This article first appeared in Issue 3 of Nishikigoi Digest International, November 2013

I started my interest in the Koi hobby some 5 years ago but it’s only less than 2 years back that I have been seriously into it. ‘Serious’ by my definition means not only when you start paying good money for good quality fish but also when you’re willing to be at the Koi dealers’ shop in the wee hours of the morning just to wait for the shipment of Koi to arrive in order to be among the first in line to make a pick or, despite a painful back still struggling to net and bag your beloved Koi to take them to a Koi show – with the wife in the background, shaking her head and sighing in disbelief. But, I also learnt that in a hobby with so much potential like Koi keeping, just like one of the famous Japanese proverbs says; ‘When you have completed 95 percent of your journey, you are only halfway there.’ There is so much more to learn in this hobby, enough to fulfil a lifetime with an exciting and enriching journey.

The one thing that I always heard every Koi hobbyist talk about is being in Niigata – the birthplace of Nishikigoi. Not everyone outside of Japan can afford the luxury of being able to fly in to Japan and spend time in Niigata, either to go Koi hunting or simply immersing oneself in the life around the famous Koi prefecture. In my case I was lucky enough to be at the right place and at the right time to be able to grab the opportunity when it came. I happen to be on a year-long work assignment in Yokohama since early this year and I have always been planning to visit Niigata but could not quite figure out where exactly to go and how to go about visiting breeders’ farms on my own. I read that you either have to go there with an agent or a dealer or among a group of hobbyists. I figured that it would not be as simple as walking in and browsing about like I always do in Koi dealers’ shops back home.

With the harvesting season coming, the window was limited and I had earlier on missed an opportunity to tag along a dealer from Malaysia due to my business travel. But still, I couldn’t just turn up there and wander around aimlessly! Anyway, I reckoned that I could try to get in touch with people who were already there and ask them at least; so I contacted Mark Gardner of Niigata-Nishikigoi.com and Nishikigoi.TV and tried my luck hoping he could and would be willing to assist. As it turned out, Mark is indeed a very nice guy and he even invited me to come along to Niigata and tag along while he went about and did his daily business in Niigata. I jumped at this once-ina-lifetime opportunity and the next thing I knew I was in a shinkansen heading down to the Niigata Prefecture on a Friday evening – excited but at the same time anxious, not knowing what to expect from this trip…

I arrived in Ojiya just after 11:00pm having taken a train from Yokohama to Tokyo, then a shinkansen from Tokyo to Urasa, a local train from Urasa to Ojiya and finally a taxi from Ojiya train station to the hotel. Other than a few people still walking on the street, the town was almost asleep. During the last stretch of the journey, the road was totally dark. If this was in another country and not Japan, I would have been scared. This part was already beyond my original expectation. I checked in into my hotel, apparently given the last available room in the hotel that weekend, a nice and cosy (read ‘tiny’) room and contacted Mark. Next thing I know we were at a bar called ‘West Side’ chatting all night long about Koi with the friendly owner Rene and another fellow Koi buddy, Rob de Vos from Holland. This was like my induction training to Niigata – we talked through the night about breeders, their farms, dealers, bloodlines, varieties and all sorts of things, including a bit of football too. When someone got mistaken between Marudo and Maradona we knew it’s time to hit the bed for the early day tomorrow…

Day 1 (12th October)

I was up before my alarm went off, all ready for the experience and excitement that I had been anticipating all this while. As I made my way to the hotel lobby I noticed there were more foreigners than the locals staying at the hotel. I was in the lift with an elderly Japanese man and he looked at me from top to bottom then with a smile said, ‘Koi?’ I proudly answered him, ‘Hai!’ As I learned later, any gaijin (foreigner) who could be found in Ojiya or Niigata area will have something to do with Koi somehow. This is also the season where agents, dealers and even hobbyists will be found roaming the mountain looking for a good catch due to the harvesting season. And now, I was one of them…!

I had a quick breakfast and eagerly waited for Mark to come down. Up to now, I was still not quite sure what our daily itineraries would be like and what to expect for the rest of the day, but I trusted that I was in good hands. Mark couldn’t take the hotel’s breakfast anymore by now having stayed there for so long, so for him it was just a quick stop at the convenience store and off we
headed to our first destination, Kawaguchi, a small village nestled among the beautiful mountainous area. Every opportunity I got I would be asking Mark every Koi related question and curiosity I ever had. I guessed I would really have to make full use of my limited time there to learn from an expert like him.


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Partially drained Shintaro mudpond awaiting harvest

Partially drained Shintaro mudpond awaiting harvest

This pond above was our first stop – a mudpond of Shintaro Koi Farm and Mark said this would be harvested today. The crisp and fresh mountain air was enough to get me excited but the moment I saw the first glimpse of the gosanke colour on the back of a Koi flipping in the half filled pond I knew this was going to be a truly memorable experience. This was what I normally saw on Facebook or YouTube postings but finally I was getting to see them with my own eyes! This had to be high point number 1 for the trip.

Soon after Mr Shintaro himself (Saito-san) arrived with his son Kensuke. Now, this is quite different than what I had imagined – it was just him and his son in a little pickup truck and that’s it. No entourage, no staff. I asked Mark who would be doing the harvesting. He replied, ‘Us…’. Luckily he didn’t notice my confused look. Meeting Saito san in person for the first time was also an experience by itself. All this while I had only seen him on websites and posters. A very soft spoken and humble man. Quite different to how I imagined a breeder that is much
worshiped by hobbyists worldwide would be. After that, everything they did seemed pretty routine to the three of them. Lucky I had brought my camera along with me so I wouldn’t look so awkward just standing there watching and not knowing what to do. As the three of them were busy pulling the net in the pond, my shutter was busy capturing everything as every single thing was
literally new to me.

Preparing to harvest Shintaro Koi Farm nisai

Preparing to harvest Shintaro Koi Farm nisai

Netting the pond

Netting the pond

Anyhow, I suppose I could not really hide my eagerness when Mark finally looked up at me from inside the pond and shouted, ‘I have an extra pair of boots in the trunk!’ Everything went with a flash as I almost literally threw my camera on the ground, grabbed the boots and the next thing I knew I was in the pond, catching the Koi from the net and putting them into the tub and later carrying three of them at a time in plastic bags onto the tank behind the truck.

With Mark, putting harvested Koi into plastic bags to carry them to the truck

With Mark, putting harvested Koi into plastic bags to carry them to the truck

I briefly remembered what my wife wrote on Mark’s Facebook posting the previous night about taking care of my back. Only very briefly. Carrying those Koi up the mudpond bank had to be the high point number 2 so far. The whole process took only a couple of hours and later we packed up all the stuff and start heading back to the Koi house. A note for beginners and for those unfamiliar with mudpond harvesting; the Koi stay in the mudponds during summer and are moved back to the Koi house during winter. Winter can be harsh in this mountain range. The Koi would either get sold later or if not, they go back to the mudpond for the next summer. Some are also bought but then the new owner may decide to let the breeder keep the Koi in the mudpond for some more time in order to further improve its condition. I once told my wife – living in mudpond for a Koi is like going to the spa for humans. The pristine water quality, mineral content in the mud and abundant natural food can do wonders to the Koi’s overall quality. And the mudpond seems to have positive effects on a humans mood too!

Later we were back at the Koi house in the Mushigame village. I noticed along the way that every other building around the mountains are either houses or Koi houses. Thanks to Mark’s skillful driving along the winding and narrow village road, we arrived in one piece, every time. We unloaded the Koi into tanks. Saito-san would then separate them according to quality and finally they ended up in a few ponds in the Koi house. The rain started drizzling down by then but nothing could really stop me from getting into the action and enjoying every moment. Every time Saito-san picked up a Koi, I would discreetly try to guess which tank he would be putting it in – just practising my Koi selection skills. I’m glad I didn’t tell any one of them what I was trying to do as I got them wrong probably half of the time. No wonder I always end up with crappy Koi in my pond!

Masaru Saito inspecting newly harvested Koi at the Koi house

Masaru Saito inspecting newly harvested Koi at the Koi house

Saito-san was intently inspecting a Koi and i learned a new Koi joke from Mark – ‘how to make a breeder cry?’, when one of his stunning looking Koi turned out to be male!


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We had to leave a while after that as Mark had to go and photograph a village Koi show in Yomogihira. I learnt that there are many small-sized Koi shows in the Yamakoshi Mura area, all in the run up to the grand Niigata Nogyosai Koi Show a few weeks from now. This was a very small show indeed with only a few tents and a few vats and hardly any visitors but it was probably due to the pouring rain. While Mark was busy photographing the winning Koi and the prize giving ceremony (the ceremony was like we have back home, minus the tossing of the Grand Champion winner), I looked around.

Small show it was but the Koi were nonetheless impressive. If this is the little league, imagine what you would see later in the major league! The Grand Champion was a beautiful sanke from a farm I never heard of but from what I gather, is a regular winner in this village. Shortly after I was relieved as Mark signalled that it was time for us to leave as the rain was pouring even harder
now. I was told to expect a lot of this wet weather in this season. I just don’t know how long Mark will last in his shorts and flip-flops…. [Ed. I lasted until 30th October, I
was still wearing them when I boarded my flight home, washed of course]

Back at Saito-san’s house, we had home-cooked lunch by his lovely wife and later had coffee with cookies and chocolates while waiting for the rain to stop. The great hospitality and the cosiness of Saito-san’s house was definitely the high point number 3. We chatted about what else but, Koi. Saito-san even gave me two souvenir mugs and a calendar. These certainly will give me
bragging rights for when I get back home later!

With Saito san in his living room

With Saito san in his living room

Shintaro Koi Farm mug, a souvenir gift

Shintaro Koi Farm mug, a souvenir gift

As the rain stopped we headed out for the second harvest of the day. I was beginning to think that I could really enjoy living here and doing this for a living. Yeah, why not? Will have to seriously discuss this with the wife when I get back…..haha!

The next pond was almost the same size as the first one. The only difference was when Saito-san called on me with a smile and showed me a pair of waders he’d brought along just for me! As I was huffing and puffing, wrestling with the mud up to my knees, while pulling the heavy net I thought; this has got to be high point number 4. I’m actually working now in a mudpond with a famous
breeder – it just can’t get any better than this! Mark took all the pictures below as I dirtied myself with the hard work. I don’t mind really. I don’t even remember where my camera was anyway.

In waders ready to start harvesting

In waders ready to start harvesting

Dragging the net

Dragging the net

Picking up Koi from the net into the childrens paddling pool with Kensuke Saito

Picking up Koi from the net into the childrens paddling pool with Kensuke Saito

Carrying a bag of Koi up the bank

Carrying a bag of Koi up the bank

My 'breeder' shot

My ‘breeder’ shot

The final picture is my famous ‘breeder-shot’ that became my Facebook profile pic. I became an instant celebrity with my Facebook friends especially Koi hobbyist friends. I was even getting friend requests from people I never met! I got more comfortable with the routine of lifting the Koi onto the truck and later unloading the Koi back at the Koi house. A physically draining routine indeed but truly satisfying. The best part though was when after all the hard work has been done, Saito-san would declare, ‘coffee time…!’


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We left his house when it was already dark. I had a big grin on my face, excited to come again the next day.

Day 2 (13th October)

Despite the late night the night before (meeting more Koi enthusiasts in town and chatting more about Koi), I was up even earlier and ready for more adventure.

Today we went to Isa Koi Farm. For those who are not familiar with breeders’ name, this is one of the big names in Koi. These are the Ferrari of Koi. A huge operation by a very successful family famous for their prized Showa. I’m yet to have an Isa Koi in my pond but am aiming to have one, one day. Now, this was a really different scene. We arrived early at their house and were invited to have tea with the crew in the living room upstairs. I’m was the only non-Japanese speaking guy around but I could still share the moment and feel the closeness and camaraderie. After all, we all had one common ground – the love of Koi.

In the Isa family home before going to harvest

In the Isa family home before going to harvest

When all had gathered, we departed for a long drive to Yoita, out past Nagaoka. I counted 25 crew members in total! I figured that they wouldn’t really need my help on this one so I resumed my cameraman role and was busy snapping photos together with Mark. Besides, this pond had a very steep and high bank that I don’t think my bad back would have been able to tolerate anyway.
With the large crew, the operation finished very quickly and the we were soon back at the Koi house in Ojiya.

Many staff at the Isa Koi Farm harvest

Many staff at the Isa Koi Farm harvest

Looking at the whole process and the number of people involved I could imagine the related costs as well. And, seeing with my own eyes of the high quality of their Koi, I believe the price is also very justifiable.

Picture below showing how the crew expertly and painstakingly inspect each and every Koi looking for signs of parasites. This is quality control at its best!


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Removing anchor worm from newly harvested Koi

Removing anchor worm from newly harvested Koi

We left after Mark finished taking photos and grabbed a quick lunch on the way. Then we headed back to Kawaguchi for another harvest with Saito-san. One thing I began to notice is that Mark never locked his car whenever we stopped anywhere so I asked him why. He said, he didn’t need to. ‘They don’t even lock their houses here!’ I realized that that was a rental car but he also had
thousands of dollars worth of cameras and equipment in there. But, I guess, that is one of the perks of being in a small countryside town like this. I seriously need to talk to my wife about moving here.

On the way we made a brief stop at Maruhiro Koi Farm and met Chris from Ornafish. He shared his wisdom, something he learnt during his first visit to Niigata – ‘Fish are not made of glass’. I realized that too. Having been handling hundreds of nisai worth thousands of dollars with my own two hands I compared it with the way I handled my own Koi back home. Until today I still get very nervous whenever I have to net and bowl my Koi, the fear of making them lose some scales or break a fin are really scary thoughts. Having been taught also how stressed Koi can become during handling has actually stressed me even more! But, looking at how casually those breeders handle their Koi has certainly gave me new confidence in handling them from now on.

While Mark was chatting I took a look around Maruhiro’s tosai pond and saw a few Koi I liked but I remembered my conversation with Mark earlier on about buying Koi here. Contrary to my earlier belief, it is not as easy as walking into a dealer’s shop back home, point to a Koi in the pond, pay the displayed price and then carry them home.

You can only do that through agents here or at least have a dealer from back home who are willing to make the arrangement of shipping your purchased Koi. The permit to import, the transportation, the logistics arrangement, and on top of all that, the risk of losing the Koi in transit all translate to cost. I was beginning to accept that what I normally had to pay back home for Koi was reasonable after all.

We were back at Kawaguchi for another round of harvest. Still just us, the crew of four. This was a pond of sansai. I was still amazed every time I picked up a Koi, admiring their beauty up close and personal. They are much bigger this time so we only bagged two at a time instead of the normal three with the nisai. Maybe it was fatigue, or maybe it was just me being clumsy, one time I slipped and dropped a bag of Koi onto the ground as I was climbing the mudpond bank! Only one thing crossed my mind at the time – Saito-san, please don’t be mad at me!!! I panicked and very apologetically explained to him that I slipped and I didn’t actually drop the bag on the ground but managed to support myself with my knees and elbows. He was so cool about it and the only thing he said was, ‘Are you okay?’ Pheewww, I really hoped not to get fired on my second day on the job!

As we were driving back to the Koi house we bumped into Steve Gibbins, Mark’s partner-in-crime. Steve was supposed to be here earlier but he went to the F1 racing in Suzuka first. The joke between us was that Steve would definitely not be happy with me if he knew that I actually had Paddock Club passes for the race but chose instead to come to Niigata to join the harvesting! Well, the choice I had was between watching super-fast cars going around the track or experiencing first-hand the living jewels at their birthplace for the first time in my life. It was an easy call for me.


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While transferring the Koi I saw this beautiful nisai Kohaku and fell in love with it straightaway. My photography skill is nowhere near Mark and Steve so I’m not doing justice to the Koi but I’m sure you can imagine its beauty nonetheless. I remembered what Mark told me earlier so I simply dare not ask Saito-san about the price.

Nisai Shintaro Kohaku

Nisai Shintaro Kohaku

Back at Saito-san’s living room again, I started to develop the courage to ask him many more Koi questions. He’s a man of not many words indeed but certainly rich with wisdom and knowledge of everything you would ever need to know about Koi. Some of my questions were answered as how you would imagine a grandmaster sensei would answer – short but deep with meaning. Puzzling, but could be interpreted in your own many ways, for example, ‘..it depends..’ or ‘..maybe..’.

I finally built up the courage to ask him the price of the Kohaku. As I expected, I could only reply to his answer with a very polite, ‘I’ll think about it.’ As they always say with Koi – cheap Koi no good, good Koi not cheap! Even if I sold my entire pond I would still not be able to afford this one!

As the sun went down we made our way back to Ojiya,  but before that a quick stop at Yagenji Farm. Another impressive setup with hundreds of beauties swimming in the pond. I even saw one of the nice Shiro Utsuri posted by one of the dealers from Malaysia the day before. I kept telling myself to stick to tosai. As the sun set we left Yagenji.

That night I slept like a log but dreamed of ‘my Kohaku’.

Day 3 (14th October)

I had mixed feelings today. I knew that we still had at least half a day for me to enjoy Niigata but I couldn’t shake the thought that I would have to leave sometime in the afternoon and go back to my office life. The last two days had been fulfilling and very educational. What I’d learnt in the last two days easily beat what I’d read all this while from books, magazines, forums and websites. Of course, you would actually have to know a lot about Koi to begin with before you step foot in Niigata but being here, it just brought the appreciation of Nishikigoi to a totally different level. On the downside, it will also make all the Koi in my pond look like crap from now on. Well, I love them not just for who they are but for the journey they took me through. The journey into the art and science of Koi keeping is an endless journey indeed. My wife will shake her head when she reads this.


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We headed to Nagaoka to pick Steve up and then straight to Mushigame Village. I stood one last time besides the pond looking at the beautiful scenery across the valley, the title picture of this article. I remembered my first conversation with Mark when I arrived and I called this the ‘trip of a lifetime’ and Mark said, ‘You’re wrong, people always come back here, again and again’. I guess Mark was right.

I completed my final task with vigour and high spirit although my elbows had started to ache and my back was so close to giving way. We were a crew of seven today with Steve, Mrs. Saito and Saito-san’s eldest son also joining us. Another good harvest for Shintaro Koi Farm today. The normal routine ensued and finally we were having coffee again in Saito-san’s house. We didn’t stay
long as Mark and Steve had to go photograph a village Koi show in Kawaguchi. I learnt later that even though Saito-san has many mudponds in Kawaguchi, his farm is actually in Mushigame Village where his house is, so he didn’t qualify for this show. I also learnt many other facts about Koi shows, Koi organizations, etc. Not so surprising considering this industry has been here since some 200 years ago. So much more complex compared to our only three Koi shows a year back home (Malaysia) for the entire country!

It was not that long of a stop at the Koi show. While the two pros kept themselves busy at their job, I kept myself busy taking their photos and posting them on Facebook for my newly found Koi friends. Another new thing I learnt – taking Koi photos is not easy. Both of them kept complaining of this ‘uncooperative’ GC. Well, at least I got a good shot of the both of them.

As Mark and Steve drove me back to Urasa train station for the final departure I tried to capture as much as I can in the last stint before leaving Niigata. I tried hard but I still could not convince Mark to package a tour for people like me. My sales pitch for the package tour would be, ‘Come and experience the birthplace of Nishikigoi with the experts. Get your hands dirty by actually joining in Koi harvesting in the mudponds of Niigata. Meet the famous breeders you only saw on magazines before. Learn the intricate details of the art and enjoy first-hand experience
of the hundred year old industry’. Sadly, Mark wouldn’t buy that but I can actually see it his way. People like Mark and Steve do this for their own reasons. As Mark said to me earlier, I’m barely scratching the surface on all this.There’s so much more to learn and experience here. In the car, I secretly took a peek on my iPhone calendar trying to figure out the next available time for a trip up here again. I can only hope.

It was a short farewell at the train station, partly because I am never good at bidding farewell but partly because I agree with what Mark said. I know I will be back again one day….

Shinkansen platform sign

Shinkansen platform sign

Shintaro Koi Farm calendar on the office wall

Shintaro Koi Farm calendar on the office wall

Shintaro Koi Farm coffee mug

Shintaro Koi Farm coffee mug


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