Kohaku, the Cornerstone of Koi by Bob Brudd

Reprinted with permission from Water Gardening Magazine

If you could magically jump onto an airplane bound for Japan and attend a koi show, the majority of the fish entered would be kohaku. If you could then go and visit the ponds of some serious hobbyists, the majority of the fish in their collections would be kohaku.

There are other sought after fish with more elaborate color combinations, red white and black for instance, that are more complex or elaborate, yet the kohaku remains the favorite of both breeders and collectors alike. Dr. Kuroki, the founder of organized koi, suggested that the majority of fish in anyone’s collection should be kohaku. Is this because kohaku are red and white like the flag of Japan? Maybe. It’s more likely, however, that in their apparent simplicity kohaku embody that aspect of the Zen-aesthetic that is found in so many things Japanese. To put it another way, less is often more.

Essentially, a kohaku is a white fish with red blocks of color dispersed on various parts of the body. Whenever a koi has randomly placed chunks of color on its body, we refer to the fish as having a “pattern,” and each of the color groupings is referred to as a “step.” In Japanese, the word for pattern is moyo, and there are several different possibilities.

A kohaku having one large, continuous red pattern is said to have ippon hi, and if that singular pattern is lightning shaped the fish is then described as having an inazuma pattern. If you remember our counting terms from the last issue, the rest is easy. A nidan kohaku is one with two steps of color, a sandan has three, a yondan has four, and a godan has five. I’ve never seen kohaku with six or seven steps, so it is most likely that they are culled out before sale.

Of all the possibilities, serious koi collectors prefer kohaku with sandan and yondan patterns. However, what should the rest of us be looking for when we purchase kohaku? Before attempting to answer this question, I’d like to suggest that you buy your fish with the mind set of a student. Yes, you want to enjoy the fish in your pond, but you should also study them so as to learn and to become a smarter consumer.

First of all, fish are very much like people: some are long, others short; some have great figures, others don’t; some have great skin, others don’t. Then there are those rare individuals who have all the right components in all the right places at just the right time. For example, some actors peak when they are children. A few manage to maintain their looks and careers into adulthood.

So it is with koi. Some are beautiful only when they’re small, others only when they reach mid-life, and then there are the rare ones that achieve and maintain both beauty and quality well into their later years. Again, it’s simplistic, but this helps explain why some kohakus go for only $50 while others can cost as much as $50,000. Let’s see if we can break this all down by parts.

BODY: The body shape of a koi is determined primarily by gender; however, when they are still under two years of age, it can be difficult if not impossible for a non-breeder to determine the sex of a koi. Usually, though, the odds are high that fish selected for sale at this point in the growth cycle will be male. Why? Males have more intense coloring when they’re young and are therefore more attractive. Males usually grow up to be thinner than females, which is not desirable in a fish that the owner hopes to eventually enter into competition. For a pond fish, it makes no difference whatsoever. Remember that most koi come from Japan where the typical consumer is looking for s show-worthy fish; ergo, it makes sense to sell off young males early on. Female koi usually grow longer in length than males and have much more voluptuous bodies. In human terms, we’re not looking for a Barbie doll figure – the ideal koi will have a shape reminiscent of women at the turn of the century. Remember, thin hasn’t always been in.

COLOR & SKIN: If you live near a paint store, go and get as many color swatches for red and white as you can. If you have an art supply store near by as well, consider buying a color wheel or book on color theory. This is one of those areas where the study of kohaku seems simple (it’s just a red and white fish, right?) but can be truly complex.

Let’s start with white. Dr. Kuroki, the man who literally wrote the book on koi appreciation, said that the white of a kohaku should be “snow white.” But what if you don’t live in an area where there’s snow? What if, like me, you live in a big city where the snow is mixed with soot, etc.? How white is snow? If you talk to artists about white, they’ll differentiate between a hard white, which probably has a slight touch of blue in it, and a soft white, which probably has just a little touch of yellow added. One of my teachers, Ron Goforth, suggests looking for a white that matches whole milk. Now there’s something we can all relate to. The quality of a kohaku’s white is extremely important because it is the canvas upon which the red moyo are placed. Imagine a Picasso line drawing done on dirty or cheap yellowy paper. Yuch!

Next comes red, another color that at first seems simple. Imagine being able to get a sample of every kind of red sports car available and lining them up. What are the odds that all of the reds will be the same? None that would entice me to place a bet – that’s for sure! So look at your color samples or your color wheel. Find pure red and then put those that have blue added to the right and those that have varying degrees of yellow added to the left.

As you go to the left, you’ll eventually encounter a tone of red referred to as persimmon. Persimmon is the color of red that the Japanese aesthetic deems beautiful, appealing and desirable. Also be aware that persimmon colored hi or beni will deepen in intensity as the fish ages. This all works out to result in a fish that is peaking when it is older and bigger – not younger and smaller. Bluish red, also referred to as a “hard” red, is less desirable and often ends up being exported. This is not to say that these fish can’t be beautiful. They can and often are quite lovely, and they do appeal to a western aesthetic/appreciation for this kind of red. If you decide to compete in koi shows, however, persimmon is the shade of red to look for.

Finally, we want to consider the koi’s “skin” quality. Think of a child’s skin. Next, think of a middle-aged person’s skin. Finally, think of an old person’s skin. The tissue that we see growing both on a fish’s scales and surrounding them is referred to as its “skin,” and its overall condition plays a great factor in determining its overall beauty. Ideally, the skin of our chosen kohaku should have a noticeable sheen or shine to it. Also referred to as luster, the Japanese call this characteristic tsuya. If you study the skin of a child or young person, you’ll notice that it seems to glow and to do so without the need of cosmetics or creams. This type of youthful glow is what we want to see on the skin of our koi as well.

PATTERN: In selecting kohaku, it is easy to be tempted by the one that has what appears to be the prettiest pattern; however, here’s where patience, study and knowledge can help you win out.

For starters, look for balance. Hold out your hand and use it to cover up your view of the front half of the fish so that you can study the rear portion. Then do the opposite. Are the front and rear balanced? Quite often this not the case. Many of the fish coming to America are front heavy, meaning that the moyo closest to the head is large, but those to the rear are disproportionately smaller.

Also check to see that the red patterning wraps around the sides of the koi, preferably to the lateral line that runs horizontally down the middle of each koi’s side from gill plate to tail. As a kohaku grows, the white area will outpace the red ones, and as the back broadens, a too small red pattern will come to look weak.

Finally, the ideal kohaku will have a small white area between the last red pattern and the tail fin. Known as an odome, this “tail stop” mimics the white nose at the koi’s other end. The key to pattern is to look for one that has overall balance and harmony.

Each of the red moyo should possess uniform sashi and nice crisp kiwa. When forward edge red scales are inserted underneath white scales, the translucency of the white scales will create the illusion of a pink leading edge. This pink edge, or sashi, should be uniform in width and depth. Also, if the first step of the pattern has sashi, so should all the others, so pay special attention to the last pattern. As a fish matures, this pink edge will disappear and result in a crisp edge. When looking at the side and rear edges of each pattern, we want to see clean, sharp edges, a quality referred to as kiwa.

It is important that a kohaku have red on the head, but not too much. In an ideal world, the red on the head will have the rounded shape of a shoehorn (known as a kutsubera pattern) that rests just above, but not passing too far beyond the eyes. If possible, try to avoid red that covers one or both eyes and definitely avoid red that covers the entire face, a condition known as menkaburi.

A white nose and mouth is considered to be extremely important although it’s acceptable to have a little bit of red on the lips or a red dot on the nose.

Try to avoid fish that have random red scales or clusters that are too small to be considered a pattern. The former are called tobi hi and the latter, niban hi, and they are each detractions from the koi’s overall beauty. Another anomaly to avoid is what’s called a shimi, or “volunteer sumi.” These black freckles, which can be as large as an individual scale, often appear in hard water conditions. For some unknown reason, kohaku are far more prone to shimis than any of the other varieties.

CONCLUSIONS: My late wife, Millie, used to say that one can never own too many pairs of shoes. As the more intense koi keeper of the family, I’ve come to feel the same way about kohaku. It’s gotten to the point where my friends in the local koi community tease me about it. Studying and learning to appreciate kohaku is a great way to avoid future mistakes with the purchase of their more expensive cousins, the sanke and showa. These varieties also share kohaku qualities but with the sometimes confusing addition of black patternings as well. As we’ll learn in the next two issues of Water Gardening, good sankes and good showas start with good kohaku patterns.


Moyo (moy-oh) – pattern
Ippon hi (ee-pohn hee) – describes a kohaku with one large, continuous red pattern
Inazuma (ee-nah-zoo-mah) – ippon hi in the shape of a lightning bolt.
Nidan (nee-dahn) – having a pattern with two steps/moyo
Sandan (sahn-dahn) – having a pattern with three steps/moyo
Yondan (yohn-dahn) – having a pattern with four steps/moyo
Godan (go-dahn) – having a pattern with five steps/moyo
Kutsubera (kuht-soo-behr-ah) – a shoehorn shaped red pattern on the head
Sashi (sah-shee) – found on the leading edge of a step, sashi describes the pinkish color that occurs
when white scales overlap red ones.
Kiwa (kee-wah) – describes the sharpness and clarity of a step’s trailing edge.
Odome – (oh-doh-may) the white space occurring between the last red step and the beginning of the tail fin
Tobi hi (toh-bee hee) – Random bits of red, usually one or two scales in size, on the white area. Undesirable.
Niban hi (nee-bahn hee) – Small groupings of red scales that aren’t large enough to be considered
blocks of pattern. Undesirable.
Menkaburi (men-kah-boo-ree) – The term translates as mask and refers to gosanke having hi that totally covers the head and face of the fish.
Shimi(s) (shee-mee) – Specks of black that sometimes appear on kohaku. Undesirable.
Tsuya (tsoo-yah) – Describes the sheen or luster seen on good quality koi skin.

©2004 all rights reserved to Bob Brudd and Water Gardening Magazine