This feature is taken from Koi, Ponds & Gardens, issue 15. To order a back issue or to subscribe, call 0117 933 8005.
Geoff Kemp's got every right to be happy with the Koi he bought in Japan and had shipped over. Every single one of them arrived healthy and happy. And what do happy Koi make?
The Koi consignment included this stunning Matsunosuke Sanke two years old and 43cm that Geoff had specially selected
Geoff needs a good memory to know exactly which Koi is which as he works through the boxes, as one breeder's will be all in together. This is another Matsunosuke Sanke two years old and 45cm
It's 6pm. For us the work had just begun, but the Koi are nearing the end of a long and very stressful journey that started many hours before, over 6,000 miles away in the Niigata mountains in northern Japan.
It's a Wednesday at the beginning of November and just a few days before I had returned from my autumn buying trip with some of my customers, selecting tategoi and high class Koi from some of the best breeders in the world. Our time out there was spent mainly with Tewin Mill International (TMi), but we also managed to spend a few days with Peter Waddington (Waddy). The trip also included an afternoon with a friend of mine, Fujio Oomo, looking at his Koi stock. The Koi we bought were shipped back in three separate consignments.
On the Tuesday of that week the fish from Fujio had arrived and settled in well. The fish I bought with Waddy also arrived that day, but needed to be sorted out from his own fish so I collected mine from Golbourne Waddy's premises later in the week.
The fish we bought while we were with TMi arrived back on the Wednesday and this is a photographic account of the last leg in the journey…
The journey begins The Koi's journey starts 6,000 miles away in Japan. As each fish is purchased it is photographed by its breeder and moved to a pond that contains only sold fish. They are kept here for four or five days prior to shipment, to make sure that no problems occur before they are moved. After this, they are taken by the breeder to TMi's holding facility in Niigata.
During their time here the Koi are rested, checked for parasites (and treated if necessary), guaranteeing the Koi are in the best possible condition. Most importantly, the fish are not fed during this period. This ensures that they are cleaned out prior to their ordeal. Spending 30 or so hours in a plastic bag means that for the Koi to stand a chance of surviving waste has to be minimised. The lack of food doesn't do the fish any harm and ultimately it protects them from sitting in poisonous waste for the length of time it takes to get them to the UK.
On the morning of the shipment in Japan, the place turns into a hive of activity with anything up to 20 breeders all mucking in and helping with the carefully planned bagging and boxing. The size and number of Koi per box and the required amount of water are all controlled to ensure that the fish are not overcrowded and arrive back in the UK in tip top condition. Once boxed and loaded onto a truck the consignment is driven direct to Narita airport a journey which takes about six hours. After all the paperwork and customs clearance the boxes are normally loaded onto the overnight Japanese Airlines cargo flight that lands at Heathrow at around 6am the following morning.
Again the same round of paperwork and procedure needs completing before the consignment of Koi is released. This includes a MAFF Certification of Health, customs checks, VAT payment and final clearance by the UK handling agent. The shipment is now officially released by the handling agent and loaded onto yet another lorry that will travel, with my Koi, the 45 minutes (round the M25) to Tewin Mill in Hertfordshire.
On that day our fish were just a small part of a 340 box delivery, which poses unique challenges. In Japan every single box is numbered and coded under the watchful eye of Mr Katzumi Fukushima who is the main man in Japan for TMi and its Japanese sister company, Niigata Nishikigoi Breeders Corporation. So while we knew whose Koi were in each box, the sheer logistics of moving that number of boxes into separate stacks for their respective owners is quite a task and needs a fair amount of organisation. For me the situation was complicated still further by the fact that I had selected ten superb Matsunosuke two year old Sanke in Japan but they had been sent over mixed in among 30 others boxes from the same breeder. There was only one way out of this we had to check every fish.
With all of our fish finally found, the van was loaded and once more the Koi were on the move on the final leg of their journey to Connoisseur Koi.
The long and winding road. Nearly there this is the story of what happens when Koi that have been selected weeks earlier in Japan reach their UK destination.
Our timing couldn't have been worse we hit the M25 at rush hour, but with the excitement of having the new Koi as our cargo, the conversation between my friend Derek and myself was constant. While at Tewin, the Koi had been rebagged into fresh water which perked them up enormously. About 30 per cent of the Koi that I bring back with me from Japan have been ordered by customers who know what they want and like me to look for Koi that match their specific requirements. This could be anything from a Koi over 24 inches to a Showa with heavy sumi on the head. It's very difficult to get an exact match for a customer, but by combining a knowledge of what the customer wants and a good relationship with various farmers, I often get quite close. Ten minutes off the M4 at Reading we finally turned into the track to Connoisseur Koi.
No time to waste: a box is opened to check that its precious contents have faired well on the last leg of the journey. This is probably only the second time that the Koi are seen on their journey. The box is literally taped up at TMi in Japan and untaped at TMi in the UK. The Koi are double bagged in the boxes, although some fish may be triple bagged. The bagging is dominated by weight as this is how transport costs are calculated. The boxes hold various weights from 11kg upwards. Remember that water is heavy. Normally, 20 inch plus fish are packed individually, 18 to 20 inch fish are packed two to one box and so on. Only a small amount of water is added to the bag and then it's filled with pure oxygen
All in order, the boxes are unloaded and stacked in the fish house ready for unpacking. One at a time, each bag is opened and emptied into a large bowl. I am very careful not to mix the water from the bag with the fresh water that the Koi are going to be released into, so that the water remains as fresh as is humanly possible.
A large vat had been filled with good quality water from my main pond in readiness for the new arrivals. The temperature was checked against the water in the bag and found to be within one degree centigrade, so there was no need to float the bag first to equalise the temperature. Salt had been added to the vat at the rate of ½ ounce per gallon primarily to soothe the Koi after the long journey, but there is also another reason that we'll come to later. Temperature is the dominating factor here it's very important that a constant temperature is maintained so that the Koi don't get even more of a shock when they are introduced to their new surroundings. Over the next three days or so, I raise the temperature gradually to about fifteen degrees centigrade this being the optimum.
Next, the Koi are lifted from the bowl and placed into the heavily oxygenated water. In the vat first is a fantastic three-year-old Kujaku from the breeder Oofuchi, who is one of the best breeders of Kujaku. Incidentally, if I ever see a Koi that is unique or particularly special, I always buy it, knowing that this Koi will be sold pretty quickly. I love finding something a bit special that challenge never loses its appeal. Having said that there is a massive demand for unique Koi, I have to say that the Go Sanke varieties are still the most popular, especially good Sanke and Showa. On this occasion, I bought Koi from about 15 different farmers and I normally remember the history of each individual Koi. But just to help me out, there is always the photos which I took when I saw the Koi initially in Japan. And if all else fails, I can contact the farmer who also has his own picture of each fish sold to me.
As my other friends Dean and Jack arrived, there was soon a production line in place speeding up the unpacking process. Another beautiful Koi joins its colleagues in the vat this time a Kohaku from Matsunosuke.
A very special Koi causes a stir and everyone stops work to admire it. I'm just a big kid really and I still get really excited seeing Koi of this quality. It's even nicer to be able to share the experience with like-minded people.
Synchronised Koi handling: a brace of beautiful Kohaku are carefully moved on into the welcoming clear water. The Koi are held in the vat for two hours to relax, but there is another, more important reason. During the lengthy period in the plastic bag the Koi continually excrete ammonia, causing levels to raise significantly. An interesting thing then happens during this continuous exposure the Koi then actually start to reabsorb the ammonia. As soon as they are placed into clean water this ammonia is effectively dumped. Now imagine if the Koi go straight into the pond and dump the ammonia there this big swing in levels will obviously play havoc with the water quality. My way of countering this is to have the ammonia dumped in a vat of water before transferring the Koi to their final pond. The salt solution in the vat water, as well as acting as a mild bactericide and disinfectant, also reduces the toxicity of ammonia. Without exception, the two most important things to help the Koi recover from their ordeal are clean water and lots of air.
Another special Koi gets the critical eye as everyone tries to look for demerits. Jack just ignores the banter and tries to find the Koi's photo, particularly keeping an eye out for the price.
The fish are all now safely unpacked and resting, so a well-earned cup of tea warms everyone up. But guess what? No-one can pull themselves away from the Koi. Some things never change. By this stage Derek had narrowed his choice down to six Koi, Jack was down to four and indecisive Dean wanted one Koi with an option on another 90!
Tea break over, it's back to work. The water quality must be constantly monitored, so I get to work with my super new Hanna water meter. Read more about electronic water testing in issue 16 of Koi, Ponds & Gardens.
All Koi are checked and treated for parasites in Japan, but I always check them again. A scrape of mucus is taken from a sample of the fish and checked for nasties under the microscope. if nothing is found, it's good news as it means that no chemical treatment is needed. The Koi have already experienced significant stress so the less messing about they receive, the better. This shipment of Koi was 100 per cent healthy. Losses are rare, especially as transport techniques are improving all the time. But a Koi is a delicate creature and we subject them to a lot, bringing them miles across the world. We have to make sure they have the best conditions waiting for them in the UK. I can't say that I don't worry about them, but almost always my worries are unfounded.
During their two-hour rest, it was important that the water in the vat is kept at a constant temperature the same temperature as the Koi will experience in the pond to which they are transferred. As the Koi are netted, even my wife Tina joins in with final admiring glances before the Koi are gently moved for the last time.
A Sanke, Kohaku and two Showa, just four of the super tategoi that arrived in this shipment.
Kissing the Sanke: sometimes you just can't help yourself. With some careful, gentle handling you can easily get a closer look at some of the new arrivals. And it is a stunning Sanke, after all.
A bit of a bowlful: an example of the fine Koi that make up this shipment. I'm extremely pleased with the results and it's times like these that make the epic journey worthwhile.
While helping, Derek just couldn't help but notice some rather nice Koi to add to his collection. Here I am helping with Derek's shortlist, and explaining that he'll have to make his mind up pretty soon, because he can't take them all.
Matsunosuke is one of the most prized Koi bloodlines in Japan. Developed by the Sakai brothers, Toshio and Toshiyuki, who between them have produced many Koi that have one major prizes in Japan, including Grand Champion at the prestigious All Japan Show three times
Tategoi a Koi that the breeder believes has significant potential to develop further and become even more prized
TMi Tewin Mill international is the biggest Koi importer from Japan in the world. They have bases in Japan and the UK, the UK base being Tewin Mill Koi Centre near Welwyn in Hertfordshire Niigata is the mountainous area surrounding Ojiya in northern Japan, where the bulk of quality Koi production takes place. The area has a limitless supply of the two vital ingredients needed to produce quality Koi good water and good clay for the mud ponds
Demerits are imperfections in Koi that would work against it if the Koi was being showed. The Japanese generally choose to ignore the bad points and concentrate on the better points of individual fish
Koi on a budget - How to spend £200 (and get great value)
It's well known that Koi can be an expensive game, but if you stay ahead you can still get great value. Geoff Kemp dons his bargain hunting hat and comes up with a few ideas for Koi on a budget.
First, an easy question: how much is a litre of unleaded petrol? Answer: between 69.9p and 74.9p. Next question: how much is a six-inch Kohaku? Answer: between £5 and £5,000. Give or take a couple of pence a litre, the price of petrol is consistent across the country. But Kohaku? If only it was so easy to know what you're expected to pay for a Koi. Of course, there are reasons why Koi prices vary so enormously but it's mainly because the price of Koi varies so massively between Japanese breeders. To compound the differences, the stocks of a specific breeder will also be sold across a range of prices. The Japanese way Koi are spawned in June and grown on in mud ponds until they are harvested in October. From an original spawning of 100,000 fry during the summer, the breeder will have selectively culled them down to 3,000-5,000. At this stage, all of these Koi are his tategoi - he thinks that they have the potential to grow on and develop into something more than they are. The key word is potential. Most breeders will then grow their tategoi over winter in warm conditions in their fish houses until April or May when they once more reselect their tategoi, leaving them with perhaps between 500 and 1,000 Koi. From a start point of 100,000 baby Koi, less than 10,000 will actually have any value - the rest are destroyed.
Of those 10,000, up to 9,000 are sold very cheaply. Those remaining have to provide the return on the breeder's investment in terms of prices. The very cheapest yearlings sold by the breeder can be bought for less than £1, in contrast to his most expensive which could be as much as £5,000. Somewhere in the mid price range is a Koi with your name on it. All you have to do is learn how to spot them and then find it. But there is value to be had. Koi keeping is not necessarily the cheapest of hobbies but, in truth, the Koi hobbyist has never had it so good. Koi prices stay the same while the quality of the Koi that reach the UK continues to rise. What I am hoping to do in this feature is to show you how to make the most of these opportunities and see just how far you can go on a budget. We've chosen £200, but the theory works for most pockets.
A £200 budget So, just say you had £200, what would be your options? Would you buy just one fish - if so, which one? Or would you rather spend your money on four fish? How does this work? And what are you paying for? Is it the variety? The skin quality? The pattern or the body shape? Or is it the name of a famous breeder or bloodline that dictates the price? And what about going to Japan and converting your £200 to Yen? What would you get directly from a breeder?
I started off reasonably close to my home. I chose Tewin Mill Koi Centre (which is set in the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside), to look through their stocks. Tewin Mill always has a plentiful supply of Koi, with new shipments arriving almost weekly. I wanted to have a wide choice for my £200, and I knew that I could enlist the expert guidance of Bill McGurk (the Koi manager) to help me spend my £200, wisely.
First came the customary cup of tea with Bill and his wife Maureen (who runs the retail side of the business). I caught up with the copious amounts of Koi gossip whilst looking at their new imports. As I moved from pond to pond, a customer caught my eye and I heard a voice say, "You're Geoff Kemp, aren't you? Can you give me some advice on two fish that I've selected?" This 'writing for magazines' lark soon gets you noticed. Not put off by the fact that I didn't actually work there, I was faced with two small Sanke that he had chosen.
Making a choice This customer had short-listed these two Koi from a pond containing about 100 fish and now he was looking for a second opinion. The first thing I did (which I would advise anyone to do) was quickly check the rest of the pond's occupants to see if there were any other Koi to compete with these two. To give him his due, the Koi selected were the best two from the lot - he had done very well. The method he had adopted was to stick with the basics of body shape and skin quality as first and second priorities, leaving the pattern until last.
Both Koi had similar body shape, so the decision was to be made between one with the better pattern and the other which had superior skin. My advice was quite simply to choose the fish that he liked the best on gut feeling. This is not a cop out. The man had to live with seeing that fish in his pond, day in, day out. He had to choose the fish he felt most comfortable with, not the one I thought was theoretically better.
I left this chap in peace to finalise his choice, but I haven't mentioned the price. All the fish in that pond were £15. He was buying on a very limited budget and by taking his time and using the skills that he has picked up thus far, he went home with a Koi which represented terrific value for money. Whatever your budget, the same Koi-buying techniques apply. Keen to start selecting fish myself, I talked my dilemma through with Bill McGurk. I told him what I had to spend and that I was hoping to buy either one nice fish or find several good, but less expensive ones. With my budget of £200, we decided that it was best to look at my options with regard to yearling Koi.
In the yearling arena at Tewin, there are Koi from £10 to £2,000, so I had plenty to choose from. While scouting around, I found some nice Shiro Utsuri priced at £55 each, as well as some others from £195 upwards. There was plenty of choice, so the decision was made - I was to find the best Shiro Utsuri I could for £200.
Armed with a bowl, a net and permission from Bill to sort through his stocks, I set about sifting through the Utsuri in the pond. When selecting in a mixed pond, I only look at one variety at a time, shutting my mind off to all other Koi. Typically, I will first look at the Sanke, running each individually through my mental checklist of body shape, skin quality and pattern. I'm actually looking for good fish, concentrating on positive aspects, rather than getting hung up on the negatives. Any fish that fails at this stage by virtue of poor body shape, skin or pattern, gets mentally discarded. Those that survive this rapid once over are either bowled straight away or memorised while I move onto Kohaku, the Showa and so on. This approach has almost certainly evolved from my judging days. Most UK shows are 'English style' which means that each exhibitor has a vat for his own fish. When the judges do their judging (of, say, Showa in Size Three) they have to visit each vat containing a Size Three Showa, in turn. This often means visiting many vats, each holding lots of fish. You have to remain undistracted from any other fish in that vat. By using the same techniques when selecting Koi to buy, you can quickly and effectively scan virtually every Koi in the pond. It will take time to develop this skill of discarding, but give it a go - it works. Home in on one variety until you learn to ignore all the rest for the time being.
The fruits of my efforts could finally be completed. My budget could be spent in two ways: buy four nice Shiro Utsuri for £220, or stick with one for £200. For me, there would only be one choice - I would always prefer to have just one Koi of the very best quality I could afford, rather than buy a number of lesser Koi. So with the fish I saw, if I had £55 to spend, I would be delighted with any of the four I had selected. If I had £200 to spend, I would stick with the one better Koi rather than the four - and dreaming for a moment - if I had an extra £1,000 to spend and the best had not yet been sold, I know I would have been tempted.
With the final decision made, let's look at these six Koi. The breeder is Seji Igarashi from Niigata in Japan. These Koi were selected from 7,000 yearlings that remained as tategoi from last year's spawning, and Bill had selected 30 of them. In the long journey to my blue bowl, a lot of choices have been made along the way. But which of the two Shiro Utsuri shown on the right is the outstanding £1,200 Koi? The fish at the bottom of the picture has stronger, more striking sumi (black) and the white appears thicker. However, don't be mislead, becasue the sumi on the other Koi needs to fully develop. The pattern potential of the mega-baby at the top of the picture is superb and well-defined. It's balanced in the banding of the black, has delicate motoguru (black at the base of the pectoral fins) with the opportunity for a lovely face pattern to develop. The skin of both these young Koi looks quite thin and translucent, but at this age you need to look into the future, knowing that they'll both develop to become impressive. The final plus point of the best Koi, is the body shape which shouts potential - a true tategoi. But these Koi originally came from the same spawning, in Japan. By shopping around at a dealer's premises you can often find true class lurking.
What if you had £200 to spend in Japan? Sure, it's going to cost you a bit to get out there, but do dealers in the UK really mark their prices up so much that you're getting £50 value for your £200 here? If you joined a buying trip out there, would you get value for money?
It's an emphatic "No" I'm afraid - you won't necessarily save money by buying your Koi in Japan. To cover the costs of a seven-day stay in Japan, you need a budget of between £1,500 and £2,000, so unless you are spending thousands of pounds on Koi when you are out there, any savings that you could make will not off-set the cost of getting there. Even if you remove those, Koi are often dearer in Japan than they are in the UK. The reason for this is that other than the very expensive fish, most fish are cheaper when bought from the breeder in volume. I've seen hobbyists buy Koi for £250 in Japan. Add commission and freight costs to that and you're looking at £350. However, a dealer can buy ten fish of the same quality, import them, add a mark up and still put them on the market for £250 - the same as the hobbyist paid in Japan. So, if you're thinking of going to Japan for cheap fish, forget it, unless you're buying loads. However, if your motive is to learn and enjoy a Koi experience, go if you possibly can - it's fantastic.