Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

Ryo: Summer memories of kingyo-sukui goldfish scooping

Good as gold

Memories of childhood summers in Japan inevitably involve three things: fireworks, watermelon, and kingyo-sukui — the challenge of scooping up live goldfish with a paper ladle at a summer festival stall. Those goldfish carried proudly home never lived very long, and perhaps that’s why the experience remains so keenly felt.

From left: With crimson tops contrasting regally against white, Tancho fish are named after the red-crowned crane; these Sarasa Ryukin specimens, of the Wakin variety, sport their calico look as a result of mutation. Their elegant tail fins sway in the water like oversized fans. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION
From left: With crimson tops contrasting regally against white, Tancho fish are named after the red-crowned crane; these Sarasa Ryukin specimens, of the Wakin variety, sport their calico look as a result of mutation. Their elegant tail fins sway in the water like oversized fans. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION

Kingyozaka, in Tokyo’s Hongo district, is a goldfish shop with a mission. Tomoko Yoshida, the seventh-generation owner, says she’d like more people to have a “here and now” relationship with these scarlet beauties. Complete with an adjacent cafe where you can commune with the fish over coffee, the 350-year-old shop is one of the few remaining Tokyo retailers specializing in goldfish. More than 40 different varieties swim placidly in ceramic pots and other vessels lined up outside, and throughout, the place.

From left: Their bulging eyes may seem humorous, but Suihogan with large symmetrical peepers are highly prized; named for their endearing shape, these Ping-pong Pearl beauties swim along rather clumsily, which only adds to their charm. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION
From left: Their bulging eyes may seem humorous, but Suihogan with large symmetrical peepers are highly prized; named for their endearing shape, these Ping-pong Pearl beauties swim along rather clumsily, which only adds to their charm. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION

Brought to Japan from China in 1502, goldfish were domesticated from Prussian carp that had turned red through gene mutation. Arriving in Edo from Sakai, they were bred selectively for color and shape. Goldfish were a rare luxury at first, but we know from their frequent depiction in ukiyo-e prints that by the mid-Edo Period (1603-1868) they had become popular pets, kept with loving care within the home in basins and bowls.

From left: Often found in ukiyo-e prints, these striking Ranchu specimens have round bodies with no dorsal fins and heads that grow bumpy as they age; some Wakin, the original Japanese breed, mutated to sport a three-pronged tail fin. They are loved for their dynamic red-and-white patterns. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION
From left: Often found in ukiyo-e prints, these striking Ranchu specimens have round bodies with no dorsal fins and heads that grow bumpy as they age; some Wakin, the original Japanese breed, mutated to sport a three-pronged tail fin. They are loved for their dynamic red-and-white patterns. | COURTESY OF KATEIGAHO INTERNATIONAL JAPAN EDITION

Nowadays, goldfish are more likely placed in well-equipped tanks, which forces us to view their world from the side. Edoites, however, enjoyed watching their fish from above — a fresh perspective that you may wish to try.

“In the summer,” says Yoshida, “it’s cooling to take an occasional peek into the bowl and see your goldfish swaying happily there. Come winter, that water-filled bowl is a great natural humidifier, too.” Indeed, the wisdom of Edo swims on to this day.

This is the final installment of a four-part series on ryo that focuses on traditional ways to mitigate the heat of a Japanese summer.