by rice farmers as a food source to survive severe winter weather conditions. The result born from this was a vibrantly colored carp with an admirable figure that stood out from the rest with it’s rare beauty.  As the farmers developed their breeding operations, they figured out how to breed fish of specific color combinations, and as awareness grew many started to appreciate Nishikigoi like a fine work of art. The world was not aware of Koi color variations in Japan until the early 1900’s when Koi were exhibited in Tokyo, Japan and now, after centuries of breeding  there are now dozens of different color varieties of Koi.

Koi can grow up to 3 feet (90 centimeter) in length and weigh more than 12 pounds each. They are omnivorous feeders who will eat food found at all depths of water. Our collection of Koi are fed a floating pellet, though they will also eat aquatic insects, algae and plants.  They can even be trained to eat from your hand. Koi have an average lifespan of 40 years, and it is believed that the oldest-known Koi lived to be nearly 230 years old. A fish's age is determined by testing it's scales, which produce growth rings much like a tree.

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Belle Isle Aquarium Koi Pond

2019 Koi Festival 

Bon Odori

It's summertime! Learn to dance the
bon-odori Japanese Summer Dance


Bon-Odori is a style of dancing performed during Obon, an annual event to commemorate one's ancestors. Obon observance is the 13th to the 15th day of the 7th month of the year. July, according to the Gregorian calendar. 


For a lesson on Bon-Odori, the Japanese summer festival dance, join the Japanese Student Association of Eastern Michigan University and Minae Sawai, Cultural Exchange Facilitator with Grassroots Exchange Network - Japan at the link below. 

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The Bon-Odori video playlist includes the following lessons:

1. Tanko Bushi (炭坑節)

2. Tokyo Ondo(東京音頭)

3. Tokyo Gorin Ondo(東京五輪音頭)


Tanabata matsuri:
celebrating the star festival



Tanabata,  which translates to "evening of the seventh," is one of five Japanese traditional seasonal festivals or gosekku.  In Japan, the "Star Festival" is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th month. Tanabata commemorates the annual cosmic meeting of star-crossed lovers Princess Orihime (the star of weavers, Vega) and Prince Hikobishi (the star of cow herders, Altair). Many regions of Japan celebrate Tanabata on July 7, but others who rely on traditional calendar systems hold celebrations in August. 


As the legend goes, the couple's whirlwind romance distracted Princess Orihime from her weaving. Her father forbade their relationship because lovers' stars wouldn't shine brightly enough when they did not focus on their work. But Princess Orihime begged him to let them stay together. Because he loved her, Princess Orihime's father decreed that the two star-crossed lovers could meet once a year if Princess Orihime returned to her weaving. The story tells that the lovers are only allowed to meet when the skies are clear.


​Tanabata is widely considered synonymous with celebrating koi, romantic love, and casting one's wish. During Tanabata, people write their wishes on brightly colored strips of paper ribbons, called tanzaku, and tie them to bamboo trees. It is traditional to place the shoots with the tanzaku attached into the river so that the wishes are carried away and later granted. However, the modern practice has evolved, with care and concern for the environment, and people often opt out of putting bamboo shoots with tanzaku into the waterways.





Hear the story of Tanabata and learn more about the Star Festival with Momo,
organizer of the Ann Arbor based group
Tomodachi Songs!​

Tomodachi Songs (Tomodachi = friendship) is a Japanese community where kids and families gather around to find new ways to bond with each other, musically. Momo currently teaches “Music Together in Japanese” classes. Momo sings and tells stories in Japanese, and English, during Japanese Storytime at libraries, music classes, YouTube, and Facebook. 
Please visit Momo's Songs and Stories on Facebook and the Tomodachi Songs website!



Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (2:30)

About the Star Festival (5:57)

Tale of Tanabata (8:12)

Tanabata in Japanese Culture (12:56)

Tanabata Song (14:05) 

Let's craft! Making Tanabata decoration (17:01)

Good-bye & Thank You (24:36)


let's learn wa-shokuiku and try the #edamamechallenge with Novi Public Library and table for two

和食育について楽しく学ぼう!ノバイ公立図書館、Table for two共催

The Wa-Shokuiku -Learn. Cook. Eat Japanese!- program is an initiative from TABLE FOR TWO USA, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization promoting healthy eating around the world. Wa-Shokuiku combines the Japanese words “Washoku” which refers to Japanese food and, “Shokuiku”, food education. It is a series of hands-on and online classes about Japanese food and food culture. Students will learn how to make iconic Japanese foods such as onigiri (rice ball), sushi rolls, miso soup, bento as well as the importance of appreciation for those who both prepare and grow our food and food related concerns such as food waste and what actions they can take in their daily life. Watch the video and learn more about the Wa-Shokuiku program. 

Join the #EdamameChallenge!

Test your chopstick skills and catch a Wa-shokiuku food demo 
with Novi Public Library and Table For Two

Friday, July 17th | 2 - 3pm

Free event. Registration and info here.

Here's what you'll need:








Did you know? Onigiri is the oldest Japanese food dating back 1200 years!

Watch the video below to learn more about onigiri, and visit Wa-shokiuku online for more healthy eating inspiration. 

1. #EdamameChamp Score Sheet (download & print from here). If a printer is not           available, draw 5 circles on a letter-size paper!

2. 25 or more (up to 100!) shelled Edamame beans or any beans you have available

3.  1 pair Chopsticks

4. Timer


feel the thunder!:

great lakes taiko center keeping tradition alive


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Great Lakes Taiko Center celebrates the thundering performance of Japanese Taiko drumming through teaching, performing, and keeping fit while creating powerful music together. Taiko is a form of drumming that requires an ensemble of performers who are acutely choreographed. The term Taiko refers to a broad range of Japanese drums called wadaiko. Since 2010 Great Lakes Taiko Center has shared the joy of music and Japanese Taiko drumming through education and performances in Southeast Michigan, Midwest USA, and beyond. We look forward to welcoming the ensemble back to the Belle Isle Aquarium for the 2021 Koi Festival. 

Enjoy this performance of Great Lakes Taiko Center's Mushi Okuri Project!

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Raku firing:
preserving the distinguished ancient art


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Raku fired vessels

Pewabic Pottery

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Raku ware is a hand-molded style of glazed Japanese earthenware. The oldest known record of Raku is 16th-century Kyōto. Zen Tea Master Sen Rikyū commissioned a potter named Chōjirō to design specially for the tea ceremony. Raku differs from the commonly recognized process where pottery is placed into a cold kin then fired. Instead, the distinct pottery technique involves hand molding each container and placing it in a hot kiln before removing it to cool at air temperature. The polarity of the temperatures produces a unique appearance in the glaze, and sometimes, in the pottery itself. Contact our local pottery experts on the Pewabic Street Team for Raku right here at home! 


In 2019 Belle Isle Conservancy welcomed the Pewabic Street Team  to the Koi Festival to facilitate a Raku firing experience.  

Attendees watched up close as the Pewabic team completed the Raku firing process, and some were able to take home tiny vessels that had been fired before their eyes. In this exciting outdoor firing process, wares are pulled from the kiln while they are glowing red hot and placed into a trash can filled with sawdust and newspaper. The end result is often a colorful metallic finish on the pots and a unique experience for onlookers.



Pewabic Street Team

2019 Koi Festival



Watch as Raku Kichizaemon, the fifteenth grand master of the Raku line of potters, talks about this ceramic art. 

Sister Cities

60 YEARS OF SISTER CITY friendship (2020)


Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, Japan is one of 27 Japan-Michigan sister city relationships. This relationship between Detroit and Toyota was established in 1960 on the basis that both places were considered to be "motor cities"and had interests in investing in the automobile industry. A student exchange program was established five years later in 1965. 

The Metro Detroit area is home to a thriving Japanese and Japanese-American community and there are significant connections to Japan throughout the city. A couple of those connections are right here on Belle Isle. Just outside of the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is a stone lantern that was presented to the City of Detroit by the Mayor of Toyota City and Toyota City Council members to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Detroit + Toyota Sister City relationship. The lantern is inscribed with the Japanese word for "friendship" and was presented on September 21, 1985. There is a second lantern located inside of the Aquarium's Koi pond.

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The cherry blossom trees that border the lagoon near the James Scott Memorial Fountain were gifted to the City in 1994 by the Japanese Business Society of Detroit and citizens of Toyota. In November of 2014, a U.S. Forest Service grant was awarded to replace the trees after they'd been destroyed by insects and disease. The Greening of Detroit organized over 100 volunteers to plant the new, disease resistant trees with support from Belle Isle Conservancy and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The cherry blossom trees are a popular attraction each spring. 

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Hart Plaza

Further along the riverfront just south of Belle Isle is Hart Plaza, which was designed by the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988). Noguchi is well known for his sculptural work, most of which is kept at the Isamu Noguchi Museum. However, as a spatial designer, the bulk of his completed work in this category is behind private gates. Hart Plaza is considered to be his most impressive spatial commission and is also his earliest. The three other public spaces that Nagochi has designed are the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center Plaza in Los Angeles, California (1980); Bayfront Park in Miami, Florida (1986); and the privately managed California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California (1981). Hart Plaza also includes the stainless steel Dodge Fountain and Twisting Pylon sculpture, both designed by Noguchi. 


Left: Twisting Pylon                 

Right: Dodge Fountain 

Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) launched a permanent Japanese art gallery in early November.

The collection features both traditional and contemporary works. According to museum director Salvador Salort-Pons, the contrast between new and old demonstrates that Japanese art is an ongoing tradition. The exhibit provides context to objects by placing them in their original settings such as tea rooms, domestic rooms, and temples, and seeks to explore how the works can impact space to inspire both stillness and movement in the viewer. One of the pieces featured is a lacquered sculpture of a Rakan, or disciple of the Buddha, another is a sixteenth-century Samurai helmet. It also features digital components, such as an interactive tea ceremony table and a short film of traditional Noh Theater produced in collaboration with Tokyo’s Kanze Kyukokai Theater. The Japan Business Society of Detroit, which also organized a Japan Cultural Developmentprogram at the DIA to promote friendship between the US and Japan, contributed $3.2 million toward the gallery.

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Iconic Architecture
Minoru Yamasaki, a Japanese-American architect who practiced in Michigan for 40 years, was one of the world's best-known architects in the early 1960s. He is the mind architect behind  several iconic Detroit buildings including the One Woodward building which is his first skyscraper, and the only one he designed prior to the World Trade Center. The building originally housed the Michigan Consolidated Gas Comapny. 


Curbed Detroit lists Yamasaki's most important architecture in and around the City. Check it out the list here. 

Toyota City (fmr Koromo City and Koromo-Cho) was the center of the silk trade in Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). At the same time that the industrial landscape shifted away from silk, automobiles began to rise. So, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, which made looms to produce silk, established an automobile division focused on making cars.  In 1937, Kiichiro Toyoda, the eldest son of Sakichi Toyoda (of Toyoda Automatic Loom Works), started Toyota Motor Co., Ltd. (now Toyota Motor Corporation) in Koromo-Cho. Toyota aspires to be a low-carbon city. Amongst other initiatives, the commitment to sustainable development through public transportation infrastructure has made it an environmental model city. 


The relationship between Detroit and Toyota continues to be one of the most active of Detroit's Sister City connections. As a gesture of goodwill, the two cities established a rapport through exchange: 

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One Woodward Ave. 

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