It was cold and the sky was threatening to burst open at any minute. I tried to ignore the dark clouds, re-wrapping my black wool scarf so that it prevented the wind from getting to my neck. There were only five tourists left in the back of the garden, fussing over their cameras and talking loudly in a language that I did not understand.
I shifted impatiently on the hard stone bench. The gates of the ornamental gardens were closing soon and I really wanted a chance to get the perfect shot without causing an international incident.
Finally, after about 10 more minutes of waiting in the growing cold, the last of the people cleared out and I was finally alone. Standing, I walked quickly over a red bridge to a path covered by an elaborately carved wooden pagoda. A few more steps brought me to the edge of a murky pond, covered in lily pads.
The water was dark and still.
Looking around to make sure that I was really alone, I got my camera ready and, holding on to one of the wooden pillars of the pagoda, I leaned over and spit into the pond.
Ripples moved out from where my spit hit the water and in an instant the surface of the pond was awash with color and movement.
They koi had risen.
Koi or nishikigoi are ornamental varieties of the common carp and are most commonly found in ponds or water gardens, especially ornamental Japanese gardens. In Japan, they are said to represent love, affection and good luck.
The koi tattoo has a slightly different meaning however. There is a legend that says if a koi fish successfully swims up a waterfall at a point along the Yellow River called Dragon Gate, it will be transformed into a dragon. Tattoos usually reference this legend making the fish a symbol of overcoming adversity, attaining goals, strength and courage.
These fish can be extremely valuable, some worth thousands of dollars and are famous for the fact that they have an extremely long lifespan. A famous scarlet koi named ‘Hanako’ (c. 1751-1977) supposedly lived for 226 years, based on examinations done on its scales after it died.
Their fame and value was one of the reasons that I was sure people would not take kindly to me spitting at them just to get a photo. It could have been worse… I could have thrown food or rocks into the water and risked hurting one of them.
After getting all of the photos I needed, I made my way quickly back through the elaborate garden and through the high stone gate just as the clouds burst.
I’m not going to lie, I was tempted to run back in — if the ripples created by my spit made the koi rise to the surface, imagine the chaos that would be created by raindrops!