In Japan, the ranchu is undisputed king of goldfish, but there are two other, little known varieties which, if given the opportunity, may turn the heads of die-hard goldfish breeders and novices alike.
Fancy Goldfish are in a weird place right now. Declining on a global scale, they aren’t in fashion any more in warm countries, where fishkeepers there are selecting Flowerhorns, Siamese fighters, Parrot cichlids or even Asian Arowana instead. In colder countries like the UK they also face an image problem. Too big for small tanks, too frail and disease-ridden for beginners and due to exchange rates, now not cheap either. Over-developed and grotesque to many people too. But I re-discovered a variety this year which I think could change all that, being outdoor pond and disease hardy, reasonably priced, yet alluring enough to entice the collector or line breeder. Say hello to the Tamasaba.
Hailing from the Niigata Prefecture, Japan, Tamasaba share their home with the Japanese Koi Carp industry and the late great Takashi Amano. They are kept and bred by the Koi breeders themselves, on the same premises, and just like with their koi, the name and bloodline of the breeder goes a long way. I’d like to think it’s those same skilled eyes and hands that selected the world’s finest koi have also then selected their own Tamasaba. They live in the same water, are fed the same food and are even put out into mud ponds for conditioning. You’d pay four or five figures for Koi from those breeders but these cheeky little goldies get much of it for free.
What are they?
Rumours abound as to the parentage of Tamasaba. You’d be right in thinking they look like single tail Ryukin, and the story goes that they were created by crossing a Ryukin with a single tailed Syounai, now no longer available. The Ryukin is afterall a Japanese variety, named after the Ryukyu islands. The archetypal Tamasaba is a steep backed, deep bodied fish with a tall dorsal fin and usually, strong red and pure white colouration. Like their koi brethren the best fish have the strongest, most scarlet, stepped red pattern, like a Kohaku Koi pattern, divided neatly from the purest white body, and most if not of all of the high quality fish I have seen exclusively have all-white fins.
Little is written about them anywhere, even in Japanese goldfish books, and as far as I know there are no standards for them in the Western goldfish societies, where if presented on the bench they are shown as AOV – any other variety. And despite being Japanese, a tag which usually exudes pedigree and wonder in goldfish circles, the Tamasaba is viewed by many as a Ryukin cull – ie a single tail Ryukin, produced often in Ryukin spawnings, which are then selected out and killed off as they are not what was intended.
Then there is the Sabao. Usually mentioned in the same name, the Sabao I think is slightly different to the Tamasaba, having a more gently sloped back line (think Fantail verses Ryukin,) a more elongate body and shorter fins. Rumours are that the Sabao may be backcrossed again, this time with the Hibuna, a red and white Japanese common goldfish, but it may just be line breeding of the same Tamasaba fish. While researching both varieties I’ve seen smooth backed Sabao, Steep bodied Tamasaba, short and medium tailed Sabao and short, super short, medium, long, and very long finned Tamasaba. I’ve also seen all yellow fish and red, black and white fish.
A fish I kept as a child was the Nymph – another single tail Ryukin/fantail cull, although again with no standard available I am unclear as to if a Nymph has a single tail but a twin anal fin. If it’s single anal fin and single tail, the Nymph and Tamasaba are essentially the same thing, only the Nymph is a very low cost fish and viewed by many as worthless.
But unlike Ryukin, Sabao and Tamasaba are fully UK pond hardy and will live outdoors all year in unheated ponds. The single tail makes them agile swimmers, and even the long tailed fish are still miles faster swimmers than anything twin-tailed. Apart from plumper bellies, Sabao and Tamasaba are actually much more akin to Common goldfish and comets, than fancy varieties, and can be mixed with any other pond fish including koi, where they will enjoy the spacious accommodation and abundant food.
Tamasaba and Sabao are equally appealing when viewed from above in a pond or side-on through a glass aquarium. The tank will need to be big though as these can attain a body length of 30cm not including tails. This excludes them from all but the largest home aquaria long term, but a large tall tank containing a group of these large, tall fish only, looks very striking, and eye catching.
Where to get them from
Tamasaba come direct from Japan, and will travel with shipments of Koi from the breeders. This makes them the domain of the Koi specialists, who know the breeders, regularly travel to see them on koi buying trips and are set up with all the relevant health certificates in order to receive them. Not huge sellers, several koi importers have brought in the odd box here and there over the years as something different both for their customers and themselves to look at.
Working in the koi equipment industry, I bought mine from Tim Waddington at Quality Nishikigoi in Warrington. Tim has made over 60 trips to Japan over the years and knows all the breeders. Another side of his business – Koi Trips – takes groups of his customers over to Niigata to select their own koi direct from the breeder’s ponds. It was while he was over there that he bought a box of Tamasaba from Mr Matsunoske, breeder of the most famous Sanke (white koi with red and black markings) in the world..
I selected ten fish for fun, as I had some spare pond vats at home. The Matsunoske fish had come in as Tamasaba but definitely looked more Sabao, with gently curved backs and short fins. There was quite a variety though in the 100 or so fish I picked through, including some with very short bodies and short fins with steeper backs, some with medium length fins, and some with quite elongate bodies. Not knowing quite what to look for I selected a real mixture of short and long fish, short and medium tails and different patterns. I also selected fish with the most scarlet red colouration right through to anything with an interesting pattern, and a few with more white colouration. I let the koi experts Tim and Paul Birchall pick a few too, who picked out some fish with markings which they would find desirable in koi. I picked plump, ripe, lop-sided females and feisty, frisky males with ribbed pectoral fins with the knowledge that if I chose to breed them, I had lots of different stock in order to create my own line with traits of my choice.
Goldfish spawning notes
Having bred goldfish before my purchase of these fish was planned. First I placed the 5x4x1.5’ pond vats in a south facing position where they would receive morning sunlight and heat up throughout the day. I put the fish in with a water temperature of just 10C, which rose to 20C within the space of just one week. That combined with regular feeding was the perfect stimulus for spawning.
I lowered the water level to 8 inches. Ripe female goldfish only need a little squeeze in order to release their eggs, but they need something to be squeezed against. Shallow water helps with this, as does tieing any spawning mops so that the fish aren’t just pushing the mops around the tank instead of being squeezed up against them. It’s the males that actually do the squeezing of the female’s bellies, guiding them into position in the mops with those ribbed pectoral fins and then ideally with a male on each side of her, wriggling frantically, releasing eggs and sperm simultaneously.
I had split the ten fish into two groups of five to ease the filters and facilitate growth, but knew that I wanted the more males the merrier to get a big spawning from the females and importantly, fertilise the eggs. I dropped in two koi spawning brushes on a Saturday evening and by the next morning they were full of eggs.
I removed the mops to an aquarium containing a mature sponge filter and a heater set to 22C. I readied some live Artemia nauplii (newly hatched baby brine shrimp,) and a week later the fry hatched. For convenience I moved onto liquid fry food and instant, preserved baby brine shrimp after that. It never ceases to amaze me how what looks like few eggs can turn into so many hundreds of fry. They were difficult to count but I must have had at least 1000 5 mm long fry, if not more. I split them into tanks and then put them outside into two vats when they were slightly larger. I pre-conditioned the vats by letting the water go green, before adding a Daphnia culture and letting them bloom. Then the fry went in for a free feed, and are still there at the time or writing.
Culling is a very emotive subject, and one which isn’t often approached publicly. In it’s basic form it means selecting out the fish you don’t want to keep. What happens to the fish then varies from person to person. They could be put down by chemical means or otherwise, fed to something like an adult or predatory fish,(illegal in the UK) or simply sold off or given away to someone who will want to keep and raise them. The more fancy a variety, the more you tend to cull, so like with any dorsal-less variety like a ranchu for example, if you find one with a vestigial dorsal fin you would cull, or an asymmetrical twin tail you may cull.
For the squeamish amongst you (myself included,) I have good news. There is very little to cull for with Tamasaba as they already have a dorsal fin and single tail, which goldfish tend to default to when left to their own devices. At the time of writing my fry are all still bronze in colour so I can’t select for colour and pattern, but i’d say I’ve removed one or two with bent backs out of 1000. And I’ve kept two with twin, Ryukin tails, again, the only two in 1000 fry, just for fun, and to see what they turn out like. From them I picked the biggest, best 100 fish and moved them into a vat.
The new standard
The internet is a wonderful thing, and I’m sure that Tamasaba are growing in popularity. They have everything going for them including that Japanese goldfish moniker, so bred for quality, not quantity, they are coming from the best Koi breeders on the planet, so they know how to raise and select a good fish, they are hardy, and actually very good value versus their twin tailed counterparts.
I’d like to see more Tamasaba groups and societies, and even a show. Standards, no standards, I’m easy, as you’ll know a good fish when you see one. There’s a definite trend for super short tail fish in japan, but the long tail fish are very beautiful and will probably be less prone to buoyancy problems.
The most expensive Tamasaba I’ve seen for sale in the UK were £150 each for fish with 6” bodies, but mine were a lot south of that price, and I bought them smaller. I have two bloodline currently – Kaneko – short, high bodied fish with really long fins, and Matsunoske, slender, longer fish with shorter tails, and I like how each breeder is selecting for what he holds in personal favour.
In koi circles Mr Kaneko is famous for his Kujaku (an orange and white fish with a reticulated pattern,) and Shiro Utsuri (striking black and white fish,) so who knows what he is planning for his Tamasaba in the future? Maybe he likes the contrast of their red and white colours? I reckon I will do Sakura fish next – red and white fish but with matt scales, and named after the famous Japanese cherry blossom. If you’re into goldfish but want something different look them up!
All photos taken by and owned by Fishkeeping News