Much happened between May ’84 when I returned to the UK and October ’84 when I found myself back in Japan.
For starters the English-speaking Kamihata ex-office manager had finally completed his own Koi resting and packing facility on land directly next to Narita airport and was now my agent, he also had two other customers in South East Asia. From that time all my Koi purchases in all parts of Japan would travel there by road and be rested before re-packing and shipping to the UK.
I had spoken throughout summer to Takatsuki Ltd., who manufactured Hi-Blow air pumps and also to F.O.K. Ltd., who made the filter brushes and had secured a distribution deal for their products in the UK. At the same time I had found where I could get the most favourable deal for the filter mat sheets.
By the time I returned to Japan a sea container full of these items was already en-route to the UK. Exactly what I was going to do with them when the reached me remained to be a question mark.
(How to explain to the UK Koi enthusiasts back then that we no longer needed to ‘strain’ the water with gravel beds, we now could simply pass it through surfaces totally unrestricted – of course, like me initially, they would take some convincing.
At the same time I would have to implore them to use heavy aeration below these cartridges and that too would also seem far-fetched. No one had ever used heavy aeration in filter systems before so why start now? It was best to cross those bridges when the time was right.)
I’d arrived a little early for the Niigata harvests because the mud ponds had experienced a particularly good growing summer and the breeders still had warm water there.
I decided that my first night would be spent in the care of Bagpuss although I had no reservation. It was dark when the taxi finally dropped me outside The Sun Plaza with my baggage, I’d been traveling for some 30 hours and I needed a shower and some food. Sadly Bagpuss was on duty that night, she stood menacingly behind the reception counter in all her finery and the whiff of her perfume hit me from a distance of twenty feet.
There was no doubt in my mind that by now she was bored with all her admirers returning again and again, simply to be in her company and so to emphasise this she displayed her very best bored expression.
‘I’m tired…….tired of being admired…………………’
Sign language was the way forward here; I put my hands together rested them against a cheek, tilted my head and closed my eyes. By the time I’d opened them Bagpuss was frantically checking her bible, which was the hotel’s reservations book.
‘NO, NO, NO, NO’ said she as her henpecked boss entered, smiled and then bowed. He then raised one finger quizzically and I raised two, within minutes I’d checked in for another two nights at the boot camp by the river. I showered, changed and was back at reception 30 minutes later to find Bagpuss engrossed in a fashion magazine.
When I did my mime of ‘eating’ she replied with a ‘No’ so I walked outside. I knew there was nothing behind the hotel and the front was a river, so it was either right or left. I took left and after ten minutes walking discovered I should have turned right!
I did find a bar that also had food but the prices for Japan were ridiculous – however, for me and the exchange rate I had, they were no higher than I’d have paid in my local back home!
(That reminds me, in those days and for many years after, all my dealings were in cash. I’d stuff a bag with ‘readies’ back home and carry the bag with me on the plane. After exiting customs I’d go to the nearest exchange counter at the airport and convert the lot into Yen. There were no restrictions as to how much cash money could be carried out of the UK and nor were there any restrictions as to how much cash money could be taken into Japan.)
The next morning I walked over to the junkyard to find no one in sight so I left my bag near the office and climbed the steps to see the concrete ponds and check the Koi. The family home was at the end of these ponds and one had to go down the end steps, pass the side of the house and then climb more steps, which took one to many more ponds.
There was another house next to the family house but I had always assumed it was for storage. It turned out to be home for Toshio’s mother who had decided to move to warmer climes after her husband had passed away earlier that year.
It was only a little after 8.00am when I first saw this lady, believe me had I seen her before I would have remembered.
I watched her as she closed her house door and then saw her walk down and up steps to get on the level I was standing. She carried an empty shopping bag and glided past me erect as a princess with a half-smile and a short bow; no one had told me this but it was painfully obvious to me that this lady was Toshio’s mother.
There are many adjectives one could come up with when seeing this lady – things like elegant, slim, elderly, immaculate, tasteful, beautiful and even ‘holy’. But there was one that fitted the bill perfectly – ‘Regal’!
I must have met the lady many times after, we never spoke but we bowed, had we ever spoken I’m sure that I’d have been reduced to gibberish.
This lady had an aura surrounding her that is so hard to convey.
I never once saw her converse with any others, she’d simply pass through the Koi farm on her way to do shopping and then return to her house later.
If you go back to the family photo posted earlier, take another look at Toshio’s sister to his right and that is a younger version of his mother’s face. I’ve never mentioned this to anyone before, but ALL members of the Sakai family have this beautiful aura about them. They are not simply ‘good lookers’ – there’s something else.
As his mother floated off to my left, I heard ‘Pee-Tah san’ from my right – it was Toshio with a guy I had never seen before, he was introduced as Hiromi and was Toshio’s assistant. The exploded story of Hiromi Igarashi will all be detailed when the time comes.
I bought some tosai and nisai on that blazing hot morning but the selection was nowhere near as good as it had been on previous visits, everything was tateshita so I assumed he’d sold out of the better quality Koi.
It got around to 12.00am when he beckoned me to the car and off we drove for less than five minutes when I had my first glimpse of the Isawa Nishikigoi auction site, which I never even knew existed before then.
There was an auction to be held that day and most of the other Isawa breeders were there chatting to each other – Gamo, Maruyama, Haibara, Yoshida, Sakuma and many other faces I hadn’t seen before.
Soon the auction staff started handing out drinks and dinners in plastic trays, some selected the smoked, fried eels on a bed of rice but the majority went for the other option.
Please imagine a bed of Japanese boiled rice littered here and there with an ample supply of WASPS – because that’s what they were tucking into AND asking for ‘seconds’!
Apparently ii is a local delicacy – yummy!
I said I wasn’t hungry and opted for a beer.
The auction was a disappointment – all tateshita so we left partway through and started driving in the opposite direction to the farm and parked outside of a small house that had seen better days.
Around the back of the house were yet more of Toshio’s secret ponds but these were shallow concrete structures albeit with a huge surface area. He picked up some small pellets and threw them into water that resembled the colour of tea and as the pellets hit the surface, up came thousands of 3” tosai to fight over the food.
Toshio picked up a huge Koi net and beckoned me to throw more food; as the tosai broke surface, he scooped a net full in order to inspect them at the surface. I reckon that 95% of the ones in the net were magoi and the rest were Sanke.
He gave me the net to hold and came back with a plastic bucket; he then delved in the net to find Sankes and, after he’d placed the Sankes in the bucket, he lifted the net out of the water and tipped the magoi onto the sandy soil to die.
He then got a larger blue bowl and tipped the Sankes into it, they were terrible – just plain junk.
He then looked at me, his eyes widened and his face erupted into a huge smile before then coming out with the first English words I’d ever heard him utter –
‘Magoi Sanke – Gapo-Gapo- I YAM a CHALLENGER!’
(I bet he’d practiced the last bit for weeks!)
When he realised I understood it, he then practiced it on me for the rest of the day.
‘Pee-Tah san, EYE YAM A CHALLENGER!’
(Toshio’s wife’s face was a picture when she first heard him say this.)
Of course the magoi Sanke thing went right over my head at the time but it was the summer of ’84 when he made the original pairings between his female magoi and the milt of many male Matsunosuke Sankes.
That evening he took me to the same shack that sold the same Chinese foods. During the meal he pointed to me and said ‘Niigata’? I nodded; he wrote ‘10/18’ on a scrap of paper and then said ‘Yamamatsu’ and pointed to himself before saying ‘Tategoi – Gapo-Gapo – Eye Yam a Challenger’!
I did get to Yamamatsu early on the morning of the 18th. October but the village of Mushigame was deserted, there certainly were no Koi to be seen. In fact it seemed that the whole village had shut down for the day. In later years I discovered that this village has the highest concentration of Koi breeders in the world.
I wandered around for an hour or so looking at some Koi in roadside concrete tanks and sipped a can of juice from the village shop wondering what to do and where to go next.
All hell broke loose about 10.45am with the sound of a Ferrari that seemed to be screaming up the main road at the top of the village. I watched the yellow flash as the engine grunted and groaned through the gear changes required to handle the hairpins.
It finally stopped outside Yamamatsu and out climbed Japan’s version of Tom Cruise. I’d have stayed where I was had it only been the yellow Ferrari and Cruise san but what stirred me down to raise ‘Wows’ about his wonderful machine was the vision that stepped out of the passenger door.
The couple chatted away and looked at their watches whilst I was, to all intents and purposes, admiring the yellow machine from the road itself.
She did recognize me once though as she pointed at me eyes wide open to let me know a silent Roller complete with chauffeur was about to flatten me.
After that Mushigame became the world hub of ‘Who has the most money in 1984’ competition.
The reason that no one was around is that they were all assisting in the Matsunosuke harvests and the huge trucks fully laden with the best Koi known to man came back around midday to offload their bounty.
Mushigame Koi truck drivers have only one thing in mind and that’s to get the Koi back as safely and as quickly as possible, if it means clipping a Bentley on one side and an Aston on the other in order to pass then that’s what must be!
They soon got the hint.
Toshiyuke cleared a path for the Koi from truck to pond right through the crowd of enthusiasts, agents, dealers and others who were clutching their Koi photographs to make comparisons as to how they were now against how they were the previous spring. When the last Koi was inside the Koi enthusiasts dived in to get the best vantage points whilst the uninterested drivers returned to their cars.
It really was chaos and there was no point in trying to see them, I leaned on the wall over the road and watched as Toshio and Toshiyuke came out of the home and sat next to each other on the stone step with a beer.
I still didn’t get it?
Of course I knew the Koi had been harvested but what was the connection between the brothers and who actually owned the Koi that had been harvested?
‘Excuse me, are you from the United States’?
‘I drive Mr.??? for a living but I studied English in the USA for some time.’
‘Nice to meet you, but I’m from England.’
‘Oh yes, which part’?
‘Ah, Manchester United, I have always been a fan, tell me …….’…
‘Look I know nothing at all about football but I could use a translator right now if you..’
I led him to the brothers.
‘Pee- Tah san – EYE YAM A CHALLENGER’ said Toshio whilst Toshiyuki couldn’t believe his ears!
I grabbed the guy and asked him to interpret some questions I wished to ask them. He said a few words and – bloody heck – they invited us inside the house!
I always carried a notebook and pen and I knew that time was precious. As soon as I got back to my hotel that night I assembled all the notes as I’d heard them.
The upshot was this –
The water in Isawa is superb for raising tosai but too high in natural spirulina for tategoi, which develop and peak far too quickly in Isawa.
In spring Toshio brings ALL his tategoi to his mud ponds in Niigata to ‘tame’ the colours.
Toshio owns these mud ponds near Tochio but the Koi inside are owned independently by each of the brothers. Some are Toshio’s Koi and others belong to Toshiyuki. Daily feeding is paid for by Toshiyuki’s and his staff’s labour costs equal the rent Toshiyuki would have to pay for his own mud ponds and so no money actually changes hands.
Toshio plans to build a large indoor Koi house near Yamamatsu when land becomes available in order to provide more indoor water space for the two brothers.
The Koi harvested today were 75% already sold in previous years and the owners and agents have come to check them.
Over the next days nisai, sansai and yonsai stocks will be harvested.
That’s all I got on that chance Q & A session but it did explain a thing or two.
And I’m STILL only in the winter of ’84?