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The first of a series designed to help you learn about and
identify the many varieties of koi --

Not All Koi Are Created Equal!
Featuring the Kohaku Variety

by Pam Spindola
Click images to enlarge


Not all koi are created equal. This became evident when I was asked to casually appraise a koi pond. The owner was putting the house up for sale and decided to sell his collection of fish. I think he believed that the koi were worth a fortune since they were large and everyone knows that koi are expensive fish. From afar, the pond setting was beautiful, enhanced by the myriad of moving colors. With closer observation, I studied the two hundred-plus fish, speckled, and not resembling any variety on the classification chart.

Nishikigoi, instead of a speckled or a mottled pattern, have clearly defined patterns, bright colors, even scales, and healthy conformation. I asked the owner where he had purchased the "koi". The owner responded that he began with six koi about twelve years ago and these fish reproduced randomly in the pond. It was difficult to select at least a few potential pond quality koi with some redeeming qualities. To add insult upon injury, we had to tell the owner that, instead of a profit, it was probably going to cost him money to get a team of people with vehicles and equipment to remove the koi and find good homes for them. 

< Pond with koi of no particular variety


Pond with wonderful koi >

I share this incident with readers not to sound like a koi elitist but to make the case for the reason koi are so expensive and why they are to be viewed as art objects or as the thoroughbreds of the carp family. Nishikigoi are a hybrid variety of carp. Modern nishikigoi breeding involves crossbreeding of different lines to achieve or improve desirable features or qualities, or to create an entirely new variety.

In Japan, a breeder will study specific characteristics he would like to see in a certain variety of koi. The characteristic could be a certain conformation, color, pattern, or scalation. The breeding does not happen in a random way. Specific males and females are selected for the desired traits to be generated. It takes many efforts until these characteristics appear perfected.



The next challenge is to stabilize the results, breeding after breeding. In essence, koi breeders combine their artistic vision with scientific practices. This creative endeavor must be topped with a great deal of patience. The effort of breeding a new variety of koi with selective breeding may take 60 or more years to perfect. In the 21st century there are over 100 varieties of koi! 

Many different versions of the history of koi exist. It is said that the first carp came to Japan in the middle of the 19th century, although some historians place the arrival of the common carp much earlier. Rice farmers cultivated the fish with the thought to supplement their income as well as their diet. Over the years, the farmers started to notice certain color changes or variations. According to old drawings and historical documents, there are three basic strains of the original black carp called "magoi", which are the ancestors of all the koi varieties we have today. The first observable anomaly was a red belly on the basic black carp.

From this humble start, different colors, patterns, scalations were developed. Although the first fancy koi appeared in the early 20th century, the birth of fancy koi or nishikigoi happened after 1945. It was then that transportation of the koi from breeder to breeder was facilitated by the advent of the plastic bag. Before this, the koi had to be handled in primitive wooden buckets, heavy and difficult to manage. Airplanes and cars helped to transport the koi further distances, introducing this new fish, nishikigoi, to the world. Standards of the different varieties were beginning to be written; dealer organizations and hobbyists groups were beginning to be formed; koi shops opened and koi competitions were organized. The koi hobby, huge and complex was born!

As a beginning hobbyist, knowing there are over 100 varieties of koi, the identification can be an overwhelming task. Not only are there different characteristics to learn, many of the terms are in Japanese. It is my hope to review many of these koi varieties and their characteristics so that the hobbyists will make quality investments when purchasing koi and will truly appreciate the living art forms they can enjoy daily in their own ponds.

Although all koi are classified as Cyprinus carpio, through generations of breeding and a multitude of different combinations, many varieties of koi exist based on scalation, colors, and patterns. In this and upcoming issues, I will attempt to explain the basic varieties of koi which are usually organized into the traditional 14 groupings. These explanations will be simple without confusing details. As previously mentioned, breeders continue to perfect existing varieties as well as striving to produce new and unusual ones. That is what makes koi collecting so interesting.

Two step kohaku 
or ni-dan kohaku

Kohaku - (ko-hah-koo)

It is said in the hobby one begins and ends with kohaku. This is a non-metallic koi. Although commonly a fully scaled koi, it also can be a doitsu which is scaleless. In addition, as will be discussed later, the kohaku can be totally enveloped in "gin rin" scales which glisten like diamonds, or metallic scales.

The kohaku variety has a white body with one or more red patches on top of the body and possibly wrapping around above the lateral line. "Ko" means red in Japanese and "haku" means white. The fins and tail are white. Just two colors, but when in harmony they create a koi of beauty and grace. The preferred shade of red is persimmon, not deep crimson. The white has to be creamy to stark white with no shades of yellow nor grey. The balance of red to white depends on the pattern. Generally speaking, there should be 50% or more of red to the white body. The colors are homogenous with no shadows or blemishes. By the way, there are many words in Japanese which refer to the same color. Often you will see the word "hi" (hee) referring to red and "shiro" (shee-ro), referring to white. Don't become alarmed with all the new Japanese terms. You didn't realize that becoming a koi hobbyist also requires one to become a linguist.

Tancho kohaku (tahn-cho) -- This koi is totally white with one red patch only on the head between the eyes. The patch should be clearly defined, preferably shaped round like the rising sun on the Japanese flag. In recent times, other shapes have been seen which add a whimsical quality to the fish.

A kohaku pattern can have more than one red patch and the pattern is designated by the number of patches. For example, a two-step kohaku is known as ni-dan (knee-dahn) kohaku. "Ni" means "two" in Japanese. Three step is "san-dan" (sahn-dahn) and four step is "yon-dan" (yohn-dahn).

If a kohaku has a pleasing spot on the head as well as other red or "hi" (hee) patches it is known as a maruten kohaku. The maruten patch, which means "crown", can be larger than the traditional tancho marking.

Omoyo (oh-moy-o) -- This is one continuous pattern from the top of the head until just before the tail. If this pattern has many turns or curves, almost like a streak of lightening, it is called "inazuma" (eena-zooma) kohaku.

When buying young koi of this variety one looks for clearly defined patches of red on a white body. The patches of red should wrap the body even below the lateral line of the koi. The red patch on the head should not go beyond the eyes into the nose area. However, pattern is an art form and sometimes the standards or guidelines are flexible and not adhered. The intensity of the" hi" and the brightness of the white or "shiro" will not be developed in the youth of the koi but will mature with the koi.

The kohaku is one of the most prized varieties of koi and is usually one of the top winners in a competition.

The next article will cover the next three major categories of koi: sanke, showa, and utsuri. These are all tri-colored koi, red, white, and black and, with kohaku which is two colors, are considered the varieties which win in the major koi competitions. In addition, aesthetically, the colors of red, white, and black should predominate in the koi pond, according to Japanese hobbyists.

Tancho kohaku 
Image from Nichirin Magazine

Three step maruten kohaku

Inazuma kohaku

Three step kohaku
or san-dan kohaku

Four step kohaku, also called
yon-dan kohaku,
baby with potential

Five step kohaku
or go-dan kohaku

Kohaku baby with potential

Next in the series
| Showa | Utsurimono – Shiro, Hi, y Ki Utsuri

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