The vibrant colors and majestic patterns of koi have the potential to transform any pond into a work of art. The beauty involved in koi keeping is what initially attracts many prospective hobbyists, who then discover the additional joy in bonding with their koi and discerning the distinct personality of each.

For most koi enthusiasts, the coloration and patterning on each individual koi is extremely important, as it indicates both the koi’s variety and its quality. Even the casual observer cannot go unimpressed by the striking beauty of the koi. But for the showman, nothing can be more rewarding than a perfectly colored living jewel with flawless scales and patterns.

Color

Most koi names translate from the Japanese words that describe their colors or features. For example, in Japanese, the word kohaku means “red and white,” which simply names that variety’s characteristic colors. A quick search of the Japanese origin will help you determine what to expect with regard to the koi’s appearance. The name might refer to color or colors, or it might give additional qualities of the koi. While these terms are simplistic in Japanese, they sound intricate and exotic to us, which only serves to enhance the appeal of this stunning type of fish.

Selective breeding over many years has allowed koi colors and patterns to expand across a seemingly limitless spectrum, now including everything from blues, oranges, yellows, silvers and more. However, three staple colors make up the core canvas of many varieties: Hi (red), Shiro (white), and Sumi (black). Examples of other colors used to describe koi include, Ki (yellow), Ogon (metallic monochromatic), and Muji (single-colored). It’s most common for koi to be tri-colored, but they can also be single-, bi-, or even multi-colored.

Kohaku

Each variety of koi requires different elements to achieve a prestigious show quality. In competition, judges select koi based on their colors, as well as their degrees of finish, body size, and steps and symmetry in the patterns.

When a non-enthusiast thinks about a koi, he probably pictures a Kohaku. It is one of the most popular varieties among passionate hobbyists and casual keepers alike, and it displays the most traditional colors. Kohaku are a Shiro (white-bodied) koi with patches of Hi (red markings). The Hi can vary between orange-red and dark red. The pattern of the Hi will further distinguish the koi — for example, a Kohaku with a zigzag Hi pattern is called an Inazuma (lightning strike). Kohaku have been a staple in nearly every pond for more than a century.

Take the Hi and Shiro patterns of a Kohaku and pepper in Sumi (black) patterning and you have a Sanke. When the base color is Sumi with red and white markings, it is a Showa. Depending on the distribution of base color and markings, it can be difficult to distinguish a Showa from a Sanke, but a Showa will always have black on both its head and below the lateral line.

Any black Koi accompanied by one other color, either Hi (red), Shiro (white) or Ki (yellow), will be of the Utsuri variety. Reverse this, with a black pattern on a colored base, and you have a Bekko. Utsuri and Bekko also are often confused, but if you spot Sumi on the head then it is a Utsuri as Bekkos do not have black markings on their heads.

Left to Right: Kin Hi Utsuri, Doitsu Aka Bekko

Goshiki, as the name directly translates, are five colors. Initially created by crossing Sanke and Asagi, the five colors that comprise a Goshiki pattern are the red, white and black of Sanke, plus the gray and blue of Asagi.  Recently, Goshiki have been divided into two subtypes: Kindai Goshiki, which have a lighter base color, and Kuro Goshiki, which have a traditional dark base color.

The light version of a Goshiki looks much like a Kohaku but with thin crescent-shaped dark blue reticulation appearing on the white skin, whereas the darker Kuro Goshiki sometimes has reticulation on the red as well. The white area becomes almost completely dominated by heavy dark blue reticulation (appearing nearly black or dark purple). Water temperature can affect the intensity of the base color, which will darken in cold water and lighten as the water warms.

When purchasing koi, keep in mind that their colors will change over time. This transformation is called ontogenetic color change. Ontogenetic color change will specifically alter the intensity of a koi’s pigmentation. It can sometimes affect a koi’s patterns as well. However, even though the color and color patterning might change, ontogenetic color change won’t add or subtract colors to morph into a different variety. Do research ahead of time to see what the end result of the variety you are purchasing should look like, and what is typical in that koi’s stage of development.

A koi’s diet also plays an extremely important role in the enrichment and maintenance of its color. Unless you are dealing only with the colors of black and white, a koi’s colors are going to need to be enhanced through additives in its food, such as carotene or spirulina. However, beware of overfeeding color enhancers, as they can adversely affect the white patterns on your koi.

Whether choosing a common or uncommon variety, look for bright colors, crisp edges and interesting patterns.

Scales

If a koi presents traditional scales, it is known as a Wagoi, literally meaning “normal, full-scaled.” Most koi keepers do not typically incorporate the term when referring to their koi, unless distinguishing between a koi with nontraditional scale patterns.

The koi’s variety will determine the ideal size the scales should be, as well as their level of definition, pattern arrangement, and how much depth of color or shine they need.

Left to Right: Kujaku, Gin Rin Kujaku, Doitsu Kujaku

Scaled Patterns

Among Scaled Koi, there are further ways to differentiate scale type. Matsuba is one popular scalation. Also known as a “pine cone” pattern, Matsuba consists of black markings in the center of the scales that give the koi a pine-cone-like appearance.

A Reticulated pattern achieves a net-like visual effect. One of the most well-known examples of this pattern occurs in Agasi Koi. Asagi have a blue-grey color on the top of their bodies with a net-like pattern formed from a dark-blue edge to each of their scales. Hi (red) is present below the lateral lines and sometimes on the belly and fins.

The Gin Rin pattern is incredibly easy to recognize, because you essentially can’t miss it. Gin Rin Koi have sparkly scales that glitter and glisten. Gin Rin is a popular type of pattern to apply to koi because many varieties can be designed to achieve it. To be considered Gin Rin, a koi must have at least three complete rows of Gin Rin scales. In competition, any koi that has the Gin Rin trait must first specifically qualify as its base variety. For example, a Kohaku must show all the characteristics of a show quality Kohaku before the Gin Rin trait is judged.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Gin Rin pattern is a technical deformity. However, this happy accident has been bred into many varieties of koi to achieve this show-stopping look. The Gin Rin pattern will be most pronounced in younger koi and fade somewhat as the koi ages.

Scaleless Patterns

Doitsu delineates a form of breeding that produces scaleless, or nearly scaleless, koi. When scaling occurs it is usually limited to certain parts of the body (typically on the back or lateral line) and resembles armor plating.

Scaleless carp originated in Germany, where farmers developed them for ease of cooking. As these fish made their way out of the kitchen and into enthusiasts’ koi ponds, selective breeding allowed them to mix with nearly any variety.

Enthusiasts divide Doitsu Koi into three major categories: Leather, Mirror and Armored patterns.

The Leather pattern (Kawi Goi) delineates koi that are either completely scaleless or have no more than one row of extremely small scales along each side of the dorsal fin. If dorsal scales are present, they should be uniform and symmetrical on both sides.

The Mirror pattern (Kagami Goi) distinguishes Doitsu Koi that have a row of scales along its dorsal and ventral line. Each line should run continuously from head to tail.

The Armor pattern (Yoroi Goi) contains a random and irregularly sized distribution of scales, with some spacing between them. In order for this pattern to achieve show quality, symmetry and balance are essential.

In general, Doitsu Koi are not one of the most revered scale variations when it comes to competition, often losing to scaled koi in the same varieties. Other disadvantages of Doitsu Koi are that they are less resistant to disease and tend to have shorter lifespans than their scaled counterparts. Nonetheless, they remain popular among enthusiasts who appreciate their unique appearance. Each type of Doitsu pattern can make a stunning addition to any pond.

Distribution

Doitsu Tancho Hariwake with a near perfect Tancho mark

One way to differentiate patterns is by whether they are continuous or step. A continuous pattern is one that forms a solid stripe from head to tail, free of breaks or separations. The depth of the color should be evenly concentrated and not lighten on one half or darken on the other. Interesting characteristics, such as wavy edges, are preferred on continuous head-to-tail patterns.

Step patterns describe the number of color patches that appear on the koi. Each color patch is counted, beginning on the head or face. The base color of the koi’s body needs to be visible between the color patterns. The number of color patches should distribute evenly from head to fin.

When a single Hi spot occurs on the head, the koi is also called a Tancho. It is named after the tancho crane, which has a red spot on its head, resembling the Japanese flag. The tancho mark can occur in Kohaku, Sanke or Showa varieties. For a competition koi to be classed as Tancho, the Hi spot must be between the koi’s eyes, not reach as far back as the shoulder and not run down to the nose. Tancho is not a breedable trait–it only ever occurs by chance–so these somewhat rare beauties are prized possessions among any koi keeper.

When a Hi pattern occurs around the lips of a koi with a white head, it is known as a Kuchibeni. The Kuchibeni pattern gives the fish the appearance of wearing red or orange-red lipstick. This is another fascinating and rare trait that is sure to draw attention to any fish that sports it.

Fin Varieties

Koi have three single fins and two sets of paired fins, known as pectoral fins. Standard Fin Koi have pectoral fins that are proportional to their bodies and usually short and oval shaped. Symmetry within the fin pair is obviously important in judging the overall show quality of a koi. Koi purists who have taken the hobby to its highest level usually tend to keep only koi with the original standard fins, as some of the top shows in Japan only allow koi with standard fins to enter competition.

Butterfly Koi, also known as Hirenaga (“long fin” in Japanese) Koi or Dragon Fin Koi, are a cross between a long-finned carp and a standard-fin koi. This fin type is named for the long, flowing fins that resemble butterflies or dragons gliding through the water. And while some traditionalists steer clear of this fin type, many others have grown to love it. In fact, some keepers have become so fascinated by this fin type that they refuse to have ponds without it.

As Butterfly Koi grow, they become even more impressive because their fins continue to grow with them–until the blood vessels can no longer reach fin ends. Some Butterfly Koi have fins that are up to three-quarters of the length of the koi’s body. Koi with this fin type also have barbels (whiskers) that can grow long and can fork into elaborate designs. Typically the body size of a Butterfly Koi is a bit smaller and more narrow than that of a standard fin. A benefit of this fin type is that, when applied, the resulting koi are typically more disease resistant than those with standard fins.

Standard Fin and Butterfly Fin Doitsu Yamabuki Ogon

Shine

All Hikari varieties of koi are classified by their shine. Not surprisingly, the word Hikari means shining in Japanese. The terms Kin or Ogon also are used to describe metallic koi. It can be easy to confuse a metallic variety with a Gin Rin, but the key difference is the origin of the shine. Unlike a Gin Rin whose sparkle comes from the scales, a metallic koi’s shine originates in its skin.

When referencing a koi as metallic, enthusiasts are referring to the sheen and luster of the fish. The term “luster” refers to the light-reflecting quality of the skin. Luster should cover the entire koi, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, and all the way through the fins. The metallic skin should shine like polished metal. For koi of metallic varieties, high quality and consistent luster throughout the body and fins is essential to reach show status, as it is judged with a high level of scrutiny.

Koi that fall into the Hikarimuji (muji meaning “single color”), or Hikarimono, classification–regardless of their variety–are single-colored koi with a glossy sheen to their skin. Fins also are expected to have a consistent luster in order for the koi to be show quality. Most of the koi in the Hikari class are Ogon.

Some examples include:

  • Yamabuki Ogon: metallic yellow
  • Platinum Ogon: metallic white
  • Orengi Ogon: metallic orange
  • Hi Ogon: metallic red
  • Nezu Ogon: metallic gray/brown

Hariwake is a two-colored metallic koi with a pattern. It presents a platinum base color with an interesting pattern of Hi, Ki, or Beni (red-orange). When its pattern is yellow, it is known as a Lemon Hariwake. The white base of the Hariwake should shine brighter than the softer, matte-white of other varieties. Variations of Hariwake include Tancho, Gin Rin and Doitsu (also known as Kikusui).

Finally, koi that fall into the Hikarimoyo (moyo meaning “pattern”) class are two or more colors, metallic-skinned and display a distinct pattern. Hikarimoyo’s display a bright, metallic, platinum base color with multiple complementary colors, which often are muted or diffused because of the strong metallic quality of the underlying skin.

Hundreds of years of selective breeding have given rise to this intricate system of naming conventions and classifications for koi. It’s not essential to know every term, but understanding the general origin and meaning of naming conventions can help you navigate purchasing your next koi.

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