Just as China is renowned for its tea, Italy for its pasta and France for its wine, then Japan has a reputation for producing the most impressive Koi.
Cultures that have been the first to pioneer a specialised form of are usually in the best position to capitalise on their creative discovery, improving and perfecting their techniques to stay ahead of the competition. This has certainly been true for Japanese koi.
Even though the art of breeding koi only developed into a commercial enterprise just under 2 centuries ago, these rice farmers of the Niigata region of Japan have still been producing koi for 150 years longer than their nearest rivals so it is not surprising that they are still the market leaders.
As the brood stock may represent many generations of tireless selection by the Japanese farmers, improving the quality of their koi each year, it is little wonder that Japanese koi continue to be prized and unmatched in quality. Koi are not simply mass produced in fish farms, as a factory may have a production line churning out identical products in their thousands. The genetic interactions between broodfish mean that only a very small percentage of offspring will ever make the grade.
The real difference between Japanese koi and those from other sources can be seen when comparing the GoSanke varieties. Regarded as the more complex genetically and more difficult to produce, these include the Kohaku, Sanke and Showa varieties. Japanese specimens of Kohaku and Sanke will exhibit a deep red pigmentation, (as opposed to the orange/red in lower grade imports), they will exhibit excellent skin quality and the volume of larger specimens will be well in proportion to their length.
Naturally, quality Japanese koi will command a higher price than koi from other sources, and when they are compared side by side, it is easy to understand why.
Other sources of Koi
The major alternative source of koi to the UK market is Israel. The koi produced in Israel are generally farmed more intensively than Japan where the quantity of koi produced is important as is the quality. Israeli koi have progressed in quality dramatically over the last 10 years or so through careful work with broodstock and breeding techniques with many UK pond owners finding it difficult to differentiate between a top quality Israeli fish and a Japanese koi.
The Israeli koi farms produce koi for the mass market rather than the koi purist, exporting an attractive array of vibrantly coloured fish that are appealing to the pond market. These koi are available at a cheaper price that the Japanese koi but are still likely to grow as large and live as long as their Japanese counterparts.
Many factors make breeding koi in the Uk a real challenge, and consequently British-bred Koi are rarely seen in garden centres and aquatic stores. Factors such as a poorer climate, limited experience in koi genetics and the economies of scale all conspire against koi being competitively produced in the UK to compete with the quality, quantity and price of imports. Nevertheless, British bred koi can offer real benefits in that they are fully acclimatised to the British weather, and would not have under gone the likely stresses of a prolonged journey into the UK.
Retail Sources of Koi in the UK
The sources of koi in the UK can be loosely divided into two.
The aquatic/garden centre stocking pond fish and various sources of some koi.
The specialist koi dealer, stocking solely Japanese koi.
The garden centre type outlet offers a wide variety of pond fish, including koi, to suit the spending habits of the larger pond market. It is more than likely that the majority of koi on sale will be Israeli or from other non-Japanese sources such as Malaysia or China.
The specialist koi dealer will stock solely Japanese koi for his niche market of dedicated koi keepers. Most of his customers will only have Japanese koi in their collection and are likely to have spent a substantial sum on the installation of their koi pond and filter system. They may even travel to Japan to select the pick of the crop for their own pond at home!
Does this mean that the only koi worth buying are the Japanese? As with any hobby, personal taste, budget and expectations will play a great role in influencing which koi you would buy. If you are in any doubt when considering whether to buy a specific koi, don’t worry. If you like it, and you can afford it, then buy it, – it’s your pond, filled with your fish for your enjoyment.