Legend Meets Real Life: The Kappa Of Kyuushuu And Kappa-dera

January 25, 2018

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

A warning sign near a river depicting what potential dangers lurk, the Kappa is one of them.

WARNING: Some subject matter may be disturbing to some readers.
The Kappa is an adorable turtle-like creature with a Moe Howard haircut, big teddybear eyes, and rosy cheeks that make it just so darn cute that you want to pick it up and hug the daylights out of the little critter! This is all in part thanks to animes like Youkai Watch, How to raise a Kappa, and Summer days with Coo as well as little trinkets you can get from a vending machine.

Preparing to Squee!

In reality, the Kappa is a creature of Japanese folklore that needs to be feared, why? Well for starters they can literally suck the life out of you…by way of your butt.

Squee is gone…
Kappa drawings from mid-19th century Suiko juni-hin no zu (Illustrated Guide to 12 Types of Kappa)

The Kappa whose name in Japanese means “Water Child” is probably one of the most recognizable Yōkai (Japanese mythological creatures), a nymph/goblin-like creature who can be found in rivers and that’s said to be no bigger than a child but have tremendous strength. Kappas are depicted as looking like turtles with strange tuffs of hair around their head with a bowl in the center; the bowl holds water so while Kappas are out of the water they can survive.
In Japanese folklore, Kappas are one of two things, big pranksters or vicious killers. Children are warned not to play in streams or rivers or swim in watering holes alone or else the Kappa will take their shirikodama. Shirikodama translates literally to “Small Anus Ball” though folklorists can’t agree on what this little ball is exactly, they do believe that it’s the human soul in physical form as a small onion shape ball that’s either in the anus, intestine, or stomach.

A Kappa harvesting a Shirikodama

Why something so graphic? Well, like many ancient cultures around the world they experience a lot of things daily but did not know how to explain it, today we “Google that S(shitake)!” but back then, they go back to lore. If a body washes up on the banks of a river, people may notice that the drowning victim’s anus is sticking out, today we know (or now you do after reading this) that when a body is in water for a long period of time, parts of the body swells because it over absorbs water, that’s why the anus would be sticking out but in this case the ancient Japanese would say that the person was attacked by a Kappa and had their shirikodama taken.
These little water vampires have two vices that would be “cute” if not for what I said before. These little guys really like to watch Sumo wrestling and they love cucumbers. Kappas love cucumbers so much that they even had a sushi roll named after them, Kappa Maki, cucumber roll.

Kappa Maki, and yes it is good!

At a shrine in Tokyo called Kappa-dera, officially it’s known as Sōgen Temple, but the first name stuck because the temple is dedicated to the Kappa as legend goes that the temple was built in that part of Tokyo to help the locals in that district named Kappabashi-dori, or “Kitchen Town”, as it has many shops that supply many restaurants in Tokyo, who were having problems with mischievous Kappas. At the temple, there’s an offering altar where visitors can leave cucumbers as offerings to the little twerps.

Cucumber offerings at Kappa-dera

At Kappa-dera there’s something a little stranger tucked away in a storage area and is brought out once in a while that draws many visitors, a skeletal arm said to be that of a Kappa! The origin of the arm is unknown but there are many stories referencing Kappa’s sacrificing their arms in order to escape from traps set up by humans.

The Kappa arm of Kappa-dera

The Kappa-dera temple is not the only place in Japan that’s said to hold remains of a Kappa. In 2014, the Shimazu Residence in Miyakonojo, Kyuushuu had on display a mummified arm and foot of what is said to be a Kappa. As the story goes, in 1818 the family was presented with a Kappa that was shot on the riverbank in Miyakonojo. The owners of these remains both at Kappa-dera and Shimazu have not offered to have the remains tested and surprisingly no one has offered to examine the remains but from what it looks like, the arms in question at both locations almost look identical.

The Kappa arm and foot from Miyakonojo

Whether or not you’re concerned about the existence of the Kappa, in Japan you can still see warning signs some places near water warning about Kappas, for you parents out there stories of Kappas have been and still are used to scare children from going near water for safety reasons. If you’re wondering “What do I do if I run into a Kappa randomly in my life?!” well, there’s two possible solutions, it’s said that if you bow to a Kappa, the creature will be polite and bow back accidentally resulting in them pouring their water out of the little bowl on their head rendering them weak and forcing them to retreat back to their realm. Or you can do what is shown in this old woodblock, no explanation needed.

‘Repelling Kappa’ with a fart’ 1881 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

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