The Wonderful World of "Nishikigoi": Carp That Captivate the Globe

Nishikigoi are a type of carp that originated through mutation during the Edo period (specifically, the 19th century) in Japan. They have been bred over many years, and have been loved as ornamental fish by Japanese people for a long time. Nishikigoi are called "living jewels" and "swimming works of art" owing to their striking beauty. More and more people worldwide are becoming fans of these valuable ornamental fish. Let's take a look at nishikigoi and how it captivates people around the globe.

So What Are Nishikigoi?

"Nishikigoi" is the word for koi carp that were selectively bred for ornamental purposes. These are different from the kind of koi that are generally used for food. Nishikigoi were bred and raised in Niigata Prefecture within Japan. Later, these carp were brought into other parts of Japan, and exported abroad as well. There are said to be about 130 to 140 different types of nishikigoi. They have many different colors and spotted patterns, with white, red, black, and even silver and gold with a metallic sheen. On top of this, nishikigoi move in an elegant way, which has earned them the title "swimming works of art."

There are few types of ornamental fish worldwide that are as large and beautiful as nishikigoi, and so these carp have enjoyed the limelight outside of Japan recently. Nishikigoi exhibitions are held in Niigata Prefecture and other parts of Japan. These are visited by many fans from overseas, and prize-winning koi can sometimes be sold for high prices.

The History of Nishikigoi Goes Back Over Two Centuries

A tourist attraction called Ojiya Nishikigoi no Sato in Ojiya City within Niigata Prefecture. This city is said to be the birthplace of nishikigoi. Nishikigoi swimming in the pond of a traditional Japanese garden featuring lush greenery. (Photos courtesy of Ojiya Nishikigoi no Sato)

The history of nishikigoi is said to have begun in the first half of the 1800s, when a mutation occurred in one koi carp that was being kept for food in a mountainous region in the middle of Niigata Prefecture (today, this region spans across part of Ojiya City and Nagaoka City). People working in agriculture bred these koi for fun at the time, but later the fish began to be traded for money. In 1914, an international exhibition was held in Ueno, within Japan's capital city of Tokyo. In this exhibition, the fish were showcased as "strange koi from Echigo" and came to be known across Japan. Nishikigoi were also brought to an exhibition in America, where they were very successful. A huge nishikigoi boom struck in the 1970s, with an increase in fans of these fish across Japan. It became common to see nishikigoi swimming in well-kept ponds at regular homes.

The Appeal of Nishikigoi

Ojiya Nishikigoi no Sato is commonly visited location by people traveling to Japan from abroad in package tours. Here, you can feed nishikigoi in a lake within a traditional Japanese garden. (Photos courtesy of Ojiya Nishikigoi no Sato)

Two of the most famous varieties of nishikigoi: kohaku at the top, and Showa sanshoku at the bottom. (Photos courtesy of Ojiya Nishikigoi no Sato)

Left: Tancho are white and have a round red mark on their head. Center: People looking at nishikigoi. The fish are put into a blue pool which makes it easier to see each one clearly. Right: A nishikigoi farm in Niigata Prefecture. (Photos courtesy of GEKKAN NISHIKIGOI (KINSAI Publishing Co.))

The greatest appeal of nishikigoi is the exquisite beauty created by the varied colors and patterns on the fish. Nishikigoi with regular and clear patterns are generally valued at higher prices. In the past, nishikigoi enthusiasts across the world tended to prefer flashy varieties with gold and silver colors. However, as time passed, more fans came to support traditional patterns such as kohaku, sanshoku, and tancho, which have always been popular among people in Japan. In general, nishikigoi farms raise the fish in natural outdoor lakes from the spring to the fall. When the cold winter comes, the farms move the fish into indoor ponds and tanks in order to keep them safe during the winter, or to get them ready for sale. The staff at these farms spend a lot of time and energy to raise the koi to be beautiful, such as by carefully regulating the water temperature and quality.

The most important thing for breeding beautiful nishikigoi is to carefully select parent fish with good characteristics, including color, luster, and physique. To achieve this, nishikigoi breeders use their intuition and keen eyes that they have developed through many years of experience. After being raised in a natural environment, the nishikigoi are put on display at nishikigoi exhibitions across Japan. At these events, the fish bring joy to regular fans and are sold to buyers from all around the world. International buyers generally purchase adult nishikigoi that interest them, but some make contracts with fish farmers for baby fish. If buyers see a baby fish that looks like it will grow up to be beautiful, they can purchase the fish as a baby and ask the fish farmers to take care of it on their behalf. In such a case, the buyers visit the fish farm every year and can enjoy seeing their own nishikigoi grow up healthily. The color intensity and patterns of nishikigoi can change as they grow older, and so these fish have the potential to become even more beautiful when they mature. As such, there is an element of luck involved if you want to get an immensely beautiful nishikigoi. Even still, the fun of selecting a fish while imagining how pretty it will be when it grows up and the delight of watching it become even more good-looking are all part of the unique charm of nishikigoi.

Nishikigoi of different colors swimming gracefully in the pond of the State Guest House in Akasaka, Tokyo. (Photos courtesy of GEKKAN NISHIKIGOI (KINSAI Publishing Co.))

Nishikigoi avoid fighting, have a relaxed attitude, and are relatively easy to keep, so they are seen as a symbol of peace. Through tireless efforts within a natural environment, people have tried to achieve perfect beauty in the profound world of nishikigoi. These fish are sure to captivate more people around the world in the future.