Japanese Hooked On These Fancy Fish

Posted: May 18, 1999

Koi are to carp what butterflies are to moths.

"They're basically the same fish that swim in our rivers," said Donna Howard, of the Quality Koi Co. on North Broad Street. "But koi have much prettier clothes on."

Spectacular suits of metallic gold and platinum. Vivid stripes and spots of red and white and black. The Japanese call them "living jewels."

The goldfish are a distant cousin, but don't expect to win a koi at the church carnival. They are bred like show dogs and fetch similarly high prices - anywhere from $250 to $2,500 on average, with rare one-in-a-million specimens fetching in excess of $10,000.

Their beginnings were humble enough.

Howard said they were first introduced roughly 200 years ago by Japanese rice farmers in Nigata, a mountainous region in the northern part of the country.

The farmers raised them in the paddies, where they provided fertilizer for the rice and supplemented the farmers' diet, despite being bony and lacking flavor.

But the farmers were also taken by the colors displayed in some of the koi varieties and began breeding the most beautiful in their homes.

Eventually, the hobby grew to a passion and has become an integral part of Japanese culture, with 13 varieties and up to 40 subvarieties.

The kohaku is white with red spots. The sanke is white with black and red coloring. The shoa is black with red and white stripes. And then there is the cha goi, a fast-growing, friendly taupe-colored fish.

The Japanese set standards of perfection for each variety and shows and breeding follow these standards in pursuit of the perfect koi.

"Momentarily the only thing I can equate them to is abstract art," said parking magnate Joseph S. Zuritsky, a koi enthusiast and expert who runs Quality Koi with Howard.

But there is a greater appeal of the fish. To hobbyists, they have the status enjoyed by any family pet, like a cat or dog. And they behave similarly, coming when they are called and allowing themselves to be touched and fed by hand.

"The Japanese think of them as fish with human characteristics," said Zuritsky. "Courage, strength, long life. They call them samurai fish."

There is proof of their toughness. Howard said koi were first shipped abroad in crates, wrapped only in wet rags. Modern koi care is much different, with 1,000 gallon fresh water ponds or tanks and filtration recommended to keep them healthy.

A healthy koi can grow to three feet, weigh in excess of 30 pounds and live to be 75 years old, said Howard. Send e-mail to nolanj@phillynews.com

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