Back in 2005 I was on my very first Autumn Harvest trip to Niigata. Typically the Autumn Harvest in Japan is all about larger nisai, but as we drove along one of the main roads in the area and past Sakazume Koi Farm I noticed there was some sort of market stall set up with a few cars parked up and locals with nets.
My dad and I had no idea what the market stall was for so we decided to stop and explore exactly what was happening.
Many small koi tanks
As I got out of the car I could see there were lots of tanks set up, most of them with carbon filters but no proper filtration. To my surprise the tanks were filled with lots of small fish, roughly between 15 and 25cm in size, which I found out were actually chibi nisai.
The quality of these small fish was simply unbelievable, with pigmentation and patterns that were outstanding. The koi were split by price, with bigger tanks at the front of the stall that had more fish in and were generally cheaper to buy. At the back of the stand were selected individual fish, each in their own individual koi bowl.
The most expensive fish were priced at around JP¥100,000 (or roughly £700 at today’s exchange rate) for Goromo no larger than 20cm in length. At the time I really struggled to get my head around such a price because they were so small.
The art of bonsai koi
These fish are referred to as chibi nisai – essentially a small nisai. Some people also refer to them as bonsai koi due to the way they’re raised to keep them smaller in size.
The concept for smaller, more intense and beautiful fish such as these chibi nisai is something that some buyers have a preference for rather than keeping larger fish. Japanese collectors specifically select these koi to complete for sought after prizes in specific classes at the top Japanese competitions.
Taking a different approach
Rearing the fish in this way to progress the quality, but restrict the growth takes a lot of skill and a different approach to caring for koi. To develop nisai in this way means generally raising them indoors in concrete ponds with clear water and lots of sunlight over the summer months, and feeding them a spirulina based diet.
Sakazume was one of the first breeders to develop fish in this way and this is a trend that has increased over time, particularly in the Japanese market. Every Autumn he continues to sell on his market stall. It’s fascinating to see and I’d definitely recommend a visit if you get the opportunity!