By- Brent Swancer
I thought I would also take the time to take a look at the Kappa, one of the most well known cryptids of Japan and a creature particularly linked to one of the most earthquake stricken areas. Loren recently posted on this cryptid and I thought I could add some more information to the discussion.
A bit of background on this enigmatic creature. The Kappa is one of many types of water imps featured in Japanese folklore said to inhabit the lakes and rivers of this island nation. The appearance of Kappa varies from tradition to tradition and area to area, however they are typically described as being the size of a child of 6 to 10 years of age and resembling a cross between a turtle, monkey, and lizard. Kappa are often depicted as having a shell on their backs, similar to a turtle’s, and having a beak like mouth.
One of the most prominent features that is shared throughout all Kappa folklore is the presence of a bowl on the top of the head, which is said to contain a liquid that gives the Kappa its supernatural strength. When confronted by an angry Kappa, the best way to defeat it is to have it bow, upon which the liquid will spill and weaken it.
Kappa are most often described as being malevolent entities, with a penchant for mischief and violence. They are said to molest women as well as harass travelers and challenge passerby to sumo matches. In the darker tales, Kappa are represented as murderous monsters which attack humans, cattle, and horses, pulling them to their deaths below the water and sucking the blood or life force from their bodies to leave a lifeless husk. It is said that one should not venture to the water’s edge alone lest you be the victim of a Kappa attack.
Despite this ferocious and rather unappealing image, Kappa are said to have a benevolent side as well. For instance, they display a great talent for medicine and particularly bone setting, and it is said if a Kappa is captured it will offer its services to its captor.
Kappa purportedly abhor metal and loud noises, and love cucumber to the point of obsession. This craving for cucumber is supposedly so strong that Kappa will do anything to get it, and many residents of Kappa infested areas would carry cucumber with them in the hopes of bribing the beasts into leaving them alone or even procuring their medical talents.
The Kappa has become a very famous fixture within Japanese folklore and it is even considered by many to be a legitimate cryptid due to a good many eyewitness accounts and sightings of actual alleged Kappa that continue into modern times. These sightings come from witnesses of all ages and levels of society, and often from very credible sources. On some occasions, shaky photographic evidence has been brought forward. There has even been sparse physical evidence for Kappa, including footprints and slime allegedly exuded by the creatures. Some shrines contain the purported mummified hands or even bodies of Kappa.
There are various theories on what could be behind stories of the Kappa. Perhaps the folklore originated with the practice of discarding stillborn infants in rivers. In rural areas, poor families sometimes went about the grim work of killing infants because they could not afford to raise them. These bodies were then tossed into the river and were known as “leech babies.” Tales of Kappa may have subsequently arose from these floating bodies being mistaken as water imps or from stories parents told their children to scare them into staying away from the river where they might see the bodies, sort of a “boogie man” for ancient Japan.
Another theory is that Kappa were actually monkeys bathing in rivers and yet another ties the emergence of Kappa folklore to the appearance of Portuguese monks in Japan in the 16th century. The monks, with their robes, hoods hanging in back resembling a shell, and shaved pates ringed by hair reminiscent of a Kappa’s water filled head cup, could certainly be seen as having an influence of the appearance of Kappa.
Or maybe the Kappa are something else entirely? Is there a chance that a real unknown animal could be at the root of these legends? Whatever they may be, Kappa have become one of Japan’s most famous and enduring myths.
In all of the chaos and destruction wrought by the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami, it is worth pointing out that an area badly hit by these events is widely considered to be the origin of the Kappa as a nationally recognized phenomenon.
The Tono Valley, located in the earthquake devastated Iwate prefecture, is an area well known for its rich local history of folkloric creatures, but in particular it has become famous for its Kappa. The Tono area has long been known as a place crawling with Kappa, and is home to what is known as the “Kappa Pool” or “Kappabuchi,” which is part of the Ashiarai stream, near a temple known as Jokenji. The stream, and in particular the pool, has been known for centuries as a haunt for Kappa.
In 1910, a well-known book written by folklorist Yanagida Kunio was published called Tono Monogatari (Legends of Tono). The book features numerous supernatural entities from the Tono area including the Kappa and of course the Kappa pool. It was this mention of the Kappa that is widely credited with launching the Kappa from an obscure local legend to nationwide popularity. As a result, Tono has basically come to be known as the birthplace of the Kappa legend in Japan. Incidentally, Yanagida was a proponent of the idea that monkeys were behind the stories of Kappa.
To this day, the Kappa pool in Tono is a tourist attraction in the area. Visitors come to enjoy the area’s tranquility and in the hopes of seeing a Kappa in the flesh. On the bank of the stream, you will find a shrine dedicated to Kappa. The shrine is often visited by pregnant women, who worship there is the hopes of producing abundant milk for their infants.
The Tono Tourism Association is also the only place in Japan that issues an actual “Kappa catching license.” For any would be Kappa fisherman out there, the best way to catch one is said to be with a fishing rod. The bait? Why, cucumber of course.