On my first visit to Japan in 1977 I thought that ‘Koi were Koi’ and if I wished to buy one then I should buy the one that attracted me the most. Despite the fact that first visit produced many beautiful Koi beyond my wildest dreams and despite the fact I had no idea they could grow so big, my belief remained – ‘A Koi is a Koi’ – full stop.
I was also under the firm belief that one could buy Koi in Japan all year round and was convinced that every Japanese person in the world was a natural-born Koi expert. I had a wealth of other beliefs that were in my head but could not recall from where they came. After that first visit produced little more than many very wealthy Koi collectors who employed others to keep their Koi for them coupled with meeting a few dodgy people in Niigata who professed to be experts and trusted agents; I realised I had to write all of that off as a bad experience because my ‘learning’s’ on that visit produced little more than a stack of Polaroids and a notebook full of notes and words that were difficult to understand. I consoled myself by saying that, one day, I would return completely unannounced and, in autumn 1979 I did just that.
I stayed at the Grand Hotel in Nagaoka City and caught daily trains to Ojiya City and then a short taxi ride to Uragara village (I had kept a business card from Torazo written in Kanji which was perfect for the taxi driver). On the first day I stepped out of the taxi and into the sunshine with shoulder-length hair, Kickers on my feet, jeans, a shoulder bag containing Polaroid camera, boxes of film – notebook – pen plus a few other items and if I recall correctly – a tee shirt emblazoned with ‘Dire Straits’ on the front. There I was, a man alone, with a head full of wonderment, in a land that held secrets untold. I think it was at the end of day three when I returned to the hotel and confessed to myself that all my previous ‘Koi beliefs’ amounted to zero. I knew I would have to start again – and right from the very beginning – if I was to try and unravel even some semblance of the truth!
Yes, language was a barrier; the surroundings were confusing to say the least; the stares from the villagers confirmed to me that they had probably never seen a lone foreigner on their turf before and the children confirmed this by hiding behind their mother’s skirts as I walked by. Undeterred by all of this, the weather was fine and so I walked…and walked….and walked, taking in the beauty of the villages and the surrounding landscape. I did not know this at the time but that time of the year was when the Koi were being harvested from the field ponds and many were displayed here and there in concrete ponds built right on the road side. Needless to say, I stopped at every one and then inspected every single Koi in each pond with my eyes, trying to recite to myself all the varieties before me. In those times there were so many different varieties on display in each pond and there were many others I could not even give names to. I took many photographs especially of the ‘rarer’ Koi before me. I don’t know how many ponds I’d looked at, nor did I know where I was, but at one pond a man came out of the house and walked over to me. We smiled at each other and I pointed to the Koi in the pond with a beam on my face, he returned my smile and started to tell me the full details of the meaning of life in perfect Japanese. I listened and tried to look interested with a few nods and smiles given, in an attempt to convince him I understood every single word he uttered. After he paused for breath I pointed to one Koi and attempted my command of Japanese by saying – ‘Kin Ki Utsuri’, the man looked, then looked back at me and nodded with a grin on his face, then said in return – ‘Kin Ki Utsuri’. After that significant leap on my part, I could see me speaking fluent Japanese within a few days. Alas, that was never to happen and, since then I have got by with my own brand of ‘Koi Language’ that has always got me by with the breeders ever since.
The kind man beckoned me into his house to sit on the floor before a low table and his wife brought tea and snacks whilst the man continued with his new thoughts and words on Darwen’s ‘relativity’ thing. All the time I just kept nodding and smiling, I even threw in a couple of raised eyebrows to add to the effect. Some minutes later he did exactly what I didn’t want him to do which was to ask me a question! I tried to smile back but it did not seem to work, after several attempts he and his wife resorted to sign language when they both gripped an imaginary steering wheel before them and started to turn it from side to side. I decided to take part in the game and shook my head by saying ‘Nagoka’ and then giving my expert impression of Thomas the Tank Engine. They questioned ‘Nagaoka’ with some disbelief as though it were several continents distant but soon I found myself seated in his truck and he started to drive.
After some 15 minutes or so we stopped at a large building that seemed to have a real Koi aroma about it – and it did. This was ‘Miyakoya’ – a place back then where all the breeders went to pick up the latest Koi gossip and buy items they needed to feed and keep their Koi in good condition. There was a large warehouse containing all manner of items from pumps; air pumps & valves; medications; culling nets; spawning grass; bowls of many sizes; Koi nets and just about every other thing imaginable. In the main office where payment is made there were rows of books for sale – all in the Japanese language but much could be gathered about the ponds and other things by way of photographs. To the young Waddy, this was better than a visit to see Santa in a department store and I bought and bought and bought. There were none of these items available in the UK and so I convinced myself that I NEEDED them in order to keep my Koi. My new friend gazed at me in wonder and also stared at the accumulated pile of goods before me because it was almost an impossibility for me to get them back to my hotel by local train. Had I known back then and had I the command of Japanese, Miyakoya would have driven my purchases and myself to my hotel free of charge. However, my friend loaded them onto his truck and drove us back himself. On arrival he helped me to reception with my mini-mountain and then, at last, we could communicate with each other. There was a staff member there named Mr. Onozuka whom I would get to know very well over many years, right until 1998 when he was head-hunted by Japan Airlines to manage one of their large hotels. He spoke far better English than I and he had a genuine desire to assist – always. The number of problems I have faced over they years have mostly been reduced to insignificance by this man. That evening I discovered my friend’s name and the village he lived in, unfortunately his surname was ‘Hiroi’ that I considered to be unique then. Alas it was only after I was introduced to a hundred more ‘Hiroi’s’ over the ensuing years that I realised I should have at least been told his first name. Onozuka San and Hiroi San engaged themselves in conversation and then Onozuka San asked me some questions and related my answers to Hiroi San. He explained that Iwas a ‘Koi Nut’ from England and had come alone to learn about Koi and the Yamakoshi area, (I think that it was then I first heard the word mentioned). It was then arranged that my friend would collect me from my hotel the next day at 8.00am and give me a guided tour for free! I could not get to sleep that night with anticipation of what lay before me and ended up walking the deserted Nagaoka streets at 5.00am with a can of hot coffee to keep me company.