-- Susan, every other Sunday
I love koi.
|Painted koi at ryokan Iwaso, Miyajima, Japan|
Ever since I was small, I’ve been drawn to ponds with colorful fish, especially Japanese painted koi. I adore their colorful scales and tranquility, and (like all aquatic creatures) I find them fascinating.
They glide through the water with the grace of kings, yet beg like children when people approach with treats.
The word “koi” is actually Japanese for “carp.” In Japan, the colorful koi you often (read: always) see in ponds are nishikigoi, or “brocaded carp,” and although they originated as food, the Japanese have kept them as domesticated ornamental fish for hundreds of years.
|Beautiful AND delicious (or so I'm told.)|
In fact, koi are so ubiquitous in Japan that any time you see a body of water large enough to physically hold one, it's a fairly safe bet you'll find a koi (or a dozen) swimming in its depths.
During last year's research trip to Japan, I realized, yet again, exactly how prevalent these lovely fish are in Japanese temples:
|Koi at Eikan-do|
|Koi at Myoman-ji (Kyoto)|
|Koi in the canal along the Philosopher's Path, Kyoto|
|No, really. EVERYWHERE.|
Shoguns often placed koi in the ponds adjacent to their private gardens. Descendants of those fish still swim in the pond outside Ninomaru Palace, on the grounds of Kyoto's Nijo Castle:
|You can't see the koi in this picture, because someone else was standing closer to the water and they were begging.|
Japanese koi have little fear of humans, and beg shamelessly for treats, which makes them easy to photograph—like this large school at Kyoto’s Eikan-do Temple:
|This is an average-sized school for most temple ponds.|
They followed us around the pond. Apparently, hope really does spring eternal, even for those with fins instead of feet.
|You're planning to feed us, right?|
Wild koi also swim in the canal along the philosopher’s path, a 2-mile trail that winds past several of Kyoto’s famous shrines and temples.
|These koi were over 2 feet long.|
The koi in Kyoto's canals and rivers are often brown or white instead of brightly colored, because within two wild generations painted koi will actually lose their color and revert to solid, darker shades that provide more camouflage. The lovely colors we see in the decorative versions are maintained through careful, selective breeding.
The loveliest koi I saw in Japan were swimming in a pond outside Ryokan Iwaso on Miyajima, a sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima.
|Painted carp in rain.|
Not only did these fish display the iconic red and white patterning so common in Japanese paintings, but their large size and calm demeanor made them peaceful to watch.
Add in early morning rain, and it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic scene.
In Japanese culture, the koi pond offers a pool of calm to aid in Zen reflection and a retreat from the frantic pace of life. Koi live long lives--the oldest ever recorded was a female koi named Hanako, who died in 1977 at the age of 226. Watching fish can lower blood pressure and reduce stress chemicals in the human brain, which means their peaceful existence can help us live longer lives as well.
Yet another reason to love koi.