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Yamabuki Ogon Sanke
Showa Kohaku
Ginrin Kohaku Kujaku

"Koi as a Hobby: Different Strokes for Different Folks"
By Joel Burkard/Pan Intercorp

Nishikigoi, or koi, are recognized as the national fish of Japan. Hundreds of years ago in the mountains of Niigata, the farmers in the village of Yamakoshi, noticed a red carp swimming among the black carp that they raised to supplement their diet of rice and vegetables. Through years of selective breeding, Japanese koi breeders have created the hundreds of named varieties of koi that we see today.

The recent proliferation of garden ponds in the America has catapulted the hobby of koi keeping from virtual obscurity, into center stage USA.

As Nishikigoi were developed in Japan, the language of koi is Japanese. Japanese terms are used not only to name the varieties, but also for many of the terms used to describe their colors and traits.

Whenever we discuss koi varieties, the list inevitably begins with the Kohaku which is a white koi with red markings. Kohaku come in literally thousands of patterns with no two koi the same but some of the more recognized patterns are as follow:

  • Tancho: Pure white body with a single red crown-like marking in the center of the head.
  • Ohmoyo: Any single, large, unbroken pattern extending from head to tail.
  • Nidan: A two step pattern.
  • Sandan: One of the most popular, a three step pattern.
  • Kuchibeni: Literally "lipstick", indicates red (beni) on the mouth.

The beauty of a Kohaku lies in the purity of it's white body and the depth and intensity of the red patterns. The edges of the red markings should be crisp and clear against an unblemished white background. This crisp edge is referred to as the "kiwa".

During the early 1900's, a new variety of koi was created by the addition of "sumi"(black) markings to the basic Kohaku patterns of red and white. This new variety was named Taisho Sanshoku, and is commonly referred to, as simply Sanke or Sanshoku. The positioning of the sumi accentuates the beauty of the overall pattern.

The Showa, developed in the 1930's, features white and red markings against a jet-black base. The sumi is the basis for appreciation of this variety, forming a strong background against which the white and red markings interweave in interesting patterns. Showa that have comparatively more white than black are called Kindai (modern) Showa.

Collectively, the Kohaku, Sanke and Showa are recognized as "Gosanke" which translates as "three families", while in the United States and Europe, they are often referred to as "The Big Three".

In the Orient, these three varieties have long dominated the Koi Shows, and are by far the most popular with the Japanese koi keepers. By virtue of the results years of selective breeding, the quality of Gosanke has reached a level yet unparalleled by other varieties.

Although there is an established core group of American hobbyists that share the passionate pursuit of The Big Three, this group is by far out-numbered by the thousands of newcomers to the hobby, who are attracted to some of the flashier breeds.

The Kings of Koi for mainstream America are much more likely to belong to the Hikarimuji, Hikarimoyo, Ginrin or Kawarigoi categories. "Yikes!" you say, "Stop with the names already!" Bear with me and we'll try to work through them, one at a time.

The literal translation of Hikarimuji is "light without pattern". The "light" part refers to the bright metallic sheen that characterizes the varieties that belong in this category. The "without pattern" portion indicates that the koi in this category should be a single color.

Hikarimuji are very popular with the neophyte koi keeper, possibly due to the fact that they show so well against a green background. (Green water is the scourge of all koi keepers, but it seems to be particularly prolific in new ponds, or ponds that lack adequate filtration.)

Some examples of Hikarimuji varieties are:

  • Yamabuki Ogon (metallic yellow)
  • Platinum or "Purachina"
  • Ogon (white metallic)
  • Orenji Ogon (metallic orange)
  • Nezu Ogon (metallic gray)

And just to confuse the already confused, Matsuba Ogon which flounts the rules by having a reticulated net or pinecone pattern set against a metallic background that can be either red, white, gold, orange or yellow.

Hikarimoyo, which translates as "patterned light", is an ever-growing category of bright metallic koi that have distinctive patterns. Many of these varieties have been developed as a result of crossing the Hikariuji with the Big Three, and other varieties.

Kohaku that have an overall metallic sheen are called Sakura Ogon. Metallic Sanke are called Yamato Nishiki. The metallic yellow and white of the Hariwake are very popular, as are the various metallic Doitsu (German) varieties such as Kikusui and Doitsu Hariwake.

One of the more popular varieties of Hikarimoyo is the Kujaku, which translates to "Peacock". The name aptly describes this colorful and radiant variety. The Kujaku was created in the early 1960's by Mr. "Nishi" Hirasawa of Hiranishi Fish Farms. In recent years Kujaku have received a lot of attention, and with their increasing popularity, are often judged in a category of their own.

The Kujaku is a metallic or Ogon koi with the reticulated net-like pattern of the Matsuba on its back. This net pattern is overlaid with either a gold, yellow, orange or red Kohaku-type pattern creating a striking effect.

The literal translation of Kinginrin is "Gold and Silver Scales." Kinginrin is the name given to the metallic flake or "diamond scale" effect, where the scales themselves reflect light like tiny silver and gold mirrors.

Commonly referred to as simply Ginrin, this type of scale can be bred into nearly every variety, namely; Ginrin Kohaku, Ginrin Showa, Ginrin Sanke, Ginrin Kujaku, etc. Ginrin varities are especially popular and have been well accepted in the United States. This popularity runs contrary to Asian preferences, where Ginrin varieties are considered much less desirable than The Big Three.

Last, but definitely not least in popularity, comes the category of Kawarigoi. The literal translation of Kawarigoi is "Changing" or "Different" koi.

Into this category fall all the varieties both named and unnamed that either have unstable characteristics, or do not fall into any other recognized category. As you may well imagine, Kawarigoi contains literally hundreds of different examples and provides an all-inclusive category for anything new that might come along.

Ranging from the spectacular to the bizarre, Kawarigoi provide the most diversity and are quite possibly America's uncrowned favorites. At a recent Koi Show sanctioned by the Associated Koi Clubs of America (AKCA) and held in Arizona, a koi belonging to the Kawarigoi category took top honors and was proclaimed Grand Champion!

In Japan, it is said, that koi keeping begins and ends with Kohaku, leaving no question as to which is their favorite variety. Here in America, it seems unlikely that that sentiment will prevail. Perhaps due to our independent spirit and pioneering heritage, or simply because the hobby is still in it's growing stages, we tend to find a stronger attraction to a much wider variety of koi. Ah the beauty of koi keeping in America, celebrating the diversity, different strokes for different folks!

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