Language of Koi | A Journey to Niigata, Japan’s Koi Mecca

koi nets fisherman

It’s harvest time in Niigata.

Located more than 200 miles north of Tokyo, Niigata is surrounded by mountains of mountains. Heavy snowfall in winter is famous. It can be as high as 10 feet. Niigata used to be an inaccessible corner of the island during winter. Although it was such an inconvenient area, the soil was rich, and the water was pure. Therefore, Niigata became famous not only for koi, but also for the best rice and the best sake in Japan.

The Ojiya and Yamakoshi areas in Niigata are considered the birthplace of Nishikigoi, or koi in short. Serious koi hobbyists and dealers from all over the world will religiously visit this area every year. Carp as a food source has long been available anywhere in Asia, but Niigata is the only place where food carp evolved into living jewels. It has a lot to do with the environments, history and people.

Some refer to Niigata as Koi Mecca. Some may have it on their bucket list, but whether you are in the koi business or just a hobbyist, Niigata is an essential place to visit for everyone. My family has more than 50 years of history visiting the Niigata koi breeders. I’d like to explain why it is so important for koi hobbyists and dealers to visit this region of Japan.

Superstar Gazing

I believe koi is an art, and breeders are artists. In Niigata, you have opportunities to meet and talk to the artists of your favorite works of art. Dainichi, Isa, Marudo, Hoshikin, Sekiguchi and all the famous breeders you have heard so much about are all in Niigata. There is a good chance you have one of their koi in your pond.

You can visit them, see their latest artwork and ask questions. You can feel their passion and visions of the koi they are trying to create. You may even have an opportunity to go out and drink with them. Knowing them personally is understanding their koi.

Niigata is both the place to meet these superstar artists and a place to find your dream koi.
“The selection is by far the most extensive, and there is nothing quite like personally selecting a Japanese koi directly from the farm,” says Dr. Malone, one of our clients. When he first came to Niigata, he told me it was his first and last time to visit, as it had been on his bucket list. Well, he has been back to Japan every year since for the last seven years. Clearly, he became addicted to visiting Niigata.

Koi Education

For dealers including myself, Niigata provides the seeds of our business. We of course buy koi for our stores, but this is only one of the many reasons we visit Niigata. The other aspect is the experience and the knowledge you can earn at this Koi Mecca. A wider knowledge and deeper understanding of Japanese koi will help you share their value and appreciation with your customers.

Of course, visiting Niigata only for several days will not explain to you the full scope of a breeder’s work, but you will be exposed to some of their efforts. You will see how much work is involved before you to pick koi for yourself or your clients. Coordinating shipping from Niigata to your store alone is a big portion of expense. A KHV test must be done to make sure that the koi are healthy for your clients. The KHV testing is time consuming and not free.

Try to visit as many breeders as possible. Expose yourself to as many koi as possible. Eventually, you will start seeing the difference in quality, characteristics of bloodlines and more. Buying koi from a breeder is great training, too. Usually there are so many koi in one tank for the same price tag, and you need to choose what you think is the best. You can ask breeders for their opinions, too. This is a very good learning experience.

If you are in the business, it is your responsibility to fill in the knowledge gaps so that hobbyists understand the whole process and appreciate Japanese koi more deeply. Niigata is the most sacred place for koi lovers. I recommend that you visit every year if you are in the business. Or, consider visiting at least once in your life if you are a serious koi hobbyist like Dr. Malone.

Get Dream Koi Directly

Whether it is for yourself or for your clients, if you cannot find your dream koi in Niigata, you won’t be able to find it anywhere else. There are hundreds of breeders in Niigata. Competition is severe. In order to survive, they must breed better-quality koi and breed something different from the others. Eventually they get to specialize in certain koi varieties. This is how the selection and the quality of koi in Niigata became by far the most extensive. In addition, you can personally pick and buy them from the breeders directly. You cannot get a better koi-shopping experience than this.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Niigata every year, I also recommend that you pick a few breeders to go back to every year. In doing so, you can train your eyes for the bloodline and understand what breeders are trying to accomplish through their yearly improvements.

Watch the Harvest

The inimitable moment of harvest is captured at Dainichi Koi Farm’s mud pond.

You may have seen the mud pond harvest many times on YouTube, but watching a video is not the same as being there by the mud pond, watching the water being drained. You see dorsal fins out of water and get a glance of some amazing colors. They are eventually cornered by the seining net. Then, a beautiful creature is pulled out of the dirty mud pond. The moment is beyond description. Some breeders say they work so hard for the whole year just for this moment. This is the time you really feel that koi are beautiful works of art.

There are many more reasons to visit Niigata, but lastly, let me share a few things you need to know about visiting Japan, including hiring a tour guide, seasonal timing, and shipping koi.

The Who, When & How

Choosing right person to guide you determines whether your trip is a success or failure. Although many breeders are close to each other, if you do not know where you are going, you could spend the whole day driving to visit only a few breeders. Besides, if breeders do not know who you are, they generally will not want to do business with you. During harvest season, breeders are always in and out. So, good coordination is very important to make your time worthwhile. Pick a person with a good command of the Japanese language who has done business with Niigata breeders for many years. It is a big plus if the person has a facility in your country. Then, he can assist you with quarantine and KHV testing.

You cannot just visit Niigata any time and expect to see a lot of koi. If you would like to see many koi, October and November is the best time, because it is the harvest season. January and February are also good, because you can visit the All Japan Koi Show in Tokyo before or after your visit to Niigata. This is the world’s biggest and best koi show. About that time, Niigata has tons of snow. It is a beautiful time of the year. It is also fun to visit breeders in the snow. If you are looking for Jumbo tosai, spring is a great time. If you are lucky, you will see the cherry blossom tree in full bloom. You can also visit the All Japan Young Koi show or International Junior Koi show at the same time. Visiting in the summertime is generally not a good idea.

jumbo koi

Tourists admire the jumbo koi.

In Niigata, you will see so many koi. Prices will not be bad at all, but it is also not difficult to spend more than you planned. Sometimes, we forget that it also costs money to ship koi from Japan to our country. Shipping koi is like shipping water. Check with your broker about approximate shipping costs in advance, and make sure you budget and put money aside for that, too.

Every year I take a trip to Niigata with my clients, and you are welcome to join our tour. Please learn more about the details of our excursion at www.kodamakoifarm.com/niigata-koi-tour/. Now that you have more information about visiting Niigata, Japan, it is time to take action and visit the origins of koi history. I will see you there!

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