I checked out of the Grand Hotel and took the Shinkansen to Tokyo Station then a local train to Shinjuku and boarded the third train that took me to Isawa Onsen station.
I then got the taxi to the Sun Plaza where I asked Bagpuss if she’d look after my main luggage – as usual she scowled playfully and then said ‘NO’….
I just smiled, left the hotel and walked to Steptoe’s yard where a different sight greeted me. It seemed to me that Takai san was diversifying into the furniture business by the mountains of blue sheets I saw stacked all around the place.
I walked into the tumbled-down reception room to find some guys drinking tea with Takai san and their heads turned when I entered.
Joy of Joys! Takai san half smiled at me and beckoned me to sit down – I think he’d finally recognized me. The other guys started asking him questions but the only word I recognized was ‘Nishikigoi’ until Takai pointed to me and out came a reply with the word ‘America’ in it.
‘America NO’! said I and pointed to my chest then said ‘Eegerisu’ (English).
Takai san looked surprised and I walked out to the ponds whilst they were finishing their conversations. Before I could get to the ponds I had to pass a pile of the blue material and gave it a feel, it had to be some form of hard foam as used in the upholstery business, well that was the only thing I could come up with at the time.
I needed to select more Koi and get up to the hotel at Narita for my return flight the following morning and so this would have to be a flying visit. Takai san came over with two guys, I pointed to one pond of tosai and he asked them to harvest it so I could select. Whilst all this was going on, I pointed to the piles of blue stuff with a confused look on my face and raised my hands.
He looked at me with a real smile on his face and came back with ‘Gapo Gapo’!
That was the first time I’d heard the term but little did I know then that he would be saying the same thing to me on every return visit I would make in the years to come.
‘Gapo Gapo’ is the Japanese slang term for ‘Making Loads of Money’ but I didn’t know that at the time so I tried to ask the question again by looking even more puzzled until he placed a finger over his lips and directed my attention to the pond that was being harvested.
I tried again by pointing at the blue stuff and saying ‘Nishikigoi’? He looked back at me somewhat surprised, then nodded his head and replied ‘Nishikigoi’!
So the blue sheets were to be used for something to do with Nishikigoi – but exactly what I had no idea, could they be cut to size and used as strainers in the mechanical filter stage?
Takai san obviously could not explain what they were and so I started selecting the tosai with the guys and they placed them in the large blue bowl, which had an air stone bubbling away. Takai san had other things to do and left us to get on with our selections, by the time he returned I had three large blue bowls of tosai containing a total of around 2,000 Koyas.
He and I crouched around the first bowl and the ritual commenced once more after two other large bowls were place next to us and filled with some water. ‘Yasui’ he pointed and this went into one bowl whilst the ‘Takai’ Koi were placed in the other.
By the time he’d got to the end of the three bowls we had around 1,850 Yasui Koi and 150 Takai Koi. He then called for three more bowls and started selecting the Yasui Koi into three different price bands whilst I looked on, calculator, pen and notebook at the ready.
One of the first things I learned in Japan was how to understand and speak ‘prices’ so there was no language barrier here.
Of course I can’t remember the prices he quoted me back then, let’s say the cheapest were 500yen each, the next were 1,000yen each and the others were 1,500yen each, one thing I did know was that the prices were lower on that visit than I’d been quoted on visits made before.
(I must point out again that in ’84 I could sell ANY Koi purchased at a profit but the ‘red reds’, ‘black blacks’ and ‘white whites’ produced much more profit. I bought all of the 1,850 tosai in a flash knowing it was almost as good as money in the bank.)
Anyway, I wasn’t interested in the one’s already purchased – I wanted to find out the prices for the Takai Koi as these shone! More bowls appeared soon and the two of us crouched around the 150 tosai.
As Takai san started to select much slowly and much more carefully – I also noted that his two staff took a serious interest in this selection.
Again, I can’t recall the actual prices but the lowest would have been around 4,000yen; the mid range would have been around 5,000yen to 10,000yen and the top selection (20 only) would have been from 25,000yen to the sky which was a Sanke I asked him to price and which he’d said was ‘Ichi Ban’ (Number One) at 150,000yen.
Today that would mean £1,200.00 – back then it meant £214.00.
Remember, we are talking 5” – 6” tosai here – the UK wasn’t ready for that yet!
I bought all from bowl one, more than half of bowl two and 10 Koi out of bowl three absolutely convinced I’d paid over the odds yet again. All of that would be disproved when the Koi arrived home because, as usual, these expensive ones were the first to fly out of Infiltration!
By then it was around 4.00pm and I had to get to the airport rapid but as I walked back to the ‘office’ to pay, the mountains of blue hit me once again. I don’t know what really prompted me to do this but I had an open-ended return ticket with me and asked Mrs. Takai to contact Japan Airlines for me by phone. Thankfully most of the staff speak English and within 30 minutes I had agreed to pay the £50.00 date change charge and was now returning one day later than before.
The lady also kindly explained to Mrs. Takai that I would be returning to see Takai san the following day. Then followed a conversation between the two ladies where I saw Mrs Takai start to write something and then kept repeating ‘Pee Tah san’. She then had a conversation with her husband, presumably to relate the information, after which Takai san pointed at me and asked ‘Pee Tah san’? I nodded and with my best Japanese accent replied – ‘Watashi wa Pee Tah san’ and he seemed to understand.
By then it was almost dark, Takai san ushered me to his car and drove me back into the arms of Bagpuss to face another night of pure boredom. However, before I got out of the car, he pointed to my watch and raised seven fingers and then did a perfect mime of someone putting spoons full of food into his mouth.
So in two hours time we would go to eat and I would make sure I would take along a notepad and pencils. I went to the front desk to get my room key from a rather young, attractive lady and almost had it in my hand when the side door to reception opened and in walked the stone faced Bagpuss who then spent two minutes explaining to me in perfect Japanese whatever it was she wished to explain to me?
I stood there patiently, making the required facial nuances when I thought appropriate and when she finally ground to a halt I asked – ‘Can I have my travel case’?
Of course the answer was ‘No’.
I went to my room and there it was – waiting for me.
After a shower and a change of clothes I stood outside of the Sun Plaza at 6.50pm in pitch-blackness to find Takai san already there. I climbed into the car about to show him my watch when he looked over, bowed his head and said ‘Pee Tah san’ – then started to drive.
Bloody hell, he even knew my name now!
I still recall that evening vividly; he drove to the seediest part of Isawa that one could ever imagine. Streets that were only wide enough for one vehicle to pass and were illuminated by neon bar signs, nightclubs and ‘food outlets’ that certainly did not qualify as restaurants. Heaven knows where he parked but he led me through a series of narrow alleys to a door and then slid it back to allow me through.
Listen, I’m a working class lad from a working class background and through nine years spent on ‘the rock’n’roll road’ I’ve seen some joints in my time.
This place was a dimly lit single room with six small tables clad in plastic red/white mock gingham tablecloths with a few chairs here and there. There were four other people eating there and another door led off one wall into what turned out to be a kitchen.
This place made the Isawa Nishikigoi Centre appear to be truly palatial!
Waddy adores Chinese food and has done for many years; I have eaten Chinese food in many countries around the world but never once have I tasted Chinese food as wonderful as the food served that night in that shed!
I recall we pulled a couple of chairs to a table, a lady came out of the door, Takai san said something to her and she disappeared through the door.
Within seconds we had two large beers before us, I pulled notepad and pencils out and tried desperately to glean some useful information from the man when there was a huge language barrier between us.
The first attempt was too soon as endless plates of Chinese foods filled up the table whilst others were placed on empty tables and Takai san tucked in like a man who had never tasted food for weeks. More beers followed whenever the glasses were low, perhaps being there in that shed and on that night was the most memorable culinary experience I have ever had?
Please don’t ask me to explain how I went back to the Sun Plaza in the early hours of the next morning with reams of words, notes and pencil-drawn sketches – I simply do not know how, but I fell asleep that night staring at them. I even woke up early the next morning to check that it wasn’t just a dream.
Trust me, Takai san is a live wire and a shot gone wild. That night he managed to get over to the ‘English Thickie’ before him that he had a plan that would revolutionise fishpond filtration to levels hitherto unimaginable.
(Now I must point out here that we are still in 1984 – 27 years ago. In those days, filter media in Koi ponds both in Japan and the UK was one single thing – GRAVEL! The chambers that held it were single or multiple upward-flow boxes and, if you wished to ‘do it right’, these boxes needed perforated support trays on substantial wooden frames in order to bear the weight of the 9” depth of gravel. The theory was that it would not allow ‘the nasties’ to pass through the gravel and the theory was correct – it stopped it all until little water could pass through the bed and the boxes became anaerobic. To rectify the impossible for another few months meant hours spent in removing all the gravel, washing it all and then replacing it all. The bead filters of today are just as useless.)
When Takai san tried to explain to me that biological surfaces could perform much better by allowing water to pass ‘by’ them and without any other restriction rather than ‘through’ them as it did then – I just considered he was another complete looney.
He then spent an age in telling me the vital importance of heavy aeration to these open media surfaces. What use was that? The UK had no high-output air pumps.
Before we parted that night he explained to me (in sign language) that the next day at his place would not be about Nishikigoi per se, but instead his staff would demonstrate and instruct me as to how these new thoughts of his in fishpond filtration could be easily achieved.
That next day changed my whole direction in my ‘Koi Life’.