Back in the golden days when the Koi hobby in Japan was at fever pitch, Yamakoshi in mid October, was the ‘place to be’ for the real Koi collectors of the day. Despite the fact that the word of the day was ‘Dainichi’, and it was repeated at every verse-end in Koi conversation, if the real truth was known ‘THE part of Yamakoshi’ to go was Mushigame village. To be specific it was at Yamamatsu or Matsunosuke – whatever name you wished to use, and to anyone who intended to visit, the actual date of the visit was known weeks in advance and committed to memory. The annual one-day event and sole reason for attending was the Yamamatsu harvests of their three best ponds.
In those days, there were only two indoor ponds where the new harvests could be displayed and access to these ponds was ‘limited’ at best by way of a single row of planks surrounding them. The ponds themselves, considered ‘large’ at the time were little more than 6,000 gallons and 2,500 gallons. The large specimens were placed in the big pond and the two and three year tategoi in the smaller pond. All others were kept in outdoor ponds next to the tiny house.
The mud pond harvests were supervised and led by Toshio and Toshiyuki Sakai, but even in those days I sensed that Toshio may have had the greater ‘influence’ on the proceedings. For reasons unknown to me, it was only the staff and some hired for the day who made the harvests, there were no outsiders taken along to view the spectacles. I would often set that day aside and get to Mushigame by 10.00am to watch the big harvest trucks being loaded and checked. By 11.30am the small, quiet village was quiet no more, in fact most of the narrow roadsides were blocked with bumper to bumper cars straddling the grass borders and the road itself leaving just enough space for the large trucks to come and go.
As to the cars themselves, there were Rolls-Royce; Mercedes; BMW’s; the odd Ferrari – you name it, and many had uniformed chauffeurs inside them. Add to this the narrow wheelbase trucks driven there by an assortment of famous Nishikigoi breeders from the surrounding areas and it should give some kind of idea of the scene and the atmosphere of it all. This atmosphere increased as the trucks departed for the 20-kilometer return journey through Tanesuhara then to Tashiro village where the three famous field ponds were nearby.
As to the owners of the expensive cars, most had come with an agent/advisor who clutched Polaroid shots of Koi seen the previous year or those already owned by the boss and grown for a further year. Many congregated and chatted with each other on the roadside smoking and sipping assorted cans of drinks. I used to sit down on the grass, take a few shots now and then and try to put names to the many famous Koi faces who were waiting for the return of the harvests. As the expected time approached, watches were checked, feet were tapped and the atmosphere increased as ‘show time’ approached. By then, the ‘pecking order’ could easily be seen taking place as a few very well-dressed gentlemen and their agents stepped up inside the house with the display ponds and balanced themselves on the planks of wood in regimental fashion always leaving just enough room for the Koi to be introduced into the ponds.
Eventually the Koi started to be placed into the ponds one by one and then the whispers started. Toshio & Toshiyuki already had their place on the steps of the dwelling house, each smiling and sipping a can of beer. The onlookers had their pictures at the ready but no fingers were pointed, only whispers in each other’s ears could be seen. It may well have taken 30 minutes of this before an agent would call to the big two and mention a particular Koi in order to get price information and a closer look in a bowl. Whilst all this was taking place, the ‘second team’ were getting impatient as their turn to view approached. These were the famous buyers such as Seiji Hiroi; Hiroji Sakai; Senichi Mano and the likes.
I have no idea what kind of money changed hands on those memorable days but it must have been substantial. I had to sit it all out until there was available space but it was more than worth the wait. Perhaps I got my very first glimpse around 4.00pm and it must have been almost dusk before the light stopped me. No question at all, in those days it was the finest selection of world-class Nishikigoi on the planet!
I think it was around 1992 I persuaded Toshio to let me take a trip on one of the harvest trucks and see it all take place with my own eyes but it may have been 1996 before he’d allow the first foreigner to actually lift his Koi out of the mud ponds. Since then it has become a pilgrimage for Koi enthusiasts from all parts of the world.
How times change!