In 1995, Ian Stewardson, a legendary name in UK Koi keeping who had been buying my Koi since 1983, introduced me to his friend Bill Oakley who turned out to be another gentleman of Koi.
Bill wished to visit Japan but he couldn’t spare the time that year however he did ask me to look out for ‘special Koi’ with him in mind on that visit. We saw a few here and there but none that could compete for the Supreme Award at the BKKS National.
That was until we attended Toshio’s mud pond harvests again that year and saw this Koi for the first time.
This was to be Bill’s first Koi he bought from me after I sent him the photographs from Japan. I had named her in advance as ‘Lady Di’ for obvious reasons. Toshio suggested we entered it into the All-Japan show in ’96 and Bill agreed.
Entering this show in Kohaku classification is the most challenging of all especially when Bill’s Koi only measured 71cms and there were several others pushing the 75cms size limit. Lady Di received a very welcome 2nd. in variety and we were more than pleased with that result.
However, back in the UK there was nothing really to even touch her, in all truth Lady Di took the BKKS National to another level completely. She certainly was the best Koi that I had ever located to date. After that Supreme Champion award at ‘Koi ‘96’ she was immortalised forever by way of a numbered and limited edition miniature porcelain model of her. She was not one of Toshio’s ‘Magoi Line’ of Kohaku but she was an amazing Kohaku at the time.
(Apologies for the only shot I have of the ‘Lady Di’)
Autumn ’96 saw the first real ‘spin-offs’ from Koi Kichi when I started to get requests from many UK collectors who wished to come to Japan with me to find special Koi and also see with their own eyes the actual harvests taking place. Although I had photographed and taken part in many other harvests prior to that I had never dared ask Toshio if I could take part in his own harvests that were all carried out with military precision by the combined staff of Toshiyuki and Toshio whilst customers waited patiently at Yamamatsu for the Koi to be returned.
The day before the ’96 autumn harvest I took my party of guests to Yamamatsu to check the time when the Koi would arrive the following day only to be told that few Japanese buyers were expected to attend. In truth the demand for high quality Koi to the home market had been falling steadily downwards for several years already.
Of course, Toshio already knew this and he also knew his future market for his best stocks would be to those Koi collectors based overseas.
He didn’t miss the opportunity when he saw our band of camera-wielding gaigins before him all eagerly awaiting the next day’s harvest. Within minutes the first ever visit to an actual Yamamatsu mud pond harvest had been arranged to depart from Mushigame the following morning at 8.30 sharp but the witnesses would not be from Japan!
Before we left that day, Toshio inspected my fingernails and frowned – ‘Da-may’ said he!
Our band returned at 830am. sharp the following day to find Mushigame a hive of activity, in those days many other breeders assisted at these annual major events. Not only were the Yamamatsu and Toshio’s full-time staff present there were breeders such as Shintaro, Marusada and Yagenji all lending a hand to prepare the three large trucks.
(NOTE – It should be pointed out here that this was the very first of Toshio’s harvests that would eventually lead to ‘Toshio’s Annual Koi Circus’ in later years – although none of us knew it at the time. The breeders found it fascinating that gaigins did not seem to object to getting their shoes and clothing caked in mud – in fact the opposite was the truth because the gaigins would do anything to witness the spectacle!)
The slow-moving convoy left Mushigame that day with our party bringing up the rear and proceeded onwards and upwards through Tanesuhara and Tashiro before reaching the four hallowed mud ponds just outside of Tochio village. The advance party had been there since 7.30am just to ensure that the harvest water levels were correct.
As the nets and bowls were offloaded, Toshio also had another trick up his sleeve by way of boxes full of food and drink for his guests which were all laid out neatly on blankets before us – ‘Dozo’ said he, a very nice touch.
At some time he checked my fingernails again and smiled (I’d cut them the night before) – soon I found myself donning chest waders as my stomach knotted after realizing I would be the first ever gaigin allowed to take part in harvesting those famed mud ponds. As mentioned, I had already taken part in many harvests but not with the likes of these masters standing by – also knowing full well that these would probably be the largest Koi ‘Matsunosuke’ had produced to date.
To hell with it Waddy, make a fool of yourself; fall in purposely if it will draw a laugh!
Cameras were clicking away and the harvest produced some incredible Koi – it also produced a couple of shots I’ll always treasure
This one was later named ‘Syncronised Sankes’ for obvious reasons.
This one captured my relief with a can of Kirin to celebrate getting out alive without dropping any clangers!
In spring ’97, Den and I found ourselves back in Yamakoshi with a party of UK guys including a good friend Dave Dyson who owns Cascade Water Gardens in the north of England. It was Daves first visit to Japan and he was seeking, as he told me – ‘Very high quality small Koi’.
After three intensive days in the mountains, searching every nook and cranny possible, at the time of the year when many small Koi can be found – Dave had yet to make a single purchase. In fact, in Nomole bar one evening we’d already christened him ‘No Koi Dave’!
There was a Koi Club in Mushigame village named The Rinyu Club which was managed by the breeders and headed by Toshiyuke with other major participants such as Kazuto, Shintaro, Yagenji, Marusada, Marushou and Maruju. They had clubbed together to purchase two mud ponds where they each placed some of their best Koi.
One pond was used from July for tiny tosai that were to be harvested in late September and then fed over the winter; these would be auctioned the following spring. The other mud pond was used for nisai, sansai & yonsai to be harvested in October and auctioned in November.
I had been a member of ther club since ’93 and never missed a single one of these special auctions, again only one in spring for tosai and one in autumn for larger sizes.
The Rinyu Club auctions were staged on the large concrete pad in front of the village post office. At around 10.00am the Koi to be auctioned were entered into a Koi show and were judged in respective classifications prior to the actual auction which commenced at 1.00pm sharp.
Whilst the judging was going on, the breeder’s wives were busy inside the post office cooking all manner of soups, stews and rice to be served at 12.00 in the large room on the first floor.
Oh yes, and to wash it all down there was more beer and sake than there was water in the ponds outside. Of course if one was stupid enough the breeders would re-fill your glass time and time again to a point where one would find it very difficult to focus one’s eyes on the Koi passing through the auction.
Not a wise move!
Once again these were very special auctions. On the day of this particular auction whilst traveling into Mushigame I said to ‘No Koi Dave’ – ‘Oh, you’re looking for high class tosai aren’t you’?
‘Yes I am, but there are none.’ – came the reply.
‘Well, it’s my job to find you some then – Oh what’s going on here’? – as we pulled in front of the post office to see this sight.
The young guy crouching is Isao Nagashima – I christened him ‘Baby Face’ and he works for uncle Toshiyuke. Apart from the fact he can handle and even juggle one meter Koi without thinking he also had every single young lady in Yamakoshi waiting for just one glimpse of him!
‘Here you go ‘No Koi’ – are there one or two here you like’?
Silence, then as realisation crept in –
‘WHA*** JEEZ*** WHA…………I’ll buy them ALL, where do I pay, I wanna pay now, they’re MINE……here’s some money…..’
‘It’s an auction ‘No Koi’ – you bid for them.’
‘Well get a bloody ticket and buy them for me!’
‘I have a ticket, the auction starts at 1.00pm.’
‘Wot, another two hours????’
‘Yes, why not have a close look at them beforehand’?
‘I don’t need to bloody look – I’m buying the lot!’
‘If you say so.’
‘No Koi Dave’ had been somewhat transformed – then followed endless questions.
‘How can I bid, I don’t understand Japanese prices’?
‘You don’t have to – I’ll do that – just sit next to me.’
‘Right – erm..how many come through in a ‘Lot’’?
‘No Koi’ refused all offers of beer – he was on a mission as he dragged me out far too early just to make sure we had a front seat with the best view.
At last the Rinyu Club spring auction commenced and the first Koi came to view.
‘I’ll go up to £30.00 on this one Pete – maybe £35.00 even.’
‘Start price is £85.00 Dave.’
‘Why do you have you’re finger out – I’m not paying that – how much is it now?’
‘£270.00 – I’m buying – £320.00 – good, it’s mine.’
‘WHAAAA****?????? – bloody ridiculous!’
‘Nah, that’s cheap.’ As I waited for the next…..
Half-way through, ‘No Koi’ started to get the gist as panic set in and the best Koi started to come through.
‘Buy me this Showa, I WANT it’!
‘How much is it now’?
‘£685.00, I’m buying it, if you want it afterwards – you can buy it for what I’ve paid.’
‘Not a chance, you’re joking’!
It went on as ‘No Koi’s’ depression deepened.
At the end of it all, I had 27 tosai and ‘No Koi Dave’ – ever good to his name – once again had no Koi!
I paid for the Koi after the auction, most of mine were entered by Toshiyuki and Toshio, and then photographed each one before returning to the hotel afterwards.
The 27 tosai had cost me around (memory?) £9,500.00 – ish.
The pictures came up on my screen and within an hour or so had emailed ten pictures to some 15 or so guys who were looking for something special.
By the time I’d showered and changed – seven were sold for £7,500.00 – ish.
Time to meet the boys over at Nomole who were all having fun – except you know who.
Later that evening……..’Erm Pete, how much did you pay today’?
‘Yes, ridiculous isn’t it’?
His calculator came out……. ‘Erm, if I give you £11,000.00 – is that OK’?
Later that evening…………. ’£14,000.00’?
‘No, why not bid at the next one’?
‘Same time Next year’.