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Koi Varieties - Gosanke Koi Carp

Welcome to another instalment of 'Koi Varieties', a series of blogs in which we will be looking at the many types of koi that we stock at our premises in South Wales. Today we are looking at Gosanke koi and what it means for a variety of fish to be a 'gosanke'.

Kohaku from breeder Maruhiro

Gosanke (goh-SAHN-keh) is a Japanese word literally meaning ‘three families’ and is used to refer to the biggest three of something. For example, the Imperial Hotel, Hotel Okura and Hotel New Otani Tokyo are often called the gosanke hotels of Tokyo as they are the three greatest hotels in Tokyo. The word originated around 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa clan of Japan which ruled the country from 1603-1867. Tokugawa decided to split the clan into three branches, or houses, called Owari, Kii and Mito with each branch being run by one of Tokugawa’s sons. Together, these three branches were called the gosanke. Even after the fall of the Tokugawa clan and the abolition of the three branches, the houses still exist due to their historical value with each branch still having a ‘Head of the House’ today. Ever since the three branches were set up, the term gosanke has been used to refer to the big three of a group and we still use this term today in relation to koi fish.

Showa from breeder Maruhiro

When you think of a koi fish, most people will imagine a fish with some combination of red, white, and maybe black colouration. This is because these colourations are very well established in the koi world and have been bred for a very long time. Therefore, the gosanke of the koi world are the Kohaku, Sanke and Showa varieties because they are the traditional koi varieties and usually rated as the best koi. In fact, in the biggest koi competition, the All Japan Koi Show, a gosanke variety of koi has won every year since 1966! It is important to note that this success of the gosanke varieties is not just due to the traditional colouration and markings but also to the large size and best shape of the individuals entered. The reason that the gosanke koi often have the best shape and the largest size is simply because they are so well-established. The colouration of the three varieties have been the same for generations so gosanke breeders have been able to focus their breeding efforts on the size and body shape, therefore consistently breeding show winners.

If you are familiar with koi varieties, you may argue that the Chagoi variety of koi is also a well-established, traditional koi variety so why is it not included in the gosanke? You would certainly be correct but, first of all, gosanke refers to the ‘three families’, not the ‘four families’. Also, most importantly, many breeders and judges consider Chagoi to be a less challenging variety to breed due to their solid colouration as opposed to the particular markings of each of the gosanke. For this reason, Chagoi koi do not tend to score as well at competitions as Kohaku, Sanke or Showa. We will look more at Chagoi koi in a future 'Koi Varieties' article.

Tancho Sanke from breeder Oofuchi

You may be wondering if all the gosanke are equal or if one of the three varieties is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the others. Often this is just a subjective matter, every breeder, owner and retailer has their favourite of the gosanke. But, if you had one of each equally perfect gosanke koi in terms of body shape, size and patterns, which one would win a competition? Which one would be more valuable? From a competition perspective, the judges will always choose the fish that looks the best on the day. But when all three fish are equally beautiful, the rarity will be judged next. In this case, the Sanke will be the winning koi. This is because Sanke koi are the hardest to breed of the three meaning that there are much fewer breeders, and therefore fewer high-grade koi, of the Sanke variety than there are of the Kohaku and Showa varieties. From a value perspective, the highest value fish will always be the fish that is most in demand. At the moment, the most popular variety of the three is the Showa koi resulting in almost every koi breeder breeding some Showa koi. Interestingly, 20 years ago, the Showa was the rarest koi while the Kohaku was the most in-demand and therefore most valuable koi. Certainly, the power balance of the gosanke koi has changed over the years and it will only continue to change, making it a very interesting trend to watch.

Look out for the next instalment in our 'Koi Varieties' series, which will focus on the Kohaku variety!

Have a look at our current stock of Gosanke koi here:

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