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The Yokai Files – Kappa

Here’s another of the more famous members of the Japanese Yokai pantheon, and one that I seem to have been crossing paths with quite a bit recently, the Kappa.

That the Kappa, a water spirit whose behaviour can veer from troublesome to lethal, has become prominent in Japanese folk law isn’t surprising – Japan is a very watery place full of lakes, rivers, irrigation canals and drainage ditches.

Watery deaths must have claimed a lot of Japanese lives over the years, and the Kappa is the anthropomorphized embodiment of that danger.

In a recent trip to a Kyoto flea market I came across several Kappa trinkets – here’s a few of my favorites, a small dish, a cute toy and a rather fetching bottle opener with a male and female Kappa on opposing sides.

A few weeks later, while I was hunting down the Hashi Hime shrine for another Yokai report, I also discovered some nice painted plates featuring Kappa in a small shop in Uji.

As you can see a Kappa is an almost turtle like creature with green skin, a back that has a distinct shell-like appearance, a fringe of dark hair around a bald crown, webbed hands and feet with sharp claws and a beak-like mouth.

Interestingly the Kappa is usually portrayed as having a shallow indent on the top of his bald spot. If a Kappa wants to venture onto the land then he has to keep this ‘bowl’ full of water at all times or he will lose all his strength.

There are several stories where people have defeated Kappa in wrestling matches simply by bowing to them before the match – bound by the rules of etiquette the Kappa has to bow back and so spills the water and all his power.

If you happen to meet a less polite Kappa who won’t return your bow, be sure to wrestle in direct sunlight where his life-giving water will soon evaporate.

If it’s cloudy, then the Yokai survival Guidebook suggests throwing cucumbers at the Kappa,  for some reason they love them and will pause to scoff the tasty snack giving you time to escape.

Your last resort, if you don’t have any cucumbers on hand, is to mimic this 1881 woodblock print aptly titled ‘Repelling kappa with a fart’ (by Yoshitoshi).

Discovering odd stories and images like that is one of the things that makes researching and writing Yokai stories so interesting. The other thing is the bizarre travel opportunities  it throws up. In early 2010 I did a road trip to Sakiminato the home of home of  Shigeru Mizuki – the godfather of the Japanese Yokai revival and creator of Yokai based anime and manga ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’. It was a great trip where we saw hundreds of Yokai all around the town, since then hunting down places connected with Yokai myths and visiting them has appealed to me – so I was delighted when I read this article in Kansai scene about Yokai mummies scattered around Japan (which also has a nice bit of modern-day Kappa mythology in it).

Apparently a local temple in Osaka has a mummified Kappa on display. If all goes well I’ll be doing a pilgrimage down to Osaka to check it out this weekend, so look out for a follow-up article in the near future.

Part II of my Kappa report is now online here!

(As the Kansai Scene article will probably be lost next time they update the site I’ll copy it here in full for you).

Mythical monster mummies (from Kansai Scene)

The kappa is just a myth, right? KS discovers a temple in Osaka where the things that go bump (or splash) in the night might just be real.

Imagine that you came back from work only to find a strange, unidentifiable smell in your house. Perhaps worried that you might have left the gas on, you enter your apartment only for the mystery to deepen as you notice wet four-toed footprints throughout your house. What would you do? At first you might think that you should lock your door more carefully, but then a creep­ing sense of dread might give you shivers. After all, what kind of creature has four toes? Could it be possible that you were visited by a kappa?

This story, amazingly, is true and while you might think that it happened centuries ago in a more superstitious era, it happened only 20 years ago to Mitsugu and Junko Matsumoto from Saito. After an investigation a local priest told them that it was a kappa enjoying some playful fun at the couple’s expense. With this being the latest in a series of incidents across Japan, it has caused many people to question whether kappa may be more than just fairy tales. The staff at Zuiryuji temple in Osaka believe that they can answer the question once and for all. Kappa do exist, because the mummified corpse of one is enshrined at the temple.

Confirming whether it is a kappa or not is difficult as few people know what a kappa should look like, nevertheless there are a few consistencies to the legends. Most kappa have three- or four-toed webbed feet, an ape-like head, long pointed ears, and a shell on its back. The corpse of the crea­ture at Zuiryuji temple matches this description quite nicely. While this may appear to be irrefutable proof of something magical, the skeptics point out that the kappa at Zuiryuji temple has features that look suspiciously like the wildlife found around the area. They argue that the creature is just a composite made from animal parts using paper to disguise the cracks. An official request to test this theory using DNA sequencing was refused by the religious authorities.

Another possibility is that the remains are from shows. During the Edo-era, Japan went through a craze of what was known as misemono (literally: fake things). Similar to the western freak shows, carnivals would compete with each other to produce the most realistic-looking fake creature. Fishermen during this period began to supplement their income by stitching the lower halves or fish to the corpses of monkeys to create ‘mermen.’ It is possible that later generations of priests found these misemono and, believ­ing they were legitimate monsters, enshrined them.

Intriguingly Zuiryuji temple is not alone in having a mummified mythical beast enshrined. Zengyouji temple in the northern city of Kanazawa (Ishikawa prefecture) has the creepy remains of a three-headed demon. Similarly the demon at Daijouin temple in the town of Usa (Oita prefecture) is so powerful that even its corpse has brought misfortune wherever it has been. It is not just demons and kappa either, mermen have been documented in Tokyo and Hachinohe museum in Aomori prefecture has a tengu mummy. Tengu are half-demon, half-bird monsters somewhat similar to the harpies in ancient Greek mythology.

Whether these creatures were real or not is up to each person to decide. One thing that is for certain is that the bond between the Japanese people and their traditions is still very strong. There are still people in Osaka who believe in these mystical creatures. Perhaps the next time you go down to the woods alone, it might be a good idea to take some cucumbers for the kappa, because you never know what may turn out to be more than a myth.

Zuiryuji (Tetsugenji)
1-10-30, Motomachi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka 2min walk from Namba station of Subway Yotsubashi line, exit 32 • Tel: 06-6641-4650 www.tetsugenji.com (Japanese)

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15 responses

  1. Pingback: Kappa Onsen Hotel | Haikyo

  2. Very interesting, I didn’t know what a “kappa” was, even though I visited a haikyo with this name (http://www.haikyo.org/?p=1337, The Kappa Hotel). Thanks, I added a link to my page on this, that really helps :)

    February 8, 2011 at 11:05 am

    • Wow – that is an amazing Haikyo TigrouMeow, looks huge!
      I saw you even have a photo of a couple of Kappa (6th picture down) – glad I could help you understand the Hotel’s name :-)
      BTW I loved your Snake Labratory Haikyo report, would love to see that myself.
      We’ll have to get together for a haikyo trip one day.
      D,

      February 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  3. Pingback: Recipe: Kappamaki Sushi « Diverse Japan

  4. Hi,
    Great post on Kappa. Hope you don’t mind, but I used one of the images on a post I published about Kappamaki. I couldn’t see a contact button to ask you personally. I’ve attached a link to your page though in the section on Kappa.

    http://diversejapan.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/recipe-kappamaki-sushi/#more-574

    May 19, 2011 at 2:53 pm

  5. Hi,
    Great post on Kappa. Hope you don’t mind, but I used one of the images on a post I published about Kappamaki on my blog. I couldn’t see a contact button to ask you personally. I’ve attached a link to your page though in the section on Kappa.

    http://diversejapan.wordpress.com/2011/05/19/recipe-kappamaki-sushi/#more-574

    May 19, 2011 at 2:59 pm

  6. No problem, thanks for the link back!

    May 19, 2011 at 10:44 pm

  7. Pingback: Kappa – Mummies and Movies « Total-Japandemonium

  8. Hello! I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Tx! Just wanted to say keep up the great work!

    July 15, 2012 at 5:08 am

  9. Hey! :) I really like your articleee! I hope you don’t mind that i have put your blog onto my university blog as good reference material ^^

    http://caroanimate.tumblr.com/post/32243927592/a-really-good-blog-about-the-yokai
    :D I am making an animation for my final year in Graphic Art course and wanted to based it in either a true story that i know or on a yokai. :)

    xoxo

    September 25, 2012 at 3:18 am

  10. Dannie

    What are the yokai that you have to bow to, they are all black and shapeless with a painted mask on. For the life of me I can’t find the answer anywhere!

    December 11, 2012 at 3:06 am

    • Sorry, don’t know – though the black, shapless and painted mask sound like the character of No-face in the Ghibili movie ‘Sen to Chihiro’ (‘Spiritred Away’ in the west).

      December 30, 2012 at 3:31 am

  11. “The Yokai Files – Kappa | Total-Japandemonium” seriously causes me personally
    think a little bit further. I appreciated each and every particular element of it.

    Thanks a lot -Bailey

    January 9, 2013 at 4:42 am

  12. Precisely how long did it acquire you to create “The
    Yokai Files – Kappa Total-Japandemonium”? It has
    got a good deal of high-quality details. Thanks -Jamaal

    January 24, 2013 at 7:08 am

    • Gathering the information took a while – but it happened naturally over a period of time (as I travalled around and read stuff) because of my natural interest in Yokai. Sorting it all out and putting it together for the blog probably took me half a day or so – it was a while ago now.
      One of the main reasons I don’t update this blog anymore is how time consuming it was – but I do have stuff I want to put up… so maybe someday.

      April 8, 2013 at 11:06 pm

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