You have probably heard of “Koi”, literally translated as “Carp” in Japanese. Like me, you probably shrugged and wondered what was so special about these fish before moving onto decide what to eat for dinner. I mean, sure, they’re colorful and big…but so what? It was only until I read about some of them selling for up to 2.2 million dollars that my eye balls turned into dollar signs and started finding out everything I could about them. What’s so special about them and how can I breed them? Make me rich! No. I’m kidding. I’ve lost count of how many gold fish I’ve killed when I was a kid. I’m pretty sure that if I couldn’t take care of gold fish, I certainly wouldn’t be able to take care, let alone, breed a million dollar Koi. But still, they became a subject of interest for me, and the more I found out, the more intriguing they became.

Origin on “Koi”

It is said that “Koi” came to Japan from China in AD1500 and were first bred for food. At first, “Koi” came in dull brownish, greyish colors…not particularly fascinating.

Koi in brownish color

Koi in brownish color

As time went by, ocean fish became more popular and easier to provide so the presence of Koi on the dinner table slowly declined although it is still served as local food in some areas of Japan (most notably, Matsumoto city in Nagano Prefecture). Around this time, Koi became to be bred for color mutations in both China and Japan. While the former produced what we now call “Goldfish”, Japan developed bigger, more colorful and majestic fish that we are able to see today. This type of “Koi” became to be called “Nishikigoi” which means “vivid and beautiful carp”. Breeding “Koi” was pretty much kept inside Niigata Prefecture until 1914, when 27 “Nishikigoi” were sent to Taisho exhibition held in Tokyo. With their beautiful symmetrical form and array of brightly colored patterns, it was hard not to get infatuated with them. They literally looked like swimming jewels against the backdrop of grey and black fish ponds. The fish won second place in the exhibition and 8 of them were sent to Emperor Toshihito’s son, Hirohito, to swim in the palace’s moat. From then on, breeding “Koi” started spreading across Japan and around the world with “Koi” enthusiasts spending thousands of dollars to cultivate the perfect fish.

Types of Nishikigoi

There are many types of “Nishikigoi” according to color and patterns but let me talk about the Gosanke, as it is the most popular category among Koi lovers. It can be separated into three categories:

Kohaku

This particular fish has a pearly white body with red markings called “HI” (非). It was first bred by a Japanese man called Kunizo Hiroi who wanted a fish with markings that resembled Japanese cherry blossoms.

Kohaku Nishikigoi

Kohaku Nishikigoi

Taisho Sanshoku(or Taisho Sannke)

This fish looks a lot like the Kohaku with its white body but has bright red and black markings that look like ink spots.

Taisho Sanshoku

Taisho Sanshoku

Showa Sanshoku(or Showa Sanke)

Last but not least, this type of fish has a black body with red and black markings.

Showa Sanshoku

Showa Sanshoku

Let me assure you that breeding “Nishikigoi” is not for the impatient. There are many traits that the fish has to have, such as even and balanced markings along the body, no markings past the eyes or on the fins, and no white or black scales in the markings, which are considered as a serious fault. Even if you have the right facilities and the patience of a Kindergarten teacher with 20 screaming kids to entertain, the perfect fish is very few and far between.

Tenryu-ji Temple: One of the most beautiful places to see “Nishikigoi”

Lake in Tenryu-ji Temple

Lake in Tenryu-ji Temple

As much as I don’t recommend breeding this fish, I definitely recommend going to see them. You will be able to see “Nishikigoi” in small ponds in local gardens around Japan but one of the best place to see them would be in one of Japan’s World Heritage Sites, Tenryu-ji Temple in Kyoto City. This temple has a vast Zen garden which became the first Site of Special Historic and Scenic Importance in Japan. The whole place spells out calm and peace. In the garden there is a large pond where you will be able to see these bright colored fish swimming lazily in the water. Remember to bring your camera because this is an absolute photographer’s heaven.