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.
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.
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.
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.