Sushi fans will probably know that cucumber rolls are known as kappamaki in Japanese. This is in honor of what is surely one of Japan’s strangest mythical creatures — the kappa.
Although reptilian in appearance with webbed hands and feet, and shells on their backs, kappa can walk on two legs and use their bird-like beaks to communicate with humans.
The creatures are sometimes called “water sprites” in English, but possess some rather unpleasant characteristics that are more in line with the carnivorous troll under the bridge in the Norwegian fairy tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff.”
Being river and pond dwellers, it is said that kappa prize cucumbers over anything else because they contain a lot of water. When they aren’t chowing down on cucumbers, kappa have an unfortunate tendency to crave the taste of a human child. They also like to play malicious tricks on humans, ranging from peeking up women’s skirts to trying to lure farm animals to a watery grave.
Fortunately, there is a surefire way to overcome a kappa should you run into one.
The creatures get their strength from a liquid contained in a dish-like indentation on their heads. Kappa might be mischievous but they are still polite in the traditional Japanese sense, so bowing will ensure that the creature returns the gesture, spilling the life-giving fluid in the process. The weakened kappa will then be forced to return to its watery home to recuperate.
While they are found throughout Japan, the kappa’s hometown is widely considered to be Tono, a provincial city in Iwate Prefecture. The kappa is a popular motif throughout the area, but upon arrival it is soon apparent to visitors that Tono kappa fall into two distinct camps: the traditional creatures with their creepy countenances, and modern manga-esque kappa who look like they would much rather hug children than eat them.
Tono’s two official mascots fall under the latter category. Karin is a green male usually seen clutching a bellflower — Tono’s official flower. His wife, Kururin (yes, they are a couple), is pink.
The Tono Tourism Association, located just outside the town’s only train station, is a handy place to pick up maps and coupons for local attractions, as well as the obligatory Karin and Kururin souvenir goods.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, however: Images of the true kappa — those who haven’t sold out to the human world — lurk nearby. A malevolent-looking trio loiters in a pond in front of the station, while a lone kappa stares ominously off into the distance from the roof of the station building.
“Traditional kappa can’t be called ‘cute’ — they’re rather scary,” confirms Miku Kobune, a staffer at the tourism association. “Back in the old days, busy parents often had more work and more children than they could handle. Telling small children about the kappa was a useful way to prevent the kids from going off to the water by themselves, thus keeping them safe.”
Further back in time, some historians believe that the ancient practice of floating the bodies of stillborn or deformed infants down the river first gave rise to the kappa legend. Although the word is generally not written in kanji these days, the characters for kappa, 河童, mean “river child.”
Tono’s undisputed expert on kappa is Haruo Unman, better known as Kappa Ojisan (Uncle Kappa). Unman serves as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the creatures. He is actually the second person to hold the title, inheriting it 10 years ago from the original Kappa Ojisan, Yokichi Abe. Local legend has it that Abe, who passed away in 2006, met a real kappa in his youth.
Unman continues the tradition of his predecessor and can usually be found at Kappabuchi, a small pool adjacent to the Jokenji Temple, a few kilometers from the city center. He offers visitors fishing poles with cucumbers so they can attempt to catch a kappa themselves. (Small children who lack the strength to deal with an adult kappa can use green pepper for bait, which apparently attracts younger kappa.)
Standing on the banks of the pool in this tranquil spot, surrounded by farmland, it isn’t difficult to imagine that some kappa might be lingering just below the surface, laughing at the countenances of the humans peering hopefully into the pool from above. Next to the pool is a small shrine dedicated to the creatures.
Jokenkji Temple also has a special connection with kappa fans, explains Unman. “One time, the temple was on fire and one of the local kappa hurried over and put out the fire with the water from his head,” he says. “As you can see, kappa have their good side, too.”
The grateful locals erected a statue of a kappa-komainu. Komainu, also called “lion dogs,” can be seen standing guard at the entrance to shrines all over Japan. But the Jokenji kappa-komainu is unique due to the kappa-like indentation on its head.
So what makes Tono the undisputed ancestral home of these Japanese river trolls? Unman says that Tono has a rich heritage of folk tales about mysterious creatures and eerie encounters between humans and the spirit world.
“These were passed down by word of mouth through the generations, but then a writer called Kunio Yanagita started collecting them,” Unman explains. “He included many of them in his book, ‘Tono Monogatari’ (‘The Story of Tono’), which was published just over a century ago.”
Yanagita, the foremost folklorist of his time, helped to bring national attention to Tono’s trove of mythical creatures, and among these it was the kappa that somehow became the main symbol of the area.
When Unman isn’t answering questions about kappa or genially posing for camera-toting tourists at Kappabuchi, he works at nearby Denshoen Park, a small museum with some traditional buildings and examples of local crafts and cuisine.
To access the Kappabuchi pool and Jokenji Shrine, you can park free of charge at Denshoen and then take a short walk through picturesque pastures to the other attractions.
Not too far from Denshoen is the beautiful Fukusenji Temple, which is well worth a look. It houses a 17-meter-high statue of the Fukutoku Kannon deity.
The grounds are especially stunning in the spring when the cherry trees blossom, and during the fall foliage season. Some walking is required but you will be rewarded with wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, and, yes, there are more kappa to be found here, hanging out in the pond in the temple grounds.
No visit to Tono would be complete without stopping at the Tono Folklore Village (Tono Furusato no Mura). Although a little tricky to get to, it boasts a well-preserved collection of traditional buildings set up like a farming village, many of them housing artisans and craftspeople who are happy to explain their skills if you can understand Japanese.
Some of the best examples of traditional magariya (L-shaped farmhouses) can be found here. Because horses were once indispensable to local agriculture, houses and barns were joined together in an L-shape, with people and animals living in the same building.
Should you happen to meet a kappa when in Tono, Kappa Ojisan would like to know. “I haven’t seen one myself yet, but I live in hope,” he says with a grin.
Getting there: To reach Tono from Tokyo, take the bullet train to Shin-Hanamaki Station (about three hours) and then change to a local train for Tono Station (around 50 minutes). Due to the spread-out nature of the attractions, a rental car or a bicycle is a must. Bicycles are available from the Tono Tourism Association (www.tonojikan.jp; Japanese and English). For true kappa aficionados, the town of Shikama in Miyagi Prefecture also has close links with these water trolls.