Kohaku Koi: The Popular Fish in the Pond

Lucky is the pond owner who enjoys having a beautiful Kohaku koi swimming among the lily pads. The Kohaku is the oldest and most well-known variety of koi, and often the most popular among koi lovers.

Kohaku is a bright-white koi patterned with red. There are two types of Kohaku – one has the red pattern all over it and is the most common. The second type of Kohaku only has a red spot in the middle of the forehead. This is an extra-special type called Tancho Kohaku, and is a highly prized specimen because of its rarity.


A Model of the Japanese Flag

The red spot on the forehead makes the Tancho Kohaku a living, breathing model of the Japanese flag, which represents a red sun in the middle of a pure white field.

Kohaku is the most common fish to win “Grand Champion” in Japanese shows, because it is the most popular fish in Japan and therefore, the breeders of koi spend the most time producing the finest specimens of this type.


Tancho Kohaku Koi in an Ecosystem Pond
Tancho Kohaku Koi in an Ecosystem Pond


Judging Kohaku Koi

Judging good quality koi such as Kohaku is not easy. There are certain “pattern” basics that you can learn to apply when buying fish, but forecasting the way that pattern will look later is a special talent. Also, body shape and conformation are important features and few Americans appreciate the complexities of this characteristic. Finally, the way the red, called Hi (pronounced “hee”) breaks into kiwa (the trailing edge of the Hi) or out of the white (sashi) is important. The more crisp the transition from red to white, the better.

The details concerning pattern intricacies of Kohaku during championship judging can seem tedious, so here’s a simplified method of Kohaku appreciation that although likely inadequate in choosing show-quality koi, is effective enough to choose fish which most folks will value.

  • The white of the Kohaku should be a bright, snowy white. The brighter and the white, the better the fish is. If the white appears thin or almost grayish, the fish is not as good a quality. There should be a white band at the very base of the tail to stop the “Hi” (red) from touching the tail. There should be nothing but white in the pectoral fins and tail of the koi. Likewise, the dorsal fin should be all white.
  • The red (Hi) in the koi can sometimes be slightly orange when the fish are young, depending upon the breeder. The red can change from orange to crimson red when they mature or “finish.” In some cases, the Hi may never change if the breeding is poor. Many koi lovers won’t purchase orange-colored Kohaku for lack of faith that they will ever turn crimson. You have to trust the dealer when they assert that the “red is on its way!” Some koi are a deep, cherry tomato or crimson red from birth to death. The red should not go into the fins, and the red should not extend below the eye in the head. The red should not go below the “lateral line” on the sides of the fish, nor into the tail. Also, small flecks of red in the fish are undesirable.


Bright White and Red Kohaku Koi
Bright White and Red Kohaku Koi


Patterns to Look For

When you see a Kohaku with a uniform pattern of a single, red blossom in the center of each scale, and the pattern is pleasing to the eye, it is called Kanoko (fawn). Some of these fish are thought to make a good investment, but rumor has it that Kanoko Kohaku are “going away” and the red dots won’t survive many years in the pattern, which leaves you with nothing but an expensive white fish.

The pattern of the fish can be solid (ippon), lightning strike or zig-zag (inazuma), or it may occur in spots. The appearance of two spots is called “Two-Step” Kohaku or Nidan, and three spots is referred to as “Three Step” Kohaku or Sandan. They even have names for Four Step and Five Step patterns, but they’re generally not as precious as the two and three step koi.

The body of Kohaku ought to be rather fat, rounded off, and sort of voluptuous or “Rubenesque.” The head should have fat “cheeks” in the more mature fish. The base of the tail, where the caudal fin emerges, should be fat and round instead of streamlining into the tail. The fan-shaped pectoral fins behind the head should also be big and round. The rounder and whiter, the better. Thin almond-shaped pectoral fins are a disappointment. The body of the fish should be wider than the head, which would suggest that the fish is a female, which is a good thing.


A Final Thought

Understanding the characteristics of different types of koi helps you make an educated selection when shopping for your finned friends. Keep in mind that unless you’re planning on entering your fish in competitions, it really only matters that you like the coloration and markings of the fish in your pond. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Koi Fun Facts

  • In Japan, red is called “Hi” (Pronounced: hee) or Aka (Pronounced: ocka).
  • The Japanese meaning of the word “Japan” is Land of the Rising Sun” and has been symbolic of Japan since at least the 12th century AD.
  • For the Japanese, colors have various meanings or impact. Red represents sincerity and warmth. White represents honesty and purity.
  • A breeder in Niigata, Japan reckons the red and white of the Kohaku as the leaves of the cherished Japanese maple, resting lightly on the snow-white blanket on the top of Mount Fuji.
  • Certain koi varieties have different personalities. For example, Chagoi, an amber-colored koi with a black fishnet pattern over their whole body, will swim to you with glee for food, as well as physical petting.

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