In early April 1984 I returned to Japan for eight weeks to try and find as many Koi as possible, the UK market was on fire with thousands of new Koi enthusiasts. Big ones, small ones in any and all varieties could be sold in an instant and new Koi outlets were springing up all over England.
As you can imagine, these new enthusiasts also needed ponds and filters and everything else that surrounded the hobby.
Memory tells me I started the trip in Yamakoshi and bought some of the Koi that had managed to survive the winter. By then new indoor Koi houses were being built, I gasped in awe after seeing, for the very first time, the huge glass houses that covered Dainichi’s roadside ponds.
I then went to Nagoya to see Mr. Narita and after went to Hiroshima where I spent some days at Sakai Fish Farm, Uedera, Masutani and Tadashi Omosako’s father.
I returned to Tokyo and took the express train to Isawa Onsen station where I took the short taxi ride to The Isawa Nishikigoi Center to find that Mr. Takai recognised me immediately and I do believe he actually smiled when we met!
I mentioned to him I needed to stay the night and his wife reserved a nearby hotel which was to be a hotel I would stay in for countless more visits. The Sun Plaza was situated on a busy main road directly across from a large river, in terms of efficiency there was none but, take my word for it, a one-night stay there was more hilarious than a week at Fawlty Towers.
The lady who thought she owned it all and managed to convince all the guests and the staff she did was truly formidable. She was not slim and not fat but nearer to fat, her face must have taken her hours to perfect every day using all the various make-up that an actress would use when going on stage. A pencil skirt, nylons, spiky high heels and multi-coloured blouses together with lashings of cheap jewelry completed the picture.
She considered herself to be a mature Miss World – I christened her Bagpuss.
On later visits I even greeted her with ‘Bagpuss san’ and a hug but she couldn’t possibly smile without breaking the pancake-laden face.
I also made it quite clear that I fancied her but she was unimpressed, as she knew every male walking also did. I was just another on her long list of admirers.
Bagpuss convinced the staff she was also completely fluent in English and made sure everyone could hear her when she conversed with me and much later with many other guys and ladies I’d take down for another night of rollicking boredom at the legendary Sun Plaza.
More tales of Bagpuss later, back then she did speak English, trouble was, she only knew one word, which was ‘NO’.
Ask her any question in the world and the answer would be ‘NO’!
The following morning was only a short walk to Takai san and even the early morning weather in Isawa is warm. I spent much of the morning watching the staff harvesting the huge concrete ponds by net so I could select the Koi I needed. The Koi I selected were placed in round bowls and once I had finished with one pond Takai san would kneel next to the bowl and go through each one carefully, the script would be similar to this: –
I’d point to one Koi and say ‘Icura Desca’ (How much is this?)
His replies would vary with each and every one, generally they consisted of: –
‘TAKAI’ – expensive
‘YASUI’ – cheap, but he meant junk!
‘OSU’ – male
‘OSU OYAGOI’ – future male parent – not for sale
‘TATEGOI’ – it will cost you a fortune
‘DAMAY!’ – silly little Englishman, can’t you see it’s deformed?
It went on. When the Koi I had not/could not purchase had been removed I had a list of prices surrounding the ones remaining inside the bowl. I’d add it up mentally to get a total and then ask – ‘Zenbu?’ which translates as – ‘If I buy ALL, how much is the final price please?’
(Of course, Takai san already had made provisions for this question and had loaded the individual prices by 20% in advance. He’d then give me the 20% discount, we’d shake hands and everyone would be happy!)
It was past lunchtime when I’d finished my purchases that day and had a pile of Polaroid shots to drool over later that night. I stood by the ponds counting out notes to pay him with but he beckoned me to follow him into a small room near the entrance.
This was the first of hundreds of times I would enter that room and shell out fortunes over the future years. The small room was tatami on the floor so shoes off, there was a low table, a small safe, a very small kitchen area and assorted stationery and Koi magazines on wall racks.
His lovely wife came in and prepared tea with a few snacks whilst I counted out the money and handed it over.
I watched as Takai san checked it to be correct, he then peeled a few 10,000yen notes off the pile and stuffed them in his pocket before handing the rest to his wife.
His wife then counted the money he’d handed her and then put it in an envelope before she opened a tiny flap on one wall right next to the floor and threw the envelope in before closing it again.
It’s impossible to relate just how much money I have seen being deposited into that hole in the wall over the years, I can’t even begin to hazard a guess!
I should point this out now in case I forget, because I’ve never put it down in print before.
Every single time I got the feeling I’d paid way over the odds for Koi purchases and this must have been 20% of the purchases, it was these same purchases that yielded the most profit when they were sold back home.
The other 80%, where I walked away smug in the knowledge I’d had ‘a steal’, only realized an average return.
Over the years I have always considered this when gazing at my Polaroids on trains and cars and planes, there have been countless times I looked at a photo and thought – ‘Why did you pay SO much for this one’?
Yet these were the very ones that always turned out to be extremely profitable!
That was the first time he suggested we go for lunch, on the way to the restaurant I mentioned a variety I needed that he did not have (I forget which one) but he looked at me and repeated the name and I nodded back.
He pulled to the roadside, turned the car round and headed in another direction. We came soon to another waste tip where I followed him over rubble and there before me were several aging concrete tanks brimming with varieties other than Go-Sanke!
That was the first of many of his secret ponds, tanks and other indoor Koi houses dotted all over Isawa and his staff would service all of these every day.
The man was a bloody magician!
I left that day bound for Niigata but mentioned I’d return to him on my way back to the airport and home. His wife jotted down the date of my return and reserved my room at the Sun Plaza for the night.
I thought that this night reserved at the Sun Plaza would be the next time on that trip I would see Takai san in Japan but I was wrong.
Some weeks later whilst driving through Mushigame village, the roadsides were adorned with huge circular, artificial flower displays protected from the rain by huge see-through plastic bags. The same could be seen in other parts of the village and as we drove down to the south part of the village towards Yamanaka they became even more intense until they literally exploded at Yamamatsu.
The father had passed away and the funeral would take place the day after.
I attended the funeral because some voice from within urged me to do so even though it was impossible to get any nearer to the house than 100 yards away.
All the village roads were gridlocked with luxury cars and hundreds of narrow-bodied Koi trucks and it seemed that every Koi dealer and every Koi lover in Japan had turned out to pay their respects.
I managed to get a distant glimpse of the black-suited Takai san with Toshiyuke but that was all.
I stood on the concrete apron outside the post office and someone handed me a can of beer.
I don’t know why but I think I cried.