Before I decided to make Shikoku, specifically Kagawa-en, my home, I was an academic and I had intended to be a professor of literature. I taught a few years in the university, both literature and writing classes, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I love literature. I love stories and folklore. Monsters, creatures, magic, ancient stories, gods, goddesses, creepy things that go bump in the night, I love all that stuff. Teaching at university was a wonderful time, and I greatly enjoyed learning along with my students.
As a kid I read all sorts of fairy stories, folklore, and mythologies. I later did my graduate work in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. I got to meet and study under some of the great folklore professors in the world. Professor Milan Dimic is forever one of my heroes.
So, coming to Japan, and learning more about the ancient literatures of this country I got a chance to do some study and research about the monsters and creatures that inhabit the imaginations of its people. And some of them are creepy beyond my imagination….
What is really cool is that the concept of “yokai” (妖怪), ghost, monster, apparition, creature, scary thing, is still very much in contemporary culture. Lots of Pokemon characters are based on yokai, lots of comics and anime also refer to them, and I think that is super cool. While maybe not “pure” in a literary sense, it opens the door to the imaginations of children, and they may choose to research more on their own. That is great.
Kappa are one of the most commonly known yokai in the imaginary worlds of Japan. So it is good to start with this one. Living in rivers, the kappa are gollum like in appearance, often depicted with a turtle shell, green skin, and slimy complexions. They are both found to be evil and good, sometimes luring people to the water and eating them (usually livestock and kids), but also holding secret wisdom and information about agriculture and medicine. There are many stories of the kappa interacting with people in both an antagonistic manner, much like a Rumplestiltskin, or in a cooperative manner, bringing help when needed.
The kappa is a naturally strong creature, but has a critical weakness. It’s head, at the top, is concave, and when out of the river, holds water like a bowl. It is this water that keeps the kappa strong, so if the water should spill out, the creature will lose its power. In cases where a human is confronted with a kappa, it is good to greet it with a deep bow. Kappa, being very sensitive to cultural codes will return this gesture, and then may spill out the source of their strength in the process.
Kappa are very fond of cucumbers. There are many places in Japan where children will write their names on a cucumber and throw them into the river to appease the kappa so that they will not be kidnapped. Also, if you order a “kappamaki” at a sushi restaurant you will get the cucumber roll delivered to your table.
Kappa are curious creatures, and enigmatic, they can be your friend or your foe. Confronting one, and defeating it, or helping one in trouble will earn you a lifetime of loyalty. But not watching what you are doing near the banks of a river could bring you trouble if you not prepare yourself in advance.