Read about Pam Spindola

Our koi expert details koi varieties in other issues of WGI Online. Each will open in a new window for easy reference.
Introduction & Kohaku | Sanke | Showa | Utsurimono

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


 Part 1

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

Part 2 > | Part 3 >

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