Read about Pam Spindola

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Introduction & Kohaku | Sanke | Showa | Utsurimono

English | Spanish

Koi Hunting and Achieving a Dream,
Pam Spindola Makes

A Journey of the Spirit
to Japan

Text and images by Pam Spindola
Click images to enlarge


For many years, I have wanted to visit the heart and soul of the koi hobby, Niigata, Japan, the birthplace of nishikigoi or fancy carp. The area, only a few hours by bullet train from Tokyo, is many more years removed from the hustle bustle fast paced life of 21st century Tokyo. The main city, Ojiya City, is an agricultural area most famous for its rice production. Geographically the area, consisting of the famous 20 villages, is surrounded on three sides by mountains and borders the country’s longest river, Shinano, which meanders through and empties into the Sea of Japan at Niigata City on the coast. The area is also known as Yamakoshi-ken.

Just as many golfers want to visit Scotland to be where the popular game began, anthropologists want to visit Papua, New Guinea, to visit cultures of the Stone Age, people of all religions want to visit Jerusalem, I wanted to see the area of Yamakoshi, the twenty villages, where the koi are bred, and talk to the current generation of Japanese breeders who mix science, art, and unknown magic to create these wonderful colorful carp called koi.

Although some people attempt to make this trip without a guide, I could not imagine driving on the reverse side of the highway through winding mountainous one lane roads which have no signs. Adding to that, I do not speak or read Japanese. Most hobbyists on a koi hunt will go with a knowledgeable guide who has a facility with the language and a working relationship with the breeders. There are several people in the United States who offer such services and who advertise in hobbyist magazines and on the web.

We went with Kaz Takeda who has been leading groups for many years. My late husband and I attended his tour to the All-Japan Show of January 1988 and the Ryunkai Show and a koi buying tour in Niigata in November of 1994. My husband, also, had gone on several trips to Japan with Kaz. Our families have been friends for a long time beginning when Kaz was a dealer in Fresno, California, and later, in Orange County, California.

My journey began in Tokyo for a two-day sightseeing whirlwind tour shared with two friends and koi hobbyists, Judy Walker from Newport Beach, California, and Barbara Flowers from Denver, Colorado. After landing at the sprawling Narita Airport and an hour bus ride to Tokyo, we checked into the luxurious New Otani Hotel, featuring a beautiful 400 year old garden which once belonged to a feudal lord. It encompasses 10 acres (4 hectares) of ponds, bamboo groves, bridges, and several unusual lanterns.

New Otani Hotel Garden -


Tancho kohaku

Bamboo forest

Lantern with rain chain

On day one of our trip, after talking with the concierge, the three of us negotiated the subway and walked to Ueno Park, spending a few hours viewing a complex of tourist attractions. The Shinobazo Pond, filled with lotus plants, also provides a sanctuary for birds. Small boats are available for rent to enjoy a tranquil respite in this fast-paced city. Nearby is a zoo, several temples and shrines as well as The National Museum. This museum, Japan’s largest and a must see, houses antiques including swords, kimonos, etchings, scrolls, screens, and suits of armor from the many periods of Japanese culture.  

Shinobazo Pond

Pausing for lunch, we are exhausted but continue our walking tour to the Asakusa Shrine. We walk through the famous Kaminarimon Gate with its unmistakable bright red lanterns and are immediately in a crowd of people shopping along the Nakamise Dori, a pathway lined on both sides with large and small shops selling every kind of Japanese souvenir or gift item. Also, many confectionary treats and food items are tempting all who walk by. It was Sunday and entire families were making their way to Sensoji Temple and the shrine. Although we had more places to visit, night suddenly came upon us and we made our way back to the hotel for the evening. 

Pam at Kaminarimon Gate

Nakamise Dori

Koi theme filled pastries

Cookies and crackers

Tokyo at night


The next day, we visited a well known koi hobbyist and friend in Tokyo, Mr. Shige Takahashi. He is very active in a hobbyist organization in Japan, the Ryunkai Association. His koi pond houses many award winning koi including Grand Champions. In Japan, award winning koi are truly jewels to see, almost perfection in size, body shape, depth of color, and beautiful patterns.

< Mr. Takahashi hand feeding his koi >

I asked him for suggestions on how to select a koi in Niigata. He said to look for a good body and, most important, the whiteness of the skin. Secondly he said that the kiwa or the border between two colors should be sharp. Lastly, he said look for the odome or the space after the end of the pattern before the tail. We were very honored that Mr. Takahashi took time out of his busy schedule to show us his pond.   

Kaz, friend and guide for the entire trip, took us to a very classic garden he remembered from his childhood, Koishikawa Korakuen. The construction of this idyllic setting began in 1629 and was finished in 30 years. The landscaping represents famous geographic features, only miniaturized. We spent an hour and a half strolling along the garden paths which followed the edge of the pond. It certainly was an escape from the city except for the outline of the Tokyo Dome which was right behind the park. Another highlight of the day was seeing the Prince and his entourage of five black limousines pass by us on the street. We were told that this was a rare occurrence.  

Koishikawa Garden with
Tokyo Dome in the distance

Engetsukyo Bridge (full moon bridge)

Horai Island

Small water feature by exit of garden

The next morning we visited the Ginza, the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, to see the opening of a department store. At 10:00 am music is played and the sales associates line up to welcome everyone to the Mitsukoshi Department Store. As we enter, each individual bows and welcomes us with a Japanese phrase. We visited all the floors from clothing, home goods, accessories, but the favorites were the two basement levels which feature food -- fresh fish and poultry as well as exquisite bakery treats and prepared meals to go.

 Morning opening at Mitsukoshi Department Store >


Delicacies at Mitsukoshi Department Store

We hurry back to the hotel where Kaz awaits us to make sure we board the correct bullet train for Niigata from Tokyo Station. This large station is a myriad of gates and platforms. Fortunately the signs also have numbers and English lettering. Our platform is labeled Shinkansen Joetsu and is track number 20 or 21 for Nagaoka, the largest city with a number of hotels and restaurants in the Niigata Prefecture. We board the train with instructions that someone will meet us and take us to our hotel, an “onsen” or typical Japanese hot springs spa. Kaz is planning on meeting the rest of the group arriving in Tokyo and will join us the following day.

Bullet train to Niigata

In two hours, after a very comfortable and quiet ride, we arrive and see our names on a sign held by a very pleasant man. He quickly guides us through the terminal to the car and we ride for 45 minutes up a small mountain to our spa, Hotel Sun Rolla, where we will stay for the next few days. This area, Echigo Kawaguchi, is agricultural, well known for its rice and vegetables.  

Hotel Sun Rolla    


One of 12 dishes served during
an elegant private dinner


View from our room by day -
the Shinano River

Outdoor hot pool

Traditional breakfast - sashimi,
pickled vegetables, fish,
radish, seaweed, green tea

The breeders usually have several locations within the area. Especially during the fall season when they are draining the mudponds and meeting with clients, it is very important to make an appointment. To do otherwise might risk making a long trip for nothing.  

The next day, Wednesday, we begin the first of our four day koi hunt. We are joined by several other couples who are accompanied by their dealer, Mike Swanson from Minnesota. His son Devin is spending the year in Japan working with one of the most renowned breeders, Mr. Hisashi Hirasawa of Marudo Koi Farm. After all the introductions are made we climb into our mini-bus and anticipate our first stop. Passing the headquarters of the All-Japan Breeders Association, we come to Isa Koi Farm, known for excellent gosanke, especially showa. However, we see excellent examples of all varieties.

The plan was to spend a few days surveying the koi, asking the breeders to hold any we were interested in, and then returning to purchase what we wanted. Most of the breeders want payment in Japanese yen. However, there were a few who accepted charge cards, which is so much more convenient for foreigners. In Japan changing money is not a simple matter as in other countries. The only ATM machines that work with American cards seem to be found in the convenience stores.

Isa Koi Farm was full of excitement and activity. Everyone was curious about the koi being brought in from the mudponds. I suddenly felt anxiety creeping into my gut as I wondered how I was going to select one or two koi from all of these wonderful specimens, and which would fit into my budget.  

Mr. Hajime Isa and Kaz

Showa, 60 cm (24 "), three years old

Isa Koi Farm

^ Measuring newly arrived koi, Mike Swanson in background

No time to waste, we clamored into the bus for our next stop, Suda Koi Farm. Mr. and Mrs. Suda have been long time friends of mine as Mr. Suda has judged our local show on a few occasions and the family has visited ours when they were in California. I was so excited to see them.

Mr. Suda is said to have originated the long finned or “butterfly koi”. He also specializes in unusual varieties of koi. In addition, he raises non-ornamental fish for other industries. His son, Kazutaka, is now running the business. After looking at the ponds, we say good-bye with a plan to meet Saturday night to celebrate Mrs. Suda’s birthday.

Mr. and Mrs. Atsushi Suda's house

Suda Koi Farm

Selecting and sorting koi

Greenhouse tanks

Outdoor holding tanks

Kaz, our driver, Judy
Walker, Dr. Alvin Au
Our next appointment is with a very prominent world respected koi breeder of champion gosanke lines known as Dainichi. I had met Mr. Minoru Mano, the father, about 20 years ago. After his passing, the sons have continued the business and successfully breed world class koi. It would be an honor to purchase a koi with the Dainichi name. Several of us selected koi to be held 24 hours. We found the Mano brothers to be most helpful. I patiently waited until one had time to net a kohaku for me. There were so many to look at and they swim so quickly, I started to snap pictures of the ones I was interested in. Miraculously, Mr. Mano (the son) was able to find the ones that caught my eye amid hundreds of swirling fins and red patterns.
It was at this point I almost lost my confidence. How was I ever going to select a few koi out of so many? I wanted to make the best choice and get the most for my investment. Maybe investment isn’t the correct word as none of us think of the koi as an investment knowing how easily they can change. Kaz reminded me that I had four days and there was no rush to make a decision.  

Dainichi Koi Farm    

< ^ Kohaku >

We take a break for lunch. On the way, we stop at a koi dry goods shop which carried nets, tubs, air stones, fittings -- a Home Depot for koi! Although buying a new net was very tempting, I knew it would be impractical and would not pass as carry-on luggage!

< Miyaishi Dry Goods Store 

Our afternoon itinerary has several more dealers to visit. The first is Yamajyu owned by Mr. Shigeyuki Hoshino. He is known for his excellent shusui and asagi stock. Shusui is a doitsu or scaleless koi except for a single rack along the dorsal and maybe another row along the side of the belly. The scales must be regimentally straight, the blue light in color and even with no speckles. The accent reddish orange needs to be artistically placed. Lastly, the head has to be light blue and very clear with no smudges. The asagi is a blue koi with a darker blue netting over the body. This netting should be symmetrical and sharply outlined. Once again, the head needs to be clear and free from smudges. His koi were very beautiful and the quality is hardly seen in the US.

 Yamajyu Koi Farm


Shusui - So many to look at!

Yamajyu is known for shusui




< Shusui and asagi

Igarashi Kazuto - kohaku, sanke, showa
The next stop is Ikarashi Koi Farm run by Kazuto Igarashi* and his wife and son. He is world renowned for raising top quality award winning koi bred from very prized bloodlines. Hobbyists from all over the world make Ikarashi a destination. Kaz makes an appointment for us to witness an ikeage or netting of a mudpond for the next day. This is going to be very exciting! However, there is still daylight today and we have more farms to visit. I am starting to get weary and have visions of koi swimming in my head.
* Ikarashi and Igarashi are the same in Kanji. Both versions of the name are used in Japan and overseas. His koi house says "Ikarashi" while most people call him Igarashi.

Ikarashi Koi Farm    

Mr. and Mrs. Ikarashi greeting
Barbara Flowers of Colorado

^ Kohaku | Outdoor ponds >


Marusaka's gin rin chagoi
The last koi breeder we visit is Marusaka (Teruo Hiroi) who breeds not only gosanke and the traditional varieties but has the more unusual koi specimens. The day we visited everyone was admiring his gin rin chagoi or tea colored ogon. The diamond scale sparkled in the setting sun! Also on display were examples of midori or green koi. At this stage, they appear more yellow than green. This farm is one of only a few that raises this rare variety.

Marusaka Koi Farm    

< Outdoor ponds | Midori ^

All varieties of koi

As an added attraction, the breeder took us across the street to the stables which housed the famous fighting bulls. Mr. Hiroi believes in preserving the tradition and culture that was a part of Japan over 1,000 years ago. Bullfighting, called “Tsunotsuki”, is similar to sumo wrestling. Two bulls that weigh up to one ton fight each other to determine which is more skillful and strong. I believe they fight for less than five minutes and neither is hurt. After viewing the bulls, we call it a day. Tired and exhilarated at the wonderful day we have spent, we return to the hotel for dinner and relaxation. This koi hunting is hard work! 

Marusaka fighting bulls
and Mr. Hiroi

Eat to be strong

Fighting bulls


Thursday morning we have a traditional breakfast at the hotel. Fortunately Kaz joins us to explain all the delicacies and how to eat them. On the artistically arranged platters are several varieties of fish as well as pickled vegetables and fermented beans and rice. Of course, miso and hot green tea are also served.

< Breakfast at Sun Rolla


Afterwards, we board the bus to travel 50 minutes to the west coast of Japan to visit a very famous gin rin kohaku breeder, Mr. Kiichi Hoshino of Teradomari Koi Farm. His brood stock is from the famous Hoshikin female kohaku and a gin rin male from the Suda Koi Farm. The Teradomari koi has a wonderful body shape and its gin (diamond scales) are said to be long lasting and will not fade as is customary with koi over 2 feet (61 cm) in length.

< Mr. Kiichi Hoshino of Teradomari

I was so impressed that the gin scales were so even and symmetrical and continued all the way up to the dorsal fin. Often there are blank spots and the scale is not reflective. Visiting Teradomari was like visiting a “jewelry store”! I couldn’t resist and now have one of the “living jewels” from this koi breeder in my pond! 

Teradomari's gin rin kohaku    

Our next stop was to visit Mr. Hisashi Hirasawa of Marudo Koi Farm. There were many people selecting koi here including well known dealers from the United States. It was a frenzy of activity. Mr. Hirasawa had an incredible selection of many varieties of koi.  

Many koi enthusiasts at
Marudo Koi Farm
He started his company in 1970 and had previously worked with Dainichi. Now, his son and daughter are an active part of the business, handling the koi and the customers. He mainly breeds gosanke but all the other varieties are available as well.

Mr. Hirasawa with grandson

According to an article I read, Mr. Hirasawa is well aware of the importance of genealogy, the mama and the papa, and the skill of the breeder. However, the environment plays an important role as one needs to keep the koi healthy and with a good appetite. His goal is to breed the most beautiful koi that anyone has ever seen and to have it win awards. I am hoping that as well! I selected a beautiful kohaku to hold. I am cautious as it is not of a classic design; the five step hi pattern drips onto the face of the koi. I think when it grows larger and has more bulk it will be an eye-catcher. 

Maruda showa >


 Marudo Koi Farm    

Selection of koi


Sanke - kohaku pattern with
small deep black accents

Kohaku - white koi with
beautiful red patches







Marudo selections 


At this point, I have a few koi in mind but I couldn’t stop thinking about a small budo goromo I spotted the day before. We had stopped briefly at the Takano Koi Farm, known for aigoromo and budo goromo. “Budo” translates to “grape” in English. This koi has a snow white background. The overlaying kohaku pattern is red and black giving the impression of a purplish grape color.

Mr. Yoshio Takano and the author
Kaz had selected a few beautiful examples for his clients. As a hobbyist who likes to enter a few shows and as a koi judge, I realize the importance of body shape, conformation. In fact many hobbyists will only buy females for that reason. I still loved this koi in spite of the fact it is probably a male. Hopefully I will be able put some girth on it in the next few years. While I made my first “adoption”, Mr. Takano proudly showed us some other beautiful koi he had bred. By the way, the Takano koi house is bright turquoise blue, the only one I saw of that color! 

Takano Koi Farm

Turquoise greenhouse



Budo goromo

The author's budo goromo


Our first stop Friday was at a father and son koi farm, Kanno, which specialized in goshiki. Mr. Kazuhiro Hirasawa and his son were definitely personable and very proud to show us what they had accomplished. I had never seen such striking examples of goshiki. The scales were evenly reticulated on the body and the hi pattern looked like carefully cut out forms without reticulation placed on top. The intensity and luminosity of the red seemed almost metallic. All of these attributes are very seldom seen and are quite beautiful.

< A four year old goshiki | Kanno father and son >

 Kanno goshiki


Mudponds of Niigata
It is late Friday morning and we have an appointment to meet the Ikarashis to see the harvesting of a mudpond. Mr. and Mrs. Igarashi and one worker are doing all the work. They started draining the pond earlier in the day. When we arrived the seine was already thrown and being pulled to one side. There was a gentle hush in the serene mountainside, and all that could be heard was the air rustling through the trees and the gentle ripple of the water as the net was being guided to the edge.
Remarkable examples of koi emerged from the muddy waters. Their colors were lustrous whites, reds, and patent leather black. Each koi was hand delivered to a koi tub and then carried to the vat on a small truck. The koi were surprisingly obedient when handled. No doubt this is credit to the breeders who know just how to transport these sometimes squirmy creatures. They must have seined the small pond three times within the hour we were there. I just kept thinking how much physically demanding hard work is required to raise these koi. Watching these breeders work in their shops and at the mudponds gave me a new appreciation of the intense labor required to raise these beautiful fish. In spite of this difficult work they seem to enjoy it and rightly take great pride in the results.  

Harvesting a mudpond  

Although we didn’t physically do the work, we seemed to have worked up an appetite. Kaz brought us to one of the favorite noodle restaurants of the area. The noodle soup with barbecued pork was delicious.

^ Chef - the best
noodle maker!
Lunch - noodle soup -
the best! >>

Nishikigoi auction
After lunch, we stopped at the Nishikigoi auction where the action was fast and furious. Bidders sat in a two tiered enclosed gallery high above a stream with floating containers filled with plastic bags containing koi. At one end of the gallery was the auctioneer and his transcriber calling out the lot number and the bidding price. In addition he manipulated a series of wooden blocks that kept slamming down as the bid increased.
The containers were being pulled to the outside of the building where men in waders organized the sold koi. There were koi everywhere.  


Back to our koi hunt, our next visit was to one of the oldest koi breeding families in the area known as Torazo. It is run by Tsuyoshi Kawakami and his wife, but the business was started by his great grandfather in 1917. Known for the “famous sanke bloodline ‘Torazo’” they are now producing kohaku and showa as well. On his website, he mentions how they are constantly trying to improve the quality and that production percentages are currently 50% kohaku, 30% showa, and only 20% sanke. In the early 20th century, drawings of the early koi were done by the Kawakami family. This was to keep track of the parent koi and the breeding stock. It was noted how difficult it was to draw these koi because they don’t stay still!


Image courtesy of 



Holding tank with
kohaku and sanke


More kohaku and sanke

It is the end of the day on Friday and several in the group want to revisit some of the breeders. Our last stop for the day is a return visit to the Marudo Koi Farm which continues to be very busy with customers. The koi were very beautiful and some of us make our selections. I decide on a beautiful four step kohaku which will stay in Japan one more season for growth. I have never done this before and hope the koi stays safe from predators. It was already nightfall by the time all the business transactions were completed.

I have purchased three lovely koi during our three days and am so happy with my selections. However, we have one more day to look as some of the other group members are still not done shopping.  

Isa Koi Farm
Saturday morning starts with a return visit to Isa Koi Farm. It is less hectic as most of the koi from the mudponds have been brought in to the concrete ponds. Some members in the group make their selection.


Kaz , Mr. Isa and hobbyists having one last look


The next farm on our list is Hiroi Koi Farm established 85 years ago. Mr. Kuniyasu Hiroi runs the establishment with his wife and two sons. This establishment is also known as “Yozen”, an ancestral name. Although known for excellent showa, they produce many other examples of nishikigoi.  
The staff was very busy bringing in the koi from the mudponds and placing them into the many tanks both inside and outside of the koi hothouse. 

Unloading the koi

Hiroi Koi Farm

Doitsu or
scaleless showa

Hiroi house
We were very impressed with the gin rin goshiki. The conformation of the koi was ideal. The goshiki pattern was so well defined. The diamond scales were so shiny and placed very symmetrically in even rows all the way to the dorsal! These koi are so beautiful!  

Gin rin goshiki from
Hiroi Koi Farm


Gin rin kohaku

Gin rin goshiki

Speaking of beauty, some of us take a little walk to admire the countryside for one last time. Everything is so green. All the houses seem very neat. It is evident that koi raising is the primary focus here as one sees mudponds and concrete ponds along the hilly landscape. Houses often have adjoining glass houses for wintering the koi. Stacked outside the koi houses are the blue tubs, nets, and sometimes boots.


The day is coming to an end but we still have a few more stops. One of the hobbyists wants to see a koi at the Ikarashi Koi Farm. It seems that more showas were pulled from the mudpond.

Ikarashi showa > | Ikarashi and group >>



Then we need to stop at the Marudo Koi Farm for one last transaction.

< Marudo kohaku
<< Measuring the koi at Marudo

As the sun starts to set we stop at a cultural arts center to look at some of the handicrafts of the area. Then it’s off to the hotel to get ready for Mrs. Suda’s birthday party.

< Cultural Arts Center

 Everyone was invited to a small typical Japanese restaurant to celebrate the birthday of Mrs. Suda.

Kaz with Mr. and Mrs. Suda
It was a gala affair with non-stop Japanese delicacies topped off with a delicious whipped cream cake! This was a wonderful way to bring a magical trip to an end.

Last night in Japan - rear left Kaz Takeda, foreground right Mike Swanson

The next day we did some last minute shopping and then boarded the bullet train back to Tokyo and then yet another train to the airport. I was so proud and relieved that we found our way in the crowded stations with a maze of different levels and tracks.

The visit to this magical land with the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people was so memorable. One can feel the presence of former generations of koi breeders watching over their legacy and marveling at the beautiful creations of nishikigoi. After seeing first hand all the efforts of time, money and experience that go into the breeding of koi, I have a new found responsibility to nourish, maintain and foster the growth and health of the koi in my pond.

Judy Walker, the author and Barbara Flowers in the Narita Airport >

These lovely koi are Pam's selections from her journey.
Two now live with her in California and the other will arrive in the fall.

Gin rin kohaku


Budo goromo

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