Complete Guide to Kohaku Koi 2020 [Updated]

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Guide to Kohaku Koi Patterns, Care, Size, Diet & Costs 2020 [Updated]

how to identify Kohaku koi
All koi, including Kohaku, are descendants of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio). jimgallagher3 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Koi carp have been around for thousands of years, with most modern koi breeding practices originating in China and Japan around the 4th century! In fact, mtDNA sequencing supports the commonly held belief that koi are descendants of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), which the sequencing found originated in East Asia (an idea that was often argued).

Since the 4th century, the aquaculture industry has seen a huge boom in the number of breeds, patterns, and colorations of koi available. Actually, the DNA studies mentioned previously were also able to pinpoint that the large scale domestication of carp and subsequent breeding of them to obtain brightly colored varieties and unique patterns occurred in China beginning around 6,000 B.C.

These colorful, specially bred carp came to be known as “koi,” and were most often gifted to those with political and economic power as a gesture of good will and peace. This is how they initially made their way to Europe and, eventually, the Americas, becoming beloved pets rather than symbols of power and wealth.

Kohaku, specifically, were one of the first consistently bred koi varieties, achieving great popularity as early as the 1890’s, and often form the base of breeding for countless other varieties due to their simple, yet undeniable beauty. Also known as white-red koi, Kohaku remain one of the most highly sought after color types of koi today.

What does Kohaku Mean?

Kohaku koi name meaning
Kohaku translates roughly to “amber” in Japanese. “Ko” translates to “red,” while “haku” translates to “white” – the classic colors of Kohaku koi. randychiu / CC BY-SA 2.0

Kohaku translates most cleanly to “amber” in Japanese. “Ko” translates to “red,” while “haku” translates to “white,” which makes sense given that Kohaku koi have white skin with red markings. Their popularity in Japan stems from their resemblance to the Japanese flag – a large red circle on a white background.

It’s theorized that the first koi to possess any red coloring was an accidental gene mutation (similar to black panthers – these are actually leopards or jaguars (melanism occurs in both) with a gene mutation that gave them very dark pigmentation). This attractive mutation, which would have quite possibly been extinguished in nature due to drawing increased interest from predators than their more drably colored carp brethren, was keenly latched onto by people and selective breeding for white-red koi began in 1888.

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Kohaku Varieties & How to Identify Them 

three kohaku koi varieties
Kohaku koi come in many varieties, with their red-white coloration thought to have originated from a gene mutation. KoiQuestion / CC BY-SA 2.0

Though all Kohaku must possess porcelain-like white skin (called Shiro) with red to red-orange markings (Hi) atop it, there are many different varieties of Kohaku that encompass various types of patterns and arrangements.

Varieties According to “Hi” – Red Markings on the Body

1) Straight Hi

Most of the head and body are covered by connected red, or Hi. This is a continuous pattern that typically forms a largely straight line of red from head to tail. Straight Hi can also appear like large masses or islands of red that are connected along the back and head.

2) Inazuma

Inazuma is another continuous pattern of red running from head to tail, but this one is in a zig-zag shape. It’s often referred to as a “lightning bolt” pattern. This pattern became popularized in 1970, when a koi with this pattern won the All Nippon Show, a popular koi competition that’s no longer around.

3) Nidan

Meaning “two” in Japanese, Nidan consists of two patches of red, sometimes called “stepping stone,” that are not connected. Typically, one island is located toward the head or base of the head, while the other is closer to the tail. Sometimes, a koi is considered Nidan if the islands are on opposite sides of the dorsal fins, though this is less commonly accepted.

4) Sandan

Sandan translates to “three” in Japanese, and means that the koi has three islands of red that are not connected. These must be located dorsally running from the tail to the head.

5) Goten Sakura

Translating approximately to “cherry blossom,” koi of this sub-breed of a spotted or dappled red appearance. Each red spot resembles a cherry blossom in shape, though they can sometimes be more round like a large berry or grape.

Varieties According to Red Markings on the Head

1) Kuchibeni

Quite an interesting an unmistakable pattern, Kuchibeni Kohaku have red markings around their mouth. This is often referred to as the “lipstick” pattern. Red can encompass the entire mouth, or just part of it.

2) Menkaburi

Menkaburi translates loosely from Japanese to “face mask” or “hooded head.” Koi with this pattern have a large red patch that covers the top of their head like a hood. The red must extend below and behind the eyes to part of the neck, and may also reach the mouth.

3) Maruten


The translation for Maruten is a bit rough, but koi with this pattern have a red spot on the head that is called a “crown.” There are also other red patches on the rest of the body, with variable patterning.

4) Tancho

Kohaku koi of the Tancho variety have a “red sun” marking, or a single round red patch on the top of the head between the eyes. Unlike the other sub-breeds, this is the only red portion – the rest of the body is white.

5) Hanatsuke

Hanatsuke koi will have a red patch on their neck or the base of the head that appears to run or bleed upward toward the head. It doesn’t cover the entire head, but rather runs into a strip between the eyes.

How to Appreciate & Judge Kohaku Koi 

how to judge kohaku koi
Kohaku with red that extends below the lateral line, onto the tail, or onto the fins would be eliminated from competition by judges.

The judging of Kohaku depends somewhat on the location and the judges themselves. In Japan, judging can be more subjective and having been in the koi industry for so long, some judges may have a bit of bias based on bloodline.

For example, it’s possible that a judge in Japan may ignore some physical characteristics if they recognize an expensive or old bloodline. So a fish may lost in Japan for being less expensive, but could win elsewhere based on other factors. Oftentimes, the exact criteria are adjusted based on the judges. An example of the judging process of several Kohaku, and the associated nuances, can be found here.

General Guidelines for Judging Kohaku

How to care for Kohaku koi
Although rules can vary, generally the Hi, or red portion(s), should begin on the head and end on (or before) the caudal peduncle. KoiQuestion/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Overall, though, there are generally a particular set of guidelines that are followed when appreciating and judging Kohaku koi. These differ depending on the class of Kohaku – continuous patterns, like straight Hi Kohaku, are judged differently from step patterns, such as Sandan Kohaku.

Regardless of whether the pattern is continuous or disconnected, the Hi, or red portion(s), must begin somewhere on the head and end on (or before) the caudal peduncle. The caudal peduncle is the narrow area where the tail fin connects to the body. The Shiro, or white, portions should be quite white, not off-white.

The fish should not have any abnormalities, such as missing fins, misshapen mouth, or bruises (unless they were accidentally caused during transportation). Kohaku should also not have any parasites, ulcers, or other forms of illness.

Pattern Symmetry 

kohaku koi judging
Symmetry is important, with the Hi plates arrangement being balanced and fairly symmetrical. KoiQuestion/ CC BY-SA 2.0

Symmetry is also of great importance. The way that the Hi plates are arranged from front to back and side to side should be balanced and fairly symmetrical (not strictly symmetrical) – patterns that only exist on one side of the spine will lend a lopsided appearance, and are likely to be judged lower. Patterns that are unique are also favored. The fish should also have a proportional, symmetrical head with proportional, symmetrical fins.

Furthermore, Hi plates should not extend below the lateral line of the fish’s head or back – this means that any red markings shouldn’t spread past or below the ribs, approximately. Instead, they should be located relatively high atop the head or back. An exception to this is the Kuchibeni Kohaku, which has red around its mouth. All Kohaku must have at least some Hi on the head. An entirely red or entirely white head will almost certainly be rejected by judges.

The amount of Hi is also important. Generally, the more distinct and larger the red markings, the greater the fish is rated. Even varieties, such as Tancho, that only have one red spot must still have that single area be distinct and vibrant. Whether orange or more of a cherry red doesn’t usually matter (depending on the judge), so long as the color is the same on all of the Hi plates of the fish.

Continuous Patterns

Kohaku with continuous patterns should have no breaks whatsoever in the Hi – all Hi markings should be somehow connected. Some judges prefer the Hi to have wavy, rather than straight, edges for greater visual appeal and distinctiveness. This is because Omoyo patterns (this is where the red covers the back entirely and most of the head) can appear somewhat boring and lack much visual interest.

Step Patterns

Each spot of red should be pretty evenly spaced from one another on the body, and be mostly uniformly rounded in shape. If the spot exists on one side of the spine, it should extend to encompass the other side of the spine to the same degree.

The dorsal fin should never be red, always white, as this is gauged as more “elegant.” This part depends somewhat on the judge, but generally the largest Hi plate should be the one located more centrally on the body (typically the second or third spot) – not the one on the head or closer to the tail. The smallest spot should be at the tail, just before the caudal peduncle.

Keeping Kohaku – Health, Growth & Diet

kohaku koi black spots water quality
Kohaku koi exposed to hard water or high pH levels can develop non-harmful black spots.

1) Kohaku Water Quality

Kohaku koi are more obviously sensitive to water quality parameters. We say “obviously” because you will be able to visually tell by looking at your Kohaku if your parameters are off. For example, a diet too high in color enhancers, like spirulina, will cause the white portions of the fish to take on more of a yellow tint. It can also cause off-color spotting in the red areas. Water that is too hard or has a high pH can lead to the development of black specks on Kohaku, while soft water lends to increased Hi.

A study conducted to assess the differing water quality needs of different types of koi found that Kohaku do indeed require slightly altered conditions than do other varieties. According to the study (when opening the link, be sure to select “article PDF” to see the full study), Kohaku needs are best met when water temperature is between 25 & 28° C (77-82.4° F), pH is between 7.5 & 8.5, dissolved oxygen is above 7 parts per million (ppm), salinity is kept very low between .05 & .15 parts per trillion (ppt), and 75 to 100 ppm of total dissolved solids (TTDS), such as metals, minerals, salts, and sulfates.

2) Price of Kohaku

If you’re considering purchasing a Kohaku, keep in mind that they are often more expensive fish. Their greater water quality needs (covered below) must also be taken into consideration, as you’ll need to have proper filtration and aeration features in place.

3) Kohaku Temperature

Though lacking solid scientific evidence to back this up, some argue that water temperature plays a role in the appearance of Kohaku. Apparently, colder water lends to Kohaku with darker red coloration, while warmer waters lend to a more orange-red Hi. As mentioned previously, Kohaku prefer water temperatures between 25 & 28° C, or 77 to 82.4° F.

4) Kohaku Gender

If coloration is of great importance to you, the sex of the Kohaku should be considered. Simply due to hormones, male Kohaku tend to develop their red coloration earlier in development, but it will also fade more quickly as they age. Females, however, usually take longer to fully acquire their Hi, but will maintain it more consistently later in life.

5) Kohaku Diet

To help develop and maintain healthy coloration, Kohaku koi are often fed diets with color enhancers, such as those containing spirulina or krill, as well as those with ample (>30%) protein to aid in proper growth. These are of lesser importance if you don’t wish to show your fish at shows. Otherwise, though, the dietary needs of Kohaku are much the same as most other koi.

How to Breed Kohaku Koi For Color & Pattern

how to breed kohaku koi
Breeding kohaku can be a gamble, as the offspring can be very different from the parent fish. KoiQuestion/ CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re looking to breed your Kohaku for the purpose of obtaining a specific sub-variety or coloration type, do keep in mind that this can be tricky.

A study conducted in 1980 on Kohaku koi, and subsequent follow-up study conducted in 2003, found that the development trait of Kohaku coloring depends on a multitude of genes (polygenic) and is quantitative (as most inherited traits are). Boiled down, this means that the white alleles are dominant, while the alleles responsible for red coloration are regressive – so to obtain a Kohaku koi with somewhat strong red coloring, at least one parent will also have to possess strong red coloration. The more red in the parents, the more likely the offspring will be to have a mix of white and red coloring. Using one parent that is entirely white in color and one that is entirely red results in a timeframe of about three generations before the offspring have typical Kohaku coloring.

Furthermore, if you wish to have a specific variety, such as Tancho, for example, there’s always a significant chance that even breeding with two Tancho parents will yield offspring that look entirely different. A very basic Punnett square shows a few of the possibilities, with R meaning red head (in reference to the red spot on the head of Tancho Kohaku), while W means white body. White is the dominant color allele, always, meaning it’s more likely to be selected when present over the allele(s) responsible for red coloration.

kohaku koi breeding genetics
Image Copyright © Pond Informer.

The results of this rudimentary genetic prediction show that the offspring have a 25% chance of being entirely red, a 25% chance of having a red head and a white body, a 25% chance of having a white head and red body, and a 25% chance of being entirely white. This only takes into account two factors – there are many more involved, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, so certainly do not take the above figure as an absolute measure by any means. This is just to give you an idea that obtaining the exact features that you want is rather complicated.

What is the Cost of Kohaku & Where to Buy Kohaku?

buy kohaku koi for sale
Common kohaku are fairly affordable, but large show winning kohaku can cost thousands. randychiu / CC BY-SA 2.0

Most pond-quality koi run somewhere between $10 and $100 (about 7 to 76£). Kohaku koi tend to be more expensive due to the selective and careful breeding needed to obtain distinct varieties. Depending on where you get them, and whether or not bloodline, or “show quality,” is of concern to you, Kohaku can be as little as $15 (11.4£) or several thousand dollars or pounds.

Straight Hi Kohaku tend to be on the cheaper end, while Kohaku with more distinct patterns such as Ginrin, Tancho, and Hanatsuke are more expensive as breeding to select for those traits is often more difficult. You can expect to spend an average of a couple of hundred dollars or pounds for most Kohaku, particularly if you want to start off with a larger fish.

Saving money is always nice, but consider that oftentimes very cheap koi, regardless of the variety, may have originated from mass fish-farms and could have health issues. Certainly do your own research, though, to find what works best for you in terms of variety and price!

Kohaku can be purchased from some physical stores, but are most easily obtained via online outlets. Be sure to do plenty of research on each company, though, to ensure ethical treatment of the fish and safe shipping standards.

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