My very first visit to Yamakoshi was really just an incredible ‘eye-opener’ for me, I was far too excited and bewildered with my surroundings, the people and the Koi to be concerned about mundane origins, history and quoted prices.
It was only after a few more visits under my belt that I started to ask pertinent questions and record details in my notebook. By then I could get by more easily with my ‘Koi sign language’ and valuable translations from Naoji Takanashi who often accompanied me to the area despite the fact he was almost as ‘lost’ as I was. Add to that, the vast difference in dialects between those from the big cities and the Yamakoshi folk, even trying to ask directions was a problem on many occasions.
On my very first visit to Izumiya in Iwamagi, the late Ichiro Mano, then owner of the company, together with his son Senichi both proudly claimed that they built and opened ‘the very first ‘coloured carp’ outlet in the world during 1947’.
The late Mr. Hiroshi Kawakami from the Torazo Koi farm was also with me that day and confirmed, via Mr. Takanashi that this was indeed a true fact. In later years I came across a sign which remains today at the Torazo farm and states:- ‘Torazo – since 1917’.
Was it 1947 or was it 1917?
All my information leads me to 1947 – only two years after World War Two and 30 years prior to my very first visit back when ‘Waddy’ was just four years old.
Let us then accept, as read, that magoi were first introduced to Nijimura in the mid 1800’s for food.
At that time a few very wealthy landowners who employed the very poor, peasant village dwellers, to provide the necessary labour for them, owned the entire area. This consisted of arduous manual excavation of rice paddies (then circular) and the production of rice from spring to late September.
It also involved planting, tending and harvesting of vegetables as well as harvesting wild mountainside vegetables which are still collected today. Oxen were also provided to carry exceptionally heavy loads and these were cared for by the labour force.
Even as recently as 1977, Yamakoshi was difficult to access by road other than by very narrow wheel-base vehicles that could negotiate the earth and stone tracks.
I cannot even begin to consider this area in 1850 some 127 years earlier – wild, untamed mountains, man-made mud tracks and dangerously steep valleys way below!
The landowners purchased the parent Magoi and instructed the labourers to include them in their daily farming activities as a supplementary task to rice and vegetable production. The aim was to breed them in spring, feed them in summer in the circular ‘canals’ that bordered the then circular rice paddies and harvest them in autumn. After this, the tiny carp were to be salted and stored for safe eating later throughout the long, cold winter ahead. This would provide an important source of protein to add to the standard vegetable and rice diet when snows prevented foot travel to the nearest point of civilisation some five to ten miles distant.
As to the majority of parent stocks, I would estimate that these too were used as food before winter set in as there could have been no facilities there to store them safely over winter.
Concrete had not made it to the labourers of Nijimura back then and so concrete ponds/tanks were not possible. All dwelling houses were made from local forest timber and insulated with ‘wattle and daub’. A few ruins still remain today as evidence.
Early ‘wattle & daub’ dwelling house in Mushigame village – still in use today for storage purposes. Hope you spotted the Koi net!
All villages were snowbound from early December until the following April when depths then would have easily exceeded six metres or more. Obviously any snow that had to be cleared was done by hand after first ensuring that house roofs were cleared, often daily, to prevent collapse.
Any possible thoughts of excavating small outdoor mud ponds to hold their magoi parents throughout the winter would all have been in vain once the snows took hold.
In view of the above, I would ask how it was ever possible in those times to successfully keep a parent Magoi throughout winter? Live adult Magoi were readily available cheaply in warmer parts of Japan at the time and it would be much more economical to replace these in spring rather than attempt to keep them alive throughout a winter in Nijimura.
Even as long ago as the 1850’s the genes of the original magoi had long since been altered – generally to make them more acceptable whilst preparing them for the table. ‘Doitsu’ and ‘Leather’ strains had been developed in parts of Europe where carp had become very important as an economical source of food.
Dr. Akiyama introduced some of the ones now available in Japan from several different countries of the globe whilst ‘doitsu varieties’ did not enter Japan until 1913 and were imported by sea from Germany.
I started to research into the development of varieties of coloured carp in 1984 and published my findings in ‘Koi Kichi’ during 1995. Much of my information came from written texts by Dr. Matsui – probably the earliest chronicler of coloured carp in the world. His texts were carefully translated for me by Naoji Takanashi and presented to me on typed sheets of paper. His earliest documented information as to ‘varieties’ only really starts in the early 1900’s.
From this information can we now assume that, at some time between 1850 to 1910 – a 60 year time-span, coloured carp were present and could be found in Nijimura but only if one could spare the available time and energy to make the daunting journey required.
As to actual ‘origins’, this information was never documented at all. Most of my information has been noted by comments and ‘snippets’ of information offered to me by the elderly Japanese breeders from 1984 to 1987.
As we know, the rice farmers cum carp breeders of Nijimura were the first to notice random evidence of ‘coloured scales’ in offspring at harvest time. It is said that some were kept by the farmers as ‘pets’ instead of being used for food purposes. As the years passed the production of ‘coloured carp’ and perpetual development became a winter pastime for these farmers.
As I have said before, this can be readily compared to the hobby of pigeon fancying in the UK – a cheap hobby originated by working class people of the day.
In later years, Nijimura breeders used coloured carp from other enthusiasts for inter-breeding purposes in order to further develop their very private hobby whilst, all around them, farming of carp became more successful as production techniques improved annually.
I must stress here that the keeping of coloured carp during those years was simply a private pastime of the early masters who had no idea at all that their pets could ever possibly become an item of monetary value in later years.
As this unique pastime grew, so did the numbers of local farmers who found this hobby both challenging and interesting. Sadly, no-one could possibly have found any use at all in documenting their hobby, instead they just continued to enjoy their new-found discovery.
Let us now set a point in time between 1910 to 1920 when Nijimura was still very difficult to access from distant major Japanese cities. However, by then, production of young carp for the table in parts of Niigata had become a very real cottage industry. As the years passed so too did decades of experience and better breeding and growing techniques. These experiences were also shared by the farmers who adopted these techniques in production and keeping methods for their own coloured pets.
It was only in 1930 when Yamakoshi was first introduced to the true wonder of electricity.
Soon concrete became widely available to be transported to the area at acceptable prices.
These two wonders of civilisation allowed the coloured carp enthusiasts to build concrete ponds both inside and outside for the very first time. Electricity supply enabled them to provide aeration to these ponds and later, both mechanical and biological filtration could be added, again for the very first time.
Throughout the 1930’s both the business of farming Magoi for food and the hobby of keeping coloured carp flourished alongside each other. But still, the involvement of keeping coloured carp remained to be almost a secret amongst the breeders of the area who were more concerned in producing new types and new patterns from both their parent stocks and those of their contemporaries.
Many years ago I was also shown by Seiichi Miya of the Miyako Koi farm in Araya village a very early method of heating indoor pond water during winter which he still continued to employ. This was by way of a closed metal container about the size of a standard house brick which was heated to very high temperatures inside his oven and then submerged into a small concrete pond. Heat was then transferred slowly to the water over a two-hour period after which it could be then be heated once more.
There is no doubt at all in my mind after speaking to many individuals involved that the production of coloured carp as a hobby really came to be possible and far easier during the 1930’s.
Then, just as everything in the garden was looking rosy:–
Along came World War Two!