A Fish Called Magic

By Sean Holstege

Photo by Sean Holstege

In the West we call it Orca, but this is no Orca.

This is a mythical beast, with the body of a carp and the face of a tiger. Ferocious, they say. Legend says it spouts water, ripples the ocean with waves and brings rain from the sky. This is no Orca.

This is a shachihoko, or shachi for short. And there’s one in downtown Phoenix.

A shachi in Phoenix / Photo by Sean Holstege

To understand how it got there, you must cast your mind back to medieval Japan and to a place called Himeji, a little less than 300 miles west of Tokyo.

It was 1600 and a great war raged to determine who would rule the ancient empire. That year warriors decided the matter in a climactic clash known as the Battle of Sekigahara. On the victorious side fought a warrior named Ikeda Terumasa. For his service, he was granted Himeji and it’s surrounding province.

He made the 300-year-old Himeji castle his stronghold and immediately set about expanding it. Nine years, and 25 million man-hours of labor later, he completed what became known as the White Heron Castle and, centuries later, as a World Heritage Site. The tiered castle was said to resemble the Heron, or ro.

Ro is the first link in the chain back to Phoenix and the magical fish-beast that lives there.

More about that later.

Because without the magic fish, there might be no White Heron Castle and no Himeji.

You see, the Japanese do not fear the ferocious fish. It’s not a monster. It’s a guardian. The Japanese say it wards off disasters and fires, so people decorate their roofs with them. Shachis watch over the White Heron Castle.

Himeji’s White Heron Castle / Photo by Jordi Marsol via Flickr

Lest this sound like a tall tale, fast forward to modern history. It was 1923 and an enormous earthquake, followed by a 40-foot tsunami and a 300-foot “fire tornado” devastated half of Tokyo. An estimated 140,000 people perished. The Imperial government thought about moving the capital to Himeji, which was largely unharmed. Worse followed.

Pearl Harbor brought war and war brought squadrons of B-24 Liberator bombers and the Liberators unleashed hell on Japan. Air raids destroyed half of Himeji. But the White Heron Castle survived the war.

Himeji rebuilt and grew into a city today of 536,000. In 2003, a scene from “The Last Samurai” was shot there in a 1,000-year-old temple, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. Lonely Planet, Frommer’s and others all rave about Himeji Castle, which features as a wonder of the world in the masterpiece strategy computer game Civilization V.

But before all that, Himeji and Phoenix linked arms. They became sister cities in 1976. The second link was forged.

Ho, Japanese for the mythical phoenix.

Then in 1987 a man named Matsuji Totani entered the frame. He was mayor of Phoenix’s new sister city and he wanted to bind the friends closer with a traditional garden. In 1996, commemorating 20 years of amity, the tea house and garden were opened.

The third and final link was forged. En: garden.

Ro Ho En. That’s the sign that hangs today over the entrance to Phoenix’s Japanese Friendship Garden, carved from simple wood.

The entrance to Phoenix’s Japanese Friendship Garden / Photo by Sean Holstege

Behind the sign lies an oasis. Cherry blossoms, waterfalls, streams, a small bamboo grove, trees, greenness. In Phoenix.

And of course, there’s the shachi, which arrived in 1991 and stands 10 feet tall.

The garden is a tranquil, beautiful place. Developers of the high-rise condos on Portland Place next door plan to donate money to improve the place. Although adults pay $5 to get in, it’s a great getaway for the busy urbanite.

But it’s in the murky waters of the small lake where the Friendship Garden’s true heroes dwell. Here lie the koi, unperturbed by ducks paddling right over their backs. The koi, teeming in their multitudes. The koi, with bodies of fish and faces of tigers.

The koi, who are a story unto themselves.

Koi ready to be fed / Photo by Sean Holstege

As with so many things in Japanese tradition, the koi are not just a fish. They carry a legend, a history and symbolic power.

Some legends say the first koi was a carp, which the Emperor of China gave to ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius after the birth of his son. From this one carp, all koi descended. The Chinese kept them as pets, and in harsh winters, as an emergency food supply. They passed their knowledge to the Japanese.

There farmers kept them in stock ponds, when the crops gave out and there were no fresh fish to catch in cold winters. Famers noticed the myriad colors and patterns. So they separated the different types and bred the fish for their colors. Today there are more than 100 varieties.

Each has symbolic meaning:

  • White scales with red spots signifies career success.
  • An all-black koi or a white fish with black spots means you’re in for life changes.
  • Solid silver fish symbolize business success.
  • White-and-red mottled fish are known as “lipstick fish” because the red coloring of their lips looks like they’ve got Maybelene on. Not surprisingly, they bring love and lasting relationships.
  • The gold koi, equally unsurprisingly, represent great riches.

Most koi live 50 to 75 years, and some have made it to a ripe old 200. Again, shocking no one, all koi represent longevity.

In some traditions, the very Yin-Yang symbol is patterned after a pair of white and black koi, one male, the other female. And so koi have come to signify good luck and happy marriage and sometimes a pair of fish is given to newlyweds.

So in the end, it’s not the shachi, but the koi that are the magical fish. In frenzied fashion, they are not just milling about waiting for visitors to feed them from the footbridge or stony beach. They are conferring blessings and warding off disaster.

It’s easy to miss them. The Friendship Garden is tucked away in a corner or Margaret Hance Park. It can only be reached from a last-second turn of Third Avenue before it heads over Interstate 10. But it’s worth a visit and the garden has all kinds of events to enjoy.

And maybe you’ll have a magical encounter with a fish with the face of a tiger.

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