Essential Language for Describing Koi

Published on December 31, 2020

Far left, Asagi should have a clean, blemish-free head and uniform net pattern. Middle, Doitsu koi (shown above and below) have smooth skin and very few to no scales. Far right, Matsuba come in red, orange & yellow varieties.

Nothing stands out in a pond quite like koi. Their bright colors and unique patterns are part of the reason why they are such a popular fish. Today, there are numerous breeds of koi, with each categorized by color, pattern and scales. Knowing the traits of koi varieties, along with the terms commonly used to describe their different characteristics, can be useful when helping clients and customers choose the best additions to their pond.

Language for describing koi colors

Learning common terms for koi colors can help you better understand differences between varieties. Koi breeds display a variety of hues, ranging from a single, solid color to complex combinations of red, orange, yellow, black, silver and more. The names of most koi varieties come from the Japanese word used to describe their colors and features. For instance, asagi means light-blue or indigo, which refers to the blue-gray color seen in this variety of koi. Likewise, ochiba shigure translates to “autumn leaves on the water,” which aptly describes the fall-like copper and gray colors found in this variety.

Coloration terms help describe the features and color of breeds or sub-breeds within a class. For example, the Utsurimono class of koi is black with the presence of a secondary color, and the name of each koi variety within that class — Shiro Utsuri, Ki Utsuri and Hi Utsuri — tells us what that secondary color will be. The name Shiro Utsuri, for instance, describes a koi with a black base and white secondary pattern.

Ultra Balance
When examining the color of koi, the hue should be bold and even from head to tail. The edges where one color meets another should be sharp, distinct and free from overlap. It’s generally preferable that the color pattern is free from “window,” which occurs when a base color breaks through a larger area of secondary color.

It’s also important to note that color will likely change or develop as the fish gets older. Any black areas tend to grow in size, depth and clarity over time. Reds don’t typically get larger, but often the color will become richer or bolder. White coloring also sees improvement as koi grow and their skin matures, so a spot that initially looks yellow or cream will likely eventually transition to a cleaner, crisper white.

>> Find more content in our Language of Koi library

Language for describing koi scalation

The term Wagoi is used to describe a normal, full-scaled koi. However, this term is usually left out when describing koi breeds, because it is considered the default trait. Unless another type of scale is noted, it’s typical to assume that the scalation is Wagoi.

gin rin koi
Gin Rin koi have glittering, shiny scales that reflect light.

Doitsu refers to koi that are scaleless or mostly scaleless. There are three main types of Doitsu patterns. Kawi Goi, also known as a leather pattern, refers to koi that are completely scaleless or have a single row of scales that runs down the back on both sides of the dorsal fins. Kagami Goi, also known as a mirror or striped pattern, is when koi have scales both on the dorsal and lateral line. Finally, Yoroi Goi means it is armor-scaled. This pattern is made up of varying-sized scales that are randomly distributed all over the body.

Both scaled and scaleless koi can be further distinguished by the type of scales present or absent. For instance, the term Gin Rin refers to a pattern of sparkly scales, and any koi that has at least three complete rows of these scales is considered Gin Rin. Note that Gin Rin koi are different from the Hikarimuji and Hikarimono classes, which encompass all metallic varieties. While Gin Rin refers to sparkly scales, Hikari koi are characterized by their metallic skin. It is possible, however, for koi in the Hikarimuji and Hikarimono classes to also be Gin Rin. Another example is Matsuba koi, which are part of the Hikarimui class and are characterized by black markings at the center of the scales, giving this variety a pattern that resembles a pine cone.

The edges of scales on Wagoi koi should be hardly noticeable. The scales should appear in uniform lines and not be uneven or distorted in shape. The metallic quality of Gin Rin scales should be bright and reflective.

In Doitsu koi, skin quality is extremely important. Skin should be bright, clean and blemish-free. Scale patterns in Kawi Goi should have no spacing or spacing that is even and symmetrical on both sides of the dorsal fin. The highest-quality Kagami Goi will have a uniform and unbroken scale pattern running from head to tail.


Koi color patterns can be either continuous or in a step configuration. A pattern that has no breaks or separations from head to tail is considered continuous. If the pattern has one or more separations that form several color patches, it is called a step pattern. If there are two patches, it’s a two-step pattern. If there are three patches, it’s a three-step pattern, and so on.

A single Hi (red) marking on the head is referred to as a Tancho, which is seen in Kohaku, Sanke and Showa varieties of koi. Another name for a Hi marking on the head is a Maruten. The difference between the two is that Maruten is accompanied by additional Hi markings on the body, while a Tancho is the only Hi marking on the entire fish. A Hi marking that appears around the mouth like lipstick is called Kuchibeni, meaning “red lips.” A zigzag Hi pattern, like that seen in Kohaku, is referred to as Inazuma, which translates to “lightning strike.”

language for describing ktancho kohaku koi
Tancho Kohaku have a red circle on the head and no other red anywhere else on the body.

The term Kiwa is used to describe the line where two colors in a pattern meet. The two types of Kiwa patterns are Kamisori, or razor, and Maruzome, or scalloped. In some cases, both Kiwa patterns may be present on the same koi, which is then called a Konzai Kiwa.

The leading edge of pattern areas on a koi is called Sashi. Sashi is a colored scale that is overlaid by a white scale that is unfinished, which gives it a pink or grey blurring effect. The white scale will get thicker as the koi ages, and the color underneath will be obscured.

When it comes to color patterns on koi, the most important aspect is balance. Patterns that are evenly distributed are favored over patterns that are heavier on one area of the body. Kiwa should be crisp, with little to no overlap in color.

For Tancho koi, and especially show koi, the shape and placement of the Tancho is very important. Ideally, the spot should be between the eyes of the koi and not reach farther than the shoulders or run down the nose. The rounder the mark, the better. Because a Tancho marking is not a breedable trait, it’s fairly rare and extremely desirable among hobbyists.

The Sashi should ideally be no more than two scales. In young koi, the Sashi can give an indication of how strong and vibrant the color will be when the koi matures. However, it’s important that the color found on the leading edge of the Sashi is as uniform as possible. An uneven color could mean that the edge will not be sharp if and when it develops.

Know Your Customer

Every koi keeper has different standards for what constitutes a quality koi, and certain traits might be more or less important to some enthusiasts than they are to others. If your customer or client plans on showing their koi, they may be pickier than someone who is just looking for a backyard pet. Exact standards of quality can vary depending on the variety of koi and its distinct features.

For those customers stocking their first pond, they may be more drawn to traditional koi breeds, such as Kohaku or Sanke. These breeds, along with Showa, Utsuri, Asagi and Shusui, also tend to be popular choices for those customers wanting to show their koi. More adventurous koi hobbyists may be drawn to flashier koi, such as Doistu or Gin Rin variations.

It’s not easy to keep up with the ins and outs of each class and variety of koi, especially with new ones continuing to pop up. But knowing the basics of coloration, scalation and patterning will allow you to be better informed and equip you to assist your customers as they mull over selecting their next koi.

About the Author
Casey LeFever is co-owner of and part of the third-generation future ownership of Blue Ridge Koi and Goldfish, the largest and longest-running koi farm in the United States

Kloubec Koi Farm

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