“He who knows does not care to speak about it; he who speaks about it does not know it.”
–Proverb taken from Nishikigoi Mondo as quoted by Shuji Fujita, Editor in Chief of Rinko Magazine
I have had the great privilege of growing up in an industry I now call my own, and my whole life has pretty much revolved around Nisikigoi. Since my age was in the single digits, I distinctly remember relating to my classmates what Koi was and the basics of the hobby. I’m not entirely sure how long I managed to keep their interest in what I had to say, but since my dad began keeping Koi in 1991, I can’t really remember what life was like without Koi in it. That meant nighttime conversations would mostly revolve around stories about Koi. Papa and I would spend a lot of time in our backyard Koi pond and he would talk with me about his latest trip to Japan and his experiences in Koi. I remember always asking my dad back then to teach me about Koi and what made it good, but I remember getting consistently the same answer: “Look at the fish, Mikki.” As a child, you can imagine how frustrating this response can be.
“Papa, what do you mean when you say that this Koi is very high quality?” I would ask one day.
“Look at the fish.” Would be Papa’s response.
“That Koi has such nice skin! Look at how deep the beni is!” Papa would say.
“Papa, what do you mean by “deep beni?”
“Look at the fish.”
“This koi has a really nice bone structure!” Papa would relate as he hovers over a Koi.
“What does having a nice bone structure mean?”
“Look at the fish.”
Nearly every question that I had when it came to understanding the quality of Koi was met with this response. So I did what every good daughter would do: I just shut up and looked at the fish. My brother had always been deeply involved in Koi, much more so than I, and he worked night and day for several years with my parents establishing Kois & Ponds to what it is today. Since I was a child, I always thought that I had the distinction of getting this answer from my dad, but later conversations with my brother would tell me otherwise.
After I graduated from University, it was my turn to take my place in helping with the family business. Working in the Koi industry can be quite intimidating, especially since I felt that giving customers the answer of “look at the fish” when I had none just wouldn’t cut it. Thankfully, I had an older brother (or Kuya as we say in Filipino) to call on for guidance.
“Kuya, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t think I know enough about Koi!” I say to my brother over coffee one night.
“Don’t worry about it, Mikki. You know more than you think.” was his calm response.
“You’re lucky, though. Papa really talked to you and taught you about Koi. What do I tell people when I don’t know the answer?”
“Papa never talked to me like you think. He would always just tell me to look at the Koi.”
Apparently, we all got the same training. But this was the way of Koi: you learn the most by simply looking at it. Even among the breeders in Japan, they very rarely teach their own children like you would expect. It is the common practice of farms to have their children train with a different breeder with whom they have a good relationship for a few years. Hisashi Hirasawa of Marudo Koi Farm trained with Dainichi for the longest time before establishing his own farm; Ryu Mano of Izumiya Koi Farm went to Ogata Koi Farm for two years to train in Koi; Beppu trained at Sakai Fish Farm; my older brother trained at Dainichi, and of course Devin trained at Marudo. While this is not the standard, it is certainly the norm to do this.
One night I gained an insight as to why it was that Papa always gave me this answer when he was telling me about his latest experience in Japan, particularly at Omosako Koi Farm. The Shiro Utsuri variety of Koi can be quite frustrating at times, mostly because sumi is one of the most unpredictable qualities of Koi. In an effort to gain a better understanding of how to select Shiro Utsuri, Papa asked Omosako-Sacho how to select high quality Shiro Utsuri from tosai. Sacho told him that you can expect the most potential from tosai that have more white than black. Papa took this information and began looking at the Omosako high-grade tosai that were selling for a premium. As he walked along the tanks, he stopped in front of one in particular, pointed at the Koi and turned to Sacho.
“So why, then are these mostly black tosai considered high grade?” he asked.
“Because. It depends on the Koi.”
Lesson of the day: If the answer you get isn’t “Look at the Koi.”, it’s definitely going to be “It depends.”
Since then, I’ve quite literally married my work in the person of Devin Swanson. Naturally, the topic of his training in Japan would come up in regular conversation and I would sometimes ask him how they trained him in Japan.
“Well, a lot of it had to do with sign language and miming, especially since none of them spoke Japanese the way my Japanese tutor taught me to speak Japanese!”
While Devin’s initial experience had been a result of the communication barrier, it remained nearly the same even as his grasp of the Japanese language matured. It became everyone’s understanding that there was much more to be learned in the silent contemplation of the beauty of Koi rather than in the heat of conversation.
The season is here, so get out there and visit a show or visit your dealer and just look at Koi.