If this year is like last, says Alvin Hayes, they should start arriving today, pulling up in their motor homes and campers and trailers and into school parking lots where they will remain until Sunday.
And, if this year is like last year, adds the principal of Robert F. Peary Junior High School in Gardena, by the time the weekend is over hundreds of people from Southern California and elsewhere will visit the school's campus on Normandie Avenue.
What brings the visitors to the school are the Shibusa Gardens, three fish ponds stocked with koi and surrounded by a Japanese garden. They have been part of the school's landscape since the early '70s and serve as home for the Southern California Koi Club's annual koi competition, which will be held Saturday and Sunday.
Hayes said the school has been host to the club's show ever since the former head of the school's agriculture program, who also happened to be an expert landscaper, persuaded the city's large Japanese-American community to contribute money and materials to build the gardens. Students maintain the gardens and ponds, which are stocked year-round with donated koi, the colorful carp that have been bred and raised around the world for centuries.
Over the years, Hayes explained, the school has made Shibusa Gardens and its other grounds available to the club, asking only that it be reimbursed for the electricity and water used. Although the show attracts people from all over Southern California and other states, many of those who turn out to view the koi come from Gardena.
"We get a large community following," Hayes said. "It's kind of a family thing. You come here and you'll find a lot of families."
That comes as no surprise to Richard Burch, president of the koi club. Burch says his club's show--this weekend's is its 18th annual production--is one of five that make up what might be called the Southern California koi show circuit. Three of the five shows are held in Gardena, he said.
"There are more koi and more koi dealers around Gardena than I suppose any other area in the United States," Burch said. "You might say it is the koi mecca of the country."
Burch said the koi shows are held during the late winter because koi, some of which are valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, dislike warm temperatures. In addition, he said, female koi tend to look their best about this time of year because they are just about ready to spawn.
Burch said he expects 450 to 500 fish to be entered in this weekend's show. The majority of the koi will be entered by Californians, but koi owners from Oregon and Arizona probably will also enter their fish, he said.
To accommodate the fish, 75 portable tanks resembling large wading pools will be set up on the school's grounds, Burch said. A panel of judges from Japan will determine winners based on their markings and size, eventually choosing a grand champion.
As for the school's agriculture students, they will be busy hawking hot dogs, hamburgers and other refreshments during the show. John Roos, the school's agriculture teacher, said profits will be used for horticulture programs. About 25 students are enrolled in the five classes that Roos teaches.
Roos admits that while students are responsible for maintaining Shibusa Gardens, it is time-consuming to keep the gardens loyal to their name, which means "elegant."
"The ponds are almost a little too much to expect a junior high school to keep neat and clean all the time," he said.
Indeed, while the gardens and koi ponds generate some interest among students, the job of keeping the gardens looking nice has been assigned to two ninth-graders, George Lujan and Erik Kuehn. The 14-year-olds say they enjoy the task, which consists largely of cleaning the ponds of pine needles that fall from a nearby tree.
For Kuehn, at least, the task appears to be a labor of love. He says that he has volunteered to work around the ponds since he was a seventh-grader. "It gives me something to do, it keeps me out of trouble," he says, adding that he hopes to build his own backyard koi pond someday.
"Most people just think koi are giant goldfish, but they have a completely different personality than other fish."