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Koi Varieties - Matsukawabake

In the previous few blogs in our ‘Koi Varieties’ series, we talked about the Kumonryu, Kikokuryu and the Ginga koi which are all white koi with black patterns that constantly change over the lifetime of the fish. To read about these koi, have a look at our 'Koi Varieties' blog section:

Today we will look at the final koi in this group, the Matsukawabake koi which is the scaled and non-Doitsu variety of the group.

Gin Rin Matsukawabake koi from breeder Tanaka

Matsukawabake (math-SOO-kah-wah-BAHK-keh) koi were originally created from a desire to produce more variations of the changing sumi (black) pattern seen in Kumonryu and Kikokuryu koi as these koi have been incredibly popular with koi keepers across the world. The Matsukawabake koi was also created in an attempt to improve the stabilisation of the sumi pattern as the sumi is a lot more stable in older Kumonryu koi than in any Kikokuryu koi. We will talk more about what this means later on.

The attempt was very successful quite early on, with many koi breeders producing similar results within only a few generations by pairing a Kumonryu koi with a Shiro Utsuri koi (a black and white non-metallic, scaled koi). This pairing resulted in a koi that looked like the Shiro Utsuri with no metallic skin and fully scaled but it also had the desired changing sumi pattern of the Kumonryu. Meaning, that over a Matsukawabake koi’s lifetime, it can be fully white, fully black, and anything in between! This pattern is particularly desirable to many koi keepers because the fish is constantly changing sometimes the change can be very rapid, other times the change is very slow. Regardless, it is always interesting the look in a pond with one of these fish and see what is happening to the pattern.

Henka Sumi

This changing sumi that we have talked about in some of our previous blogs is referred to by the Japanese breeders as ‘Henka Sumi’ (HENH-kar SOO-me) and literally translates as ‘Changing Black’. The Henka Sumi specifically refers to a temporary pattern where each scale is changing from a light phase, when it is white or light grey, to a dark phase, when it is black, and back again. While each scale has a light and dark phase, we also refer to the whole fish as having a light or dark phase. When a koi is in its dark phase, the fish is mostly black with the majority of its individual scales in their dark phase. Meanwhile, when a fish is in its light phase, most of the scales are in their light phases.

Matsukawabake koi from breeder Yamanaka Ohya. This koi is in its light phase.

It is unknown exactly what causes one of these koi to change between phases – often, they appear to change for no reason whatsoever! There are a few proven reasons why these fish change and one such reason is water temperature. In fact, a change in temperature can often cause the most drastic and the fastest change in the sumi pattern. In colder water, it can often be observed that the koi have a darker pattern and are in their dark phase while, in warmer water, the koi usually appear to be lighter and are in their light phase. For some fish in particular, it is possible to move them from colder water to warm water and watch them change phases in a matter of hours! Of course, some fish will change much slower, but the change is still dramatic for every koi with Henka Sumi, regardless of how long it takes!

The Henka Sumi was created along with the Kumonryu variety that we talked about last week and from this variety, the Kikokuryu, Ginga and Matsukawabake koi were all created. What is particularly interesting, as we mentioned above, is that the Henka Sumi is relatively stable in the Kumonryu, the original Henka Sumi variety, in that eventually, the pattern will stabilise and one day the koi just will stop changing and keep a consistent pattern for the rest of their life. Then, with each new variety created with the Henka Sumi, the pattern became less and less likely to stabilise to the point where no recorded Ginga or Matsukawabake koi have ever stabilised but a small number of Kikokuryu koi and a larger number of older Kumonryu koi have stabilised. The reasons behind this are still unknown but the trend is leaving breeders wary to create more varieties with Henka Sumi until we know more about the pattern and what causes it.

The Kumonryu, Kikokuryu, Ginga and Matsukawabake koi are all very closely related, and they all have the same black and white pattern with the Henka Sumi, they just each have different scale or skin types. We’ve put together a quick reference table below on the left so you can quickly see what each variety refers to and a genealogy chart below on the right so you can see how each variety is related to the others.

Genealogy Tree (left) and Skin/Scale Type Reference Table (right) for koi with Henka Sumi

Pongoi (Best Quality) Matsukawabake Koi

Like the other koi in this group, the Kumonryu, Kikokuryu and Ginga koi, the pattern of a Matsukawabake koi is impossible to judge. This is because the Henka Sumi is constantly changing and therefore the shape cannot be judged.

Beni Matsukawabake koi from breeder Oofuchi. This koi is a cross between a Matsukawabake and a Kohaku koi.

The colour quality of the shiro (white) and the sumi, however, can be judged. The shiro base colour should be a beautiful snow-white with no areas of dull colour or faded colour. The sumi pattern should be a deep, dark black with a consistent shade all over. Both colours should be clean, meaning that they have no individual scales out of place. For example, if the shiro had a single scale of sumi, we would say that the shiro was not clean. Of course, with the sumi pattern constantly moving and changing, small imperfections like this are very hard to see as they can often be hidden under the sumi pattern.

Especially in young koi, it is acceptable to have a slight blue tinge to the shiro as this can come from two sources. The first reason is the Shusui ancestor which is a blue koi, and the second source is from sumi under the skin in koi that have not yet fully developed. Most importantly, the colours should both be clean and have a consistent white, blue or black shade all over the body and the kiwa (edges) should be a crisp and clear as possible with no blurring or bleeding of colours at the kiwa.

This concludes our set of blogs regarding koi with the Henka Sumi pattern. If you would like to read more about Kumonryu, Kikokuryu or Ginga koi, the other koi varieties with Henka Sumi have a look here:

To browse our current stock of Matsukawabake koi, see here:

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1 Comment

Christopher Obrien
Sep 25, 2023

Do you want to credit John Fornaro of Hanover Koi Farms for creating the term "Henka Sumi"? It'd be good of you to credit your sources.

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