Everyone coming to Niigata for the first time, northern Japan’s koi breeder stronghold, is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of snow! Even Austria and Switzerland rarely sees as much snow as in the prefecture Niigata, situated about 300 km north of Tokyo, though not at the “warm” Pacific but at Japan’s cold west side. The beautiful snow also meant they had to close the airport for a while and we were left with the train for our outward journey.
But since the train can go at about 320 km/h it is not much slower than the plane! A mountain range in the centre of Japan separates the climate of the Pacific from the Sea of Japan side facing Russia, China and Korea. Most koi breeders live in the mountains around Ojiya and have converted former rice terraces into koi ponds. You can already get an idea of the number of ponds when taking a glance at Google Maps air view. A single koi breeder might own up to 900 ponds! A trip to the mountains is impossible or at least extremely challenging without an all-terrain vehicle. During the trip you always meet snow blowers which take care that the road is clear and safe, but cover the front gardens and absolutely everything beside the road in metre-deep snow.
Normally most koi breeders‘ houses are situated along a road and therefore can easily be found. Only a few very large ones were relocated to the flat country after the last large earthquake. Even today the water level at the edge of the pools show how crooked some buildings are since the earthquake. The names of the koi breeders or of the koi farm are mostly written on large billboards outside the halls where the koi hibernate.
Only in the south of Japan can the koi be kept in outdoor facilities (e.g. at the Ogata Koi Farm) during the winter. In the north this is impossible! In the koi halls it is as busy as a fish market: Japanese and non-Japanese nationals alike are running around busily, adjusting fish nets and doing things to the large blue tubs where the “fish gold” swims. A Belgian purchases 5000 koi, which is the total stock of the pool, on the spot. They briefly negotiate the price - and on it goes. I am impressed!
My English friend, who is almost as Japanese as the locals, takes me aside to show me another hall, for which access is forbidden. Here the really precious koi, used for breeding, are swimming around. These koi surpass any other koi I have ever seen. My friend even gets permission for me to take underwater photos of them - of course only after an extensive disinfection of my person and the camera. But I endure it patiently. Who wants to be the one to kill off the financial equivalent of a Formula 1 racing stable by introducing pathogenic bacteria?