Complete Guide to Koi Types, Koi Breeds & Koi Varieties 2021 [Updated]
The history of koi fish is as colorful and interesting as the koi themselves!
The koi fish is thought to date all the way back to 200 B.C., when the Chinese invaded Japan and brought with them the common carp (Cyprinus carpio). For centuries, they were only used as a food source by the Japanese. When rice farmers began to notice that their carp sometimes showed random colorful mutations, however, they began to selectively breed them around the 4th century. Thus, the modern Japanese koi fish was born.
Today, there are an impressive 13 primary categories and over one hundred different subcategories of koi breeds. Because of their colorful patterns and wide variety of variations, they have become both significant in Japanese culture and valuable to hobbyists and breeders.
“It begins with Kohaku and ends with Kohaku,” as many koi hobbyists say!
When you think of koi fish, the chances are you are thinking of at least one of the three Gosanke breeds. Gosanke means “the three families” in Japanese. This term is used to reference three things that best represent a category. In the world of koi, it refers to Kohaku, Taisho Sanshoku, and Showa Sanshoku. These three are the most important, popular, and award-winning breeds of koi because of their long reputation for having the best color, size, and shape.
Kohaku are one of the oldest and most popular breeds of koi fish available. They are recognizable by their pure white body and bright red markings (hi). The name Kohaku means “amber” in Japanese, which describes its beautiful, fiery markings. There are a lot of different varieties of Kohaku with different patterns of hi. A few of these varieties include the Nidon Kohaku, Sandan Kohaku, and Tancho Kohaku.
Kohaku are typically judged by the brightness of their colors and the crispness of the edges of their hi. A good Kohaku will have an unblemished, pure white base with crisp, consistent orange-ish red hi. The exact shade of the hi isn’t so important, so long as it’s all uniformly the same shade. The Kohaku should also be large and plump, a tell-tale sign of a healthy fish.
The exact origins of the Kohaku is up to speculation, but it is widely accepted that they were created by breeding a white female with a red head and a white male with a cherry blossom pattern. Another theory as that this white and red coloration came about as a result of an accidental gene mutation in the 1880s, and was so unique and attractive that people began selectively breeding for it.
Also known as Taisho Sanke, or just simply Taisho or Sanke, this breed is named after the era of Japan they were created in — the Taisho Era (1912-1926AD). When koi breeders began noticing small, splotchy, black spots on the backs of their Kohaku, they began to selectively breed for them. These spots eventually became what we know today as sumi.
A koi fish having three colors is referred to as Sanshoku. The Taisho is just that, consisting of red, white, and black colors. A good quality Taisho will have an unblemished, pure white base with consistent orangish-red hi. Additionally, its sumi should be black as ink and relatively evenly spaced about its body. It does not matter if the sumi are on the red (called Tsubo Sumi) or on the white (called Kasane Sumi), although there should be no sumi markings on the head whatsoever.
The Showa is one of the youngest koi fish varieties. It wasn’t fully perfected until 1965 during the Showa era of Japan, after which it was named. The Showa came about in 1927. A breeder by the name of Jukichi Hoshino crossed a Kohaku (white and red coloration) with a ki utsuri (yellow with black bands). Showa didn’t gain much steam initially, as the yellow of the ki utsuri bestowed the resulting Showa offspring with dull, off-color reds and whites.
It wasn’t really until the 1960’s when another breeder, Tomiji Kobayashi, paired his Showas with Kohakus possessing intensely red coloration, resulting in more attractive Showas now commonly known as Kobayashi Showa. This line is what most modern Showas are based off of, and is commonly referred to as the old style Showa.
Showa have a black body with white (shiro) and red markings. A good quality Showa will be predominately black with very little white to accent it. Their hi should be bright and vibrant with crisp edges. The sumi should blend into their fins, called motoguro. A very sought-after pattern on a Showa is a sumi blaze on their head. It can be very difficult to breed high quality Showa because their patterns constantly change throughout their juvenile stage and do not become permanent until adulthood.
It can be difficult to tell apart the Showa and the Sanke because they look so similar, but fear not! There are many ways to tell them apart, but just remember this telltale sign: a Showa will always have more black than a Sanke, and if there is black on the head it’s a Showa!
The Chagoi is a gentle giant, known for greeting its owners when approached and even eating out of people’s hands!
This particular breed of koi fish will grow to huge sizes quicker than most due to its enormous appetite. Most adults will grow up to 40″ or more. As a general rule, if a young Chagoi is well-built and robust, it will mean that it will grow to be very big as an adult.
The Chagoi is named after the Japanese word for “tea” because the most valuable and sought after Chagoi will be a nice, milky tea color (light tan). However, they can come in many different shades of brown and sometimes even green. Some popular types of Chagoi are the Rootbeer Chagoi (reddish brown), Green Chagoi (pale green), and Brown Chagoi (ranges from light to dark brown).
Different colors will be judged according to their own category and will have their own unique personalities/qualities. But overall, a good quality Chagoi will have an even coloring, a large and plump body, and have scales that line up with each other.
All koi fish have great cultural significance in Japan, however, the Tancho has taken it to a different level. Not only do they blatantly look like the Japanese flag, but they are also named after the sacred red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis), known as “tancho” in Japanese. These cranes are fabled to live over a thousand years and are a symbol of good luck and fidelity.
Tanchos are one of the rarest breeds of koi fish because they cannot be specifically bred for. This is because they are technically Kohaku, Taisho, or Showa that happened to be born with only one red spot on its head rather than an entire overlaying pattern (hi).
Selectively breeding for them is incredibly difficult as there are a multitude of genetic alleles responsible for koi coloration and pattern, so this variety is often highly sought after due to its rarity and inability to be bred consistently or in great numbers, even amongst the Gosanke varieties. If you wish to have a specific variety of koi, such as Tancho, there’s always a significant chance that even breeding with two Tancho parents will yield offspring that look entirely different.
All Tancho koi will have the signature red spot, but their body coloring will vary depending on the parent variety. Their bodies can be either pure white (Tancho Kohaku), white with small black spots (Tancho Sanke), or white with large black bands (Tancho Showa). A perfect Tancho will have a pure white base, ink-black sumi spots, and a crimson red spot on in the center of its head. It is acceptable for this spot to come as an oval, heart, or diamond shape, but the circle is the most popular.
The Utsuri, also known as Utsurimono is a variety derived from the Showa. It took nearly 65 years to perfect the Utsuri, but the results were arguably worth the wait!
The Utsuri is a stunning koi fish variety known for its high contrasting pattern of sumi and one other emphasis color. Currently, there are only three different kinds of Utsuri. Shiro Utsuri is black and white, Hi Utsuri is black and red, and Ki Utsuri is black and yellow.
A good quality Utsuri will have ink-black sumi and a rich emphasis color – be it white, red, or yellow – with crisp edges. Ideally, they will have something called hachiware: black on one side of their head and an emphasis color on the other. Although breeders can breed eye-catching Utsuri, they rarely win shows because they do not grow to show-worthy sizes.
Unlike many other koi varieties, the Asagi has subdued, muted coloring that is said to be an acquired taste. Nonetheless, they are one of the most popular in the koi community!
Asagi have metallic blueish-grey scales atop their back with a diamond-like scale pattern. On their sides, underside, and tail, they have bright red markings (hi) that pop in contrast to the rest of their muted bodies. Some Asagi have more red coloring than others (Hi Asagi), while others may have a white streak of color located between their grey scales and red hi (Taki Asagi).
It is very difficult to breed a flawless Asagi. A good quality Asagi will have a pure white head, but more often than not they are born with grey heads. Their hi should be symmetrical and should be well-defined with no scattered pigmentation on the other colors of its body. Many breeders also desire their Asagi to have red eyes rather than the standard black which is only eliant on a gene mutation.
A unique (and spooky) trait that Asagi have is they are often born with see-through skin on their heads that allows you to see their skull. Luckily enough, they always grow out of it.
The Bekko is a variety known for its simplicity. They can come in three sifferent base colors: white (Shiro Bekko), red (Aka Bekko), and yellow (Ki Bekko). The Shiro Utsuri is the most common, whereas the Ki Bekko is the most rare.
On top of their base color, the Bekko has scattered–but balanced– black spots (sumi) running down its back. A good quality Bekko will have bright, vibrant colors, ink-black sumi, and preferably a pure white head. Its sumi should begin right at the shoulder and continue down to the tail. It is also desirable for them to have blue eyes.
It should be noted that if a Shiro Bekko has any red markings whatsoever, it is automatically classified as a Sanke even if it is just a tiny speck. Likewise, the same logic applies if a Ki or Aka Bekko have any white markings on them.
In the koi world, it is possible for a koi fish to not have any scales. This characteristic is called Doitsu, and the Shusui was the first of its kind!
Shusui were created by crossbreeding a Doitsugoi (scaleless German carp) with an Asagi and the result was essentially just an Asagi without scales. This may not seem exciting because it is possible for any variety of koi to be Doitsu; however, the Shusui is notable because of its history as the first successful Doitsu breed and because, along with Asagi, they are the only other koi fish variety with blue coloring.
Since Shusui are scaleless fish, they can better show off their unique coloring. Just like the Asagi, they have a blue pattern on their backs, red (hi) running along their sides, and white (shiro) in between. A good quality Shusui will have good symmetry along the lateral line of their backs as well as hi on their cheeks, head, fins, and of course, along their sides.
The word koromo means “robed” in Japanese, which perfectly describes the unique coloration on the Koromo’s scales.
The Koromo variation was created by breeding a male Kohaku with a female Asagi. Therefore, the Koromo has red (hi) markings typical of a Kohaku with the indigo tint of an Asagi on the tips of its scales. They can be Ai Koromo (red and white), Koromo Sanshoku (red and white with small black spots), Koromo Showa (red and white with large black spots), among a few others.
A good quality Koromo should have a nice underlaying Kohaku pattern with a crescent-shaped indigo tint on their scales. This tint should be arranged in an orderly manner and only ever appear on their hi. This tint may grow darker with age, which may become much too overpowering for it to be considered good quality as it grows.
It is very hard to breed a good Koromo because of all of these specific qualifications.
Goshiki translates to “five-colored” in Japanese, in reference to Goshiki koi being a combination of black, red, white, brown/grey, and blue. A true Goshiki should have a white base with Kohaku-like hi patterning, accented by a reticulated (or net-like) pattern of black, blue, and grey or brown. Their hi plates should be incredibly bright and bold, while their fins should always be completely white. Oftentimes, the reticulated colors run and blend together, so being able to distinguish five different colors is a bit of a stretch in most Goshiki.
Goshiki koi were initially bred in the early 1900s but their exact lineage is somewhat contested. Some believe the first Goshiki was bred by breeding a Sanke to obtain vivid white and red coloration with an Asagi to obtain the colorful reticulations. Another commonly held theory is that an Asagi was bred with a Kohaku. Genetic studies seem to point to the latter.
12) Kin Gin Rin
Kin Gin Rin is not actually a particular variety of koi, but rather refers to a scale type. Kin Gin Rin translates approximately to “golden silver reflective scales,” and references the koi’s metallic, shiny, reflective scales. Within this, there are two sub-types: Gin Rin koi have silvery or shiny white scales, while Kin Rin koi have scales with a reflective golden or sometimes bronze hue. The cause of these diamond-like scales is the presence of a crystalline pigment known as guanine, which exist naturally in some fish as a means of helping them blend in with water and be less obvious to predators. Koi breeders discovered this and selectively chose to bring out this trait in Kin Gin Rin koi.
To be considered a Kin Gin Rin koi, the fish must have a minimum of three full rows of metallic scales. Additionally, a Kin Gin Rin will have the exact same amount of metallic scales throughout its entire life. For this reason, this type of koi will appear to be brighter with more intense reflections when young than as an adult Kin Gin Rin. As the koi ages, skin starts to form around the scales, making them more spaced out. This is referred to as Furkurin. Sometimes, the skin itself has a metallic sheen (Hikari), lending to a fish that appears even more diamond-like than when it was young. This is often highly desirable in koi competitions.
All types of koi can possess Kin Gin Rin scales, including Kohaku, Chagoi, Showa, and any others.
Ogon are koi that possess only one solid color and the split into two primary categories: platinum and yamabuki. Platinum Ogon are solid, shiny silver-white in color, while yamabuki Ogon exist in warmer shades like gold, yellow, or bronze. Ogon koi can either be Doitsu (lacking scales) or Kin Gin Rin (metallic scales). A true Ogon should appear metallic and shiny, regardless of whether this is a result of Hikari (shiny skin) in the absence of scales, or Kin Gin Rin scales.
The Ogon koi is a relatively new variety compared to many others that were developed hundreds of years ago. Allegedly, in the 1910s, some children were playing by a river and caught a darkly colored carp with shiny scales. A local man, Sawata Aoki, took in the carp and devoted the next several decades to selectively breeding to obtain koi with entirely metallic bodies. It took him 25 years to create the first Ogon koi.
These are among some of the friendliest and most outgoing koi, making them a favorite among koi keepers even if they’re not entering competitions.