These vividly colored fish are avidly sought after, not by gourmets but by hobbyists and owners of garden ponds and pools around the world, who prize them as living decorations. In auctions, koi fetch prices as high as several million yen.
“I used to think people were crazy for paying five hundred dollars or even thousands of dollars for a koi,” says a koi fan who goes by the name of “Koslis” on a koi blog. “However after watching two great videos Koi: The Living Jewels and Hiroshima Dreaming: A Journey to the Koi Farms of Southern Japan, I now understand why.”
Experts note that koi do not do start off looking like the beautiful specimens sold in auctions: they are patiently bred and graded over time for their extraordinary colors, size and pleasing patterns, from what were initially drab-looking fry.
For the Japanese, koi symbolize health and vigor and are displayed on koinobori or carp streamers throughout the Japanese spring to celebrate Children’s Day on May 5.
The fish are recognized by their colors, patterns, and scales. Some of the major colors are white, black, red, yellow, blue, and cream. If they are properly cared for, koi can grow as large as four feet and live for 20 to 30 years.
Koi were first bred for their color mutations in China more than a thousand years ago, where selective breeding of the Prussian koi led to the development of the goldfish. In Japan, koi were first bred in 1820 for their color in the city of Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture.
Breeders in Ojiya
There are now about 200 breeders in Ojiya, and koi farms have spread throughout Japan and abroad, including the United States, Israel and the Philippines.
The Ojiya-bred koi are unrivaled in terms of quality, variety and selections. Breeders arrange for buyer’s groups around the globe to visit Japan and choose their fish first hand.
In 2009, Robert Van den Enden, who exports koi to 2,000 pet stores and garden suppliers throughout Europe, started his own export business in Ojiya. Last year, he exported 8,000 boxes of koi, with each box holding an average of 30 fish.
“It gave me control over the supply and allowed me to create my own brand,” he said. “The breeders in Ojiya have also developed good bloodlines. While there are now other places in Japan (and overseas) where they breed koi, Ojiya has many farms close together. This makes for a compact market and good logistics.
Japan’s External Trade Organization (JETRO) helped Van den Enden coordinate the process of registering his company free of charge with the Niigata prefectural government. However, it took him about five months to register the company because of the complicated procedures and having to deal with all the paper work. By comparison, it took only one week for him to register in Hong Kong.
Van den Enden says that Koi bring joy and a sense of pride to their owners and breeders.