Between late ’79 to late ’81 I had returned twice to Japan; I had searched Yamakoshi and the surrounding areas of Toyama, Koide, Wakatochi and even Saitama for these elusive RED red; BLACK black and WHITE white Koyas that many in the UK were still waxing lyrically about but nothing at all I saw could equal these beauties that made such an impression on my memory – or my bank balance.
It became an obsession with me, there had to be more of these available but where?
In spring ’82 I exited Narita customs and found the English-speaking office manager of Kamihata’s Chiba office waiting for me in the arrivals hall. He drove me to Tokyo station where I would board the ‘Express Train’ to Nagaoka.
(This ‘Express’ thing was a total misnomer; this express train took six hours to travel the 180 miles and stopped at just about every station en route!)
On the drive to Tokyo the guy mentioned that Koi may not be as readily available at this time of the year in Yamakoshi and a visit to Isawa may well be rewarding on this trip and may also broaden my horizons for the future.
I asked him where Isawa was and he mentioned that it was only a two-hour road drive west from Tokyo but was not on the main Shinkansen line.
He then said that he could send one of his staff to collect me from Tokyo station during this trip and then he would take me to the Koi farms of Isawa.
It all depended on what was available in Yamakoshi that spring and that would decide if I had spare cash left for more Koi so I said I’d think about it and telephone if the need arose.
After three hours of travel, the mountain ranges loomed ahead of me and already the peaks were capped with snow. After another 20 minutes we passed through endless tunnels under these mountains and finally exited to see a ‘snowscape’ that was an amazing sight to behold – well it was for a Yorkshire lad who had only seen a 10” snowfall on only a few occasions in his 38 years.
People had mentioned the snowfalls in that area and explained the reasons for the street awnings but actually seeing it all was another thing, as the train approached Yuzawa there was one meter of snow everywhere and this was April – what must it have been like in February?
I exited the station and slid back to the Grand Hotel in Nagaoka for what was to be my very first spring visit there. In the hotel that night I wondered how difficult it would be to be able to get around Yamakoshi with all this snow around. If the UK had to face this depth of snow, the entire country would simply grind to a halt.
On my first sortie into the mountains on that very first spring visit I realised that Japan had the snow thing under complete control and the roads were totally free from the white stuff. Driving at that time was no more difficult than driving in autumn.
I wish I could have said that the Koi were exactly the same as I saw in autumn but that was far from the truth. Bear in mind that there were only 20 or so breeders who had small indoor facilities in those days and only 3 or 4 used additional heat in their indoor systems.
Some clever breeders had taken their best stocks to the hot spring mud ponds near Koide but the vast majority remaining had been left outdoors in shallow concrete ponds fed only by incoming trickles of water siphoned from streams and allowed to overflow.
I was told that the ponds had been covered with bamboo mats and snow was cleared periodically but all I saw under these mats was carnage.
Dead Koi and dying Koi; Koi heaving with papillomatosis (called carp pox in the UK); Koi covered in fungus and Koi gasping at the surface of the water.
As an aside here, the April sunshine in Yamakoshi is quite strong; there were also many roadside ponds on view where the bamboo mats had been removed and the shallow water was crystal clear due to the overflows. Many Koi could be seen rotting away with the various after effects of sunburn simply because the weakened skin was far more susceptible to the sun’s rays!
On that first spring visit I actually convinced myself that there was some kind of rare disease that had caused all this but it was later explained that it all revolved around the incredibly low water temperatures that lasted for five months.
It was almost accepted as the inevitable back then – or so it seemed to be to me.
(A word of explanation is needed here. The truth was, if I had been prepared to wait until early December in the previous year when snow was about to fall and these same Koi were in good condition and all other buyers had left. I could have bought all these Koi for pennies. Alas, no one mentioned this to me and by the time the penny finally dropped some years later, most of the breeders had already built indoor Koi houses!)
Even in the indoor houses the tosai looked weak, in those days it was ‘average’ to get the fry born last June to 3” (7.5cms) long by the following April and a 30cms nisai was truly exceptional!
Most Koi breeders in those days still used natural breeding methods whereby the parent Koi spawned in the mud ponds as seen in this old shot. The concrete tanks next to the pond were for housing the Koi for display after the autumn harvests.
‘Matsunosuke’ was one of the few outlets I bought Koi from on that trip to Yamakoshi, whether he had heat or not to his indoor ponds I cannot recall, but his nisai and sansai looked presentable and so I bought quite a few over 4 to 5 daily return visits.
(I almost forgot to mention this but it is important; ANY Koi I could find in Yamakoshi – even bearing in mind the small choice available to me on that trip was light years ahead of anything else that could be found in the UK back then. No other UK dealer would even consider the thought to travel to Japan and back to find Koi. I had the UK high-end market under tight and complete control when thousands of buyers were desperately seeking Koi! Thankfully I was still getting 910 yen to £1.00 and thus the many early mistakes I did make in my selections could be more than easily recouped by extra margins made on my ‘better judgments’.)
On one of those visits in April ’82 to ‘Matsunosuke’ there was a guy whose face I had seen before and we had nodded to each other a few times. I had the feeling he was a serious private Koi collector from outside Yamakoshi who had the money to be there instead of having to go to work for a living.
On this same trip he came over to me and handed me his card (in Kanji) but he also handed me a slip of paper – hand-written in English.
Of course I cannot recall the exact wording but it read something like – ‘Please visit me at my farm, I have the finest selection of Koi in all of Japan, you will not be disappointed.’
Underneath were details of his Koi farm in English together with telephone numbers and that turned out later to be Hiroji Sakai from Hiroshima.
Even after 8 days or so in Yamakoshi on that trip I had only spent one third of my budget and so I contacted Kamihata in desperation to advise I would like to visit Isawa – or indeed anywhere that healthy Koi were available.
At Tokyo station I met up with a Mr. Kawabata, my guide, who spoke some English but I doubt if he’d ever seen a Koi in his life before. He drove me to Isawa and we checked into a hotel late one night.
The next morning I woke early and decided to take a walk around the area, which turned out to be nothing like Yamakoshi, in fact the direct opposite. It was a built-up area with businesses intermingled with nice houses, landscaped gardens and shops together with a few plush hotels. There were drains here and there next to the road and in some I spotted a few unattractive Koi but saw no Koi farms. I needed a coffee but it was far too early for that so I just kept walking.
I waited back at the hotel for Kawabata to surface and we took a meager breakfast and then checked out. It turned out that it was also Kawabata’s first sortie into Isawa and he hadn’t a clue as to where to go ‘Koi wise’!
Kawabata then made many calls to the Kamihata offices begging for telephone numbers and contact names.
It must have worked because that morning we did visit Sakuma; we also visited Yoshida Fish Farms; next a good outlet owned by a guy who was married to a prominent TV actress and then a brilliant Showa breeder named Gamo where I found some wonderful Koi and bought them immediately!
We stopped for a quick lunch and then continued on to a larger than normal outlet on a main street that seemed to be a little run down from the outside. There was no one around to greet us and so we just passed through the small office and around to the rear.
A right turn led us up a few steps where there were huge concrete ponds full to the brim with RED reds, BLACK blacks and WHITE whites!
NO QUESTION AT ALL, I HAD FINALLY FOUND THE MOTHERLODE!