I have been talking to many very enthusiastic Koi people of late, either person to person, over the phone or by email. Many ask very genuine questions and are absolutely sincere in what they ask; few of these have been in the hobby for over five years or so.
These are the still same questions I have been asked for decades; a few days ago I sat down, jotted down a few notes and then came up with another way to explain to myself how it all was for me in my first five years.
After ‘talking to myself’ for a while I realised that these people today are asking the very same questions that I asked to others in my own early days from ’72 to ‘77.
From the day I put a spade into my ground in ’72 to the end of ’77 – here’s what happened to me in my first five years – in brief.
I built two ponds in my garden; the second one was to be the best Koi pond in the world. Both were demolished in later years simply because they were failures.
I became very involved with the BKKS and my thirst for knowledge was unquenchable.
Apart from the BKKS monthly newsletter there was no other printed matter available.
I paid £32.50 in ’72 for Axelrod’s ‘Koi of the World’ book and read it so many times I think I could have recited it from start to finish by heart. My wife never knew I had paid that amount for a book!
I experimented with external filters and sand filters in ’74.
I bred my first Koi also in ’74.
I started to write articles for the BKKS magazine.
I entered my Koi to every Koi show that was staged. A 500-mile return trip was no problem for me.
Through the school of hard knocks I learned something about water and anti-parasite/bacterial remedies.
I was show chairman for several section shows and a couple of National shows.
I was one of the four people who formed the BKKS judging and standards committee.
In ’76 I started to give lectures on Koi to the BKKS local sections.
By mid ’77, Peter Waddington’s name was known to the majority of BKKS members and some even called me an expert.
Do you know what?
By then, even Peter Waddington himself thought that Peter Waddington WAS a Koi expert!
That was until late 1977 when Peter Waddington made his very first visit to Japan.
I have related this trip on many occasions but for those who haven’t read it, I’ll do a brief summary.
Yamakoshi – when we finally arrived by coach from Tokyo – was still a wilderness, stone and mud tracks were common but roads were rare.
Most of the people in those villages had never seen a foreigner in their lives, children hid behind their mother’s skirts.
The breeders themselves had no idea that we were there to buy their Koi and so we were viewed as weirdoes.
Our interpreter from Tokyo had never even heard of Koi, let alone seen them. On top of this the Yamakoshi breeders could not understand her dialect!
On the very, very rare occasion a Koi sign could be seen fixed to a house, the writing was in Kanji.
We only spent three days there on that visit and everything was a blur despite notepads and Polaroids. It was only on the future return visits I could jot down the breeder’s names and the breeders who had indoor houses.
Those with indoor Koi houses in ’77 were – Torazo – 2 small indoor ponds; Isumiya – a large three-sided wooden shed open to the elements; Yamamatsu – one 4,000-gallon pond; Marusada – one 5,000-gallon indoor pond; Matsuda – two 4,000-gallond ponds and Maruju – two enormous indoor Koi houses. That was it as far as the places we visited!
The remainder had tiny concrete tanks next to their mud ponds with bamboo mats over them to prevent Koi jumping out; the ponds had no filters – only a trickle in and out of siphoned water. If you wished to see the Koi it meant a hike over rice paddies and back.
We had no idea at the time but we were rich beyond belief; we got 1,000yen for one pound, today we get 127-ish!
The downside was that of the airfare, the cheapest economy return was with KLM at £1,200.00, the reason we took them up was they allowed each of us to bring three cartons of Koi back for free!
Can anyone imagine today what £1,200.00 meant in 1977?
So, in mind of the fact we had three free cartons, our first questions to the few breeders we actually met was ‘How many to a carton?’ Of course, the breeders had no idea at all; they could not comprehend that anyone would be stupid enough to even attempt to ship live Koi back to the UK.
By the way, back then the flight took 19 hours instead of the 13 hours today because flights had to re-fuel at Anchorage.
Fortunately for me, some of the people on the trip did not wish to buy any Koi, it was a holiday to them and so they readily gave me their allowances – in the end I had 21 free cartons available!
As we started to get to the breeders themselves, ‘shock – horror’ raised its head with many who asked where the prices of each Koi were displayed. Of course there were no prices displayed anywhere.
I do know at Kawakami’s farm behind Torazo we cleaned him out of some 25 beautiful 65cms giant Shiro Utsuri at 25,000yen each (£25.00)! (A jumbo Koi in the UK then was 50cms.)
There were three experiences on that trip for me that still last with me today and are still relevant today.
The first was when we visited Miyakoya in Ojiya where many kinds of dry goods are available. There were Koi books there and I purchased several – all in Japanese text. One was called ‘Rainbow Carp’ – a lush publication. I bought it only to discover later that this was exactly the same book as my treasured ‘Koi of the World’ that had been copied page by page by Axelrod’s staff and printed as his book. The worst part was that the texts in Axelrod’s book did not even come close to the original Kanji texts.
Axelrod knew ‘Jack S’ about Koi and everything I had deemed to be gospel previously had been completely destroyed!
The second was when we pulled up by the roadside to view several enormous concrete ponds with a smaller pond covered by a polythene tent. The Koi in the outdoor ponds were all too big (expensive) for me and so I walked into the tent. There were about 4,000 Kohaku in there around 5” long, I looked at them for a few minutes and shouted for our interpreter.
‘Please ask how much these are and how many to a box please’? – She went to find the owner. After some time, the owner came in and she asked him the same question. Then followed an exchange of questions and answers whilst I stood by wondering why it took so long for him to give me a price?
Eventually she said the breeder advised no more than 20 in one carton but as to price quotations I must first point out which Koi I wished to buy.
I stood there transfixed, I could not believe this man.
If I pointed to one it would vanish within seconds.
4,000 Koi and he asked me ‘Which One!!!!!’
I put him down as a complete con man and left in disgust.
How dare he try to make a fool of Peter Waddington the UK Koi expert?
I went back two years later to find the same con man had built huge glasshouses over these same ponds and his name was, now what was his name?
Oh yes, I remember his name was Minoru Mano and his shop was named Dainichi!
The third was probably the most memorable. I walked into a large indoor Koi house and saw many wonderful Showa around 7” long, I started to study them when an older guy came in with the interpreter. I asked if I could get 20 of these in one carton but the reply came back I should just select 15. I asked the price for 15 and the reply came back that I should select first and then I would be given a price. I think it took me over an hour to select these 15 Showa from the many that were there. The guy crouched over the bowl and inspected my choices; he then picked up two of the best ones and put them back into the pond and asked me to select two more. I did this and he gave me a price that was so ridiculously low that I just stood up and shook his hands paying him at the same time. I think they cost me £15.00 each but I knew there were no Showa of this quality in the UK – they were magnificent.
The guy then picked up a net and studied the Koi in the pond, after ten minutes or so there were two lesser quality Showa in the bowl and the interpreter said he had given me these as a gift. She also mentioned that the guy begged me not to sell them but to keep them for two more years. I thanked him thinking it was just a nice gesture but they really were so inferior to the ones I had selected.
I didn’t know the name of the breeder at that time but in later years I discovered it was Maruju in Mushigame.
At the end of the brief visit I recall our boxes of Koi being packed and loaded onto our coach, we all wrote our respective names on each carton and set out to Narita airport for the plane back to Heathrow with our fingers crossed.
It really was a foolish dream to expect that any of our Koi would get back alive. It took 18 hours from Yamakoshi before the plane took off and a further 19 hours to Heathrow, after that it took four hours for clearance before we got our boxes into our cars. After that it took me a record breaking three hours of reckless driving to get them into a pond I had prepared in my garage.
As I began to release the Koi they had been in cartons for 44 hours. 50% were already dead and the remainder were in serious trouble; at the end of it all I think I ended up with 30% that were fit and well.
The 17 Showa from Maruju survived it all and they brought gasps from guys who came to see them. Then the jungle drums started and phone calls came in asking the prices of these Showa they had been told of. (Great Koi were simply not available in the UK in those days.) I never quoted prices at all and instead asked for offers, I think it took two months before the only two remaining were the gifts – no one even gave them a second glance. As to the 15 sold, I was paid around £300.00 each for them and £300.00 for a 7” Koi back then was positively unthinkable!
In ’79 I decided to become a Koi dealer after returning to those magical mountains alone.
There was a Koi enthusiast who lived near to me and he was wheelchair-bound. He kept his Koi in a huge aquarium; in ’81 I had to move my business to proper business premises and the two gift Showa, then 10” long, were not what I wished to show future customers so the guy offered to keep them in his aquarium for me. I took them there and forgot about them completely.
In ’83 he rang me to say they had become too big for his aquarium and would I please collect them. I took bags with me and was going to return them to a pond still running in my back garden.
That was the plan but that all changed the moment I saw them!
They were both around 21” long and simply incredible examples of perfect Showa, it was very hard to realise they were the same Koi that I and many others had considered to be junk. I was speechless whilst the guy had no idea how good they were at all. I took them straight back to my shop and released them into the best pond.
I don’t think they stayed there for more than five days in fact I could have sold fifty of that quality in five days! I recall one was sold for £1,250 and the other fetched £1,400.00.
I think it was these three experiences namely the book; the Kohaku at Dainichi and the two Showa from Maruju that made me realise how very little Peter Waddington actually ‘knew’ about Nishikigoi.
In fact Peter Waddington, even after five years of keeping Koi seriously and with all the enthusiasm in the world had NO IDEA AT ALL!
The hardest part for me was accepting it all, the next was to un-learn all the nonsense I believed and the next was to get my ass back into those mountains.
And that’s when my Koi journey really began!