Sanke, Elegance Personified by Bob Brudd

Reprinted with permission from Water Gardening Magazine


Tsubo sumi (tsoo-boh soo-mee) – Sumi that is strategically placed.

Nabe sumi (nah-bay soo-mee) – Sumi that is of poor quality. Instead of being shiny or glossy
it appears to have a flat, dull appearance.

Kasane sumi (kuh-sah-nay soo-mee) – Sumi that rests on top of a part of the fish that is red (hi).

Ato sumi (ah-toh soo-mee) Sumi that is still developing.

Urushi sumi (oo-roo-shee soo-mee) Sumi with the high gloss of wet India ink or lacquer. This is the most
desirable type of sumi for a sanke to have.

Kata sumi (kah-tah soo-mee) Sumi marking that falls on the shoulder of the fish.

Tejima (teh-jee-muh) – Black stripes in the pectoral fins found in older style sankes.

Aka sanke (ah-kah sahn-keh) – A sanke that has a lot of red as part of the kohaku pattern.

Keito (kai-toe) Bloodline

Insertion – On a fish having red patterning, an insertion is an area of white that “inserts” itself
in such a way as to create a pleasing aesthetic appearance. The shoulder area is one
such desirable location for an insertion.

If, as the Japanese say, koi keeping begins with kohaku and ends with kohaku, then elegance in koi begins and ends with sanke. Formally, sanke are known as taisho sanshoku, a reference to the Taisho Era (1912-1926) in which they were developed. The first sanke to be exhibited was shown in 1915. The breeder credited with being the first to stabilize the variety and to produce an actual keito (bloodline) was named Kawakami but is better known by his company name, Torazo.

Perhaps the easiest way to think of a sanke is to imagine taking a good quality kohaku with a well balanced pattern and overlaying a Dalmatian’s spots onto the body of the fish. As you attempt to envision this, keep in mind that various Dalmatians have differing types of spot patterns: some have quite large ones, some have smallish ones, some have many and some have relatively few. The same can be true of the sumi patterning on sanke koifish.

Another of the early sanke keitos was developed by a breeder referred to as Jinbei. Although his sanke were known for having relatively few sumi markings, they were often quite large and striking in appearance. Although this bloodline no longer exists in its original pure form, sanke with the “Jinbei look” can still be seen thanks to other breeders who long ago incorporated Jinbei fish into their own brood stock.

The man who is credited with having the greatest impact on sanke appearance in recent history is Toshio Sakai, born in Niigata Prefecture, but currently based in Isawa, Japan. His father originated the famous Niigata koi farm known as Matsunosuke (Maht-suh-noh-skeh). When the father died, the farm was passed on to the oldest son as is the tradition in Japan. Toshio decided to strike off on his own and start his own breeding facility. As he struggled to succeed, he noted that while many of his competitors were trying to breed bigger koi, progress was slow and the results mixed.

I’ve been fortunate to meet Mr. Sakai, and according to a story told over dinner one night, he and his foreman, Mr. Igarashi, went to Lake Biwa, which is near Kyoto, and line caught a huge magoi, or native carp. They kept it alive and brought it home to Isawa where they used it to breed with their sanke brood fish. Native carp grow to be quite large in Japan, and Sakai hoped to breed size into his baby fish. After the first attempt, only one of the fry survived, but the following year was successful. The best of those that made it were kept for koi-to-koi breeding. Eventually, Matsunosuke sankes came to dominate the market. The beni on them tended to be persimmon (orangish) in nature and the sumi patterning to somewhat resemble freckles. The typical body shape back then was very much like that of a torpedo. As Sakai continued to improve his bloodline, however, the beni took on a deeper red and the sumi became more pronounced. The bodies of his sanke are now much fuller as well. Today, virtually every breeder in Japan who produces sankes utilizes Sakai’s bloodline.

Finally, Sakai’s crowning achievement came in 2002 when one of his sankes won the All Japan Show, an annual competition involving 4000+ koi. It’s equivalent to the world series of koi where many breeders compete to be number one, but only one can win. For years there had been a rumor floating around the All Japan that the first breeder to produce a one meter gosanke (kohaku, sanke or showa) winner would himself win the equivalent of one million dollars. Sakai’s sanke measured one meter + one centimeter. History had been made, but unfortunately for Sakai the rumor was just a rumor.

So, what do we look for and what do we need to know before selecting a sanke for our collection?
Easy, easy question, difficult answer.

First of all, as with any fish, you want to make sure that all of its body parts are there and in good shape. That means no torn fins or broken leading rays, either in the pectorals or dorsal.

Next, you want to look for a koi that has a pleasant and well balanced kohaku pattern. Check to see if the red is consistent in hue. The red on the head plate will probably be darker than the red on the body, and in a young fish that’s fine. As it ages, however, the red on the body should reach and achieve the same depth of color as that on the head. Keep in mind that many of the fish that get sent here for export are front heavy when it comes to red but light in the back. It’s easy to miss this imbalance because we all tend to look at the head and shoulders of a koi first and not pay so much attention to the rear third. This is a habit that is best broken.

Finally, make sure that the white is nice and bright.

In the older blood lines, sanke were bred to have striping in their pectoral fins. Referred to as tejima, this trait isn’t nearly as common today. If you choose to purchase a fish possessing this trait, however, it’s best to pick a fish that has it in both pectorals as opposed to one. Also, in an ideal world, the striping should not extend all the way to the edge of the pectoral. It’s considered more desirable for them to be buffered by a white boundary. Most sankes today have pure white pectorals and it’s best that no other color, such as red, be present.

Now comes the hard part – sumi placement and quality. Sumi is a very tricky thing, and it’s made more complicated by the fact that it isn’t as stable as red and white. What this means is that the sumi that you see on an 8″ fish may be totally different on a 20″ fish when it grows up. Also, on a young fish, you don’t want all of the sumi to “be up,” that is to say deep inky black in color. A young fish should have some ato sumi showing underneath the white skin. This sumi will come up, or develop, as the fish ages.

Hopefully, all three colors will peak at the same time somewhere in the fish’s development. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible for us to predict, which means that your sanke may peak when it’s two or when it ten years of age.

The placement of the sumi is of great importance as well. In an ideal world, the kohaku pattern of your sanke would have a white insertion on the koi’s shoulder, and in that insertion would be a nicely sized and proportioned urushi sumi mark.

It is considered important that a sanke have a distinctive sumi mark on the shoulder. If there’s no white insertion, then this will be a kasane sumi. In both cases, this shoulder placement is described as tsubo (strategically placed) sumi.

Hopefully there are no sumi markings on the head, but if there are, there’s a good chance that they’ll fade away as the fish matures. It’s important not to give up on a sanke – they can take years and years to reach their full potential.

The rest of the sumi on the fish should be balanced in their placement. Some say that a stepping stone pattern is best and it’s hard to argue against that point of view.

Finally, the amount and size of the sumi markings varies from fish to fish with some having many and others having relatively few. Ultimately it becomes a matter of personal taste and preference, but no matter what kind of sanke style you finally choose, adding this variety of koi to your collection introduces a level of elegance to any pond.
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