You reach a point where the river is broad and slow moving, a place that is beautiful and could possibly even be called idyllic. By now, you have learned that idyllic cannot be trusted.
As you scan the water you see dragonflies bouncing across the surface, carp drifting up out of the murky water and then disappearing again. You spot the rough brown plates of a turtle’s shell rise and then sink, and then another. And then you realize, those are pretty big turtles. Finally you see it, a too-human face staring back at you from the river, and you realize you were right not to trust the scenery.
Time to meet one of Japan’s most influential yokai: the kappa.
Though there are some variants in kappa folklore, this mischievous monster is mostly described as a child-sized creature that is roughly a combination of human and turtle characteristics. It sports a shell and a sharp beak, which is great for chomping down on its two favorite foods: cucumbers and human livers. Another typical kappa trait is a bowl-shaped indentation at the top of the kappa’s head, which holds water and possibly the key to their defeat. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a bit. Kappas are primarily water-dwelling, but they can also move comfortably on land, so don’t assume that staying out of the water is enough to keep you out of their slippery grasp. There’s some speculation that the kappa influenced later European stories of river-dwelling creatures like the kelpie, noting their shared love of drownings and mischief.
Kappas aren’t strictly evil, but their unpredictability and chaotic nature mean it’s wise to stay on your guard when you wander into what could be kappa territory. They have a well-earned reputation for dragging horses and humans into the water and drowning them, then eating their internal organs, namely livers. They’re also obsessed with the shirikodoma, a mythical ball or gem that’s said to contain the soul and, unfortunately for unsuspecting humans, is located deep in the anus. Stay on your guard, lest a kappa try to wrest your soul out through your butthole.
Kappas have two beloved hobbies. The first is wrestling. Kappas are incredible wrestlers, and love challenging humans to show off their grappling skills. The little yokai are stronger than seems possible for their size, so beating a kappa in a wrestling match is going to be surprisingly difficult. The second is farting. There is a saying in Japanese, he no kappa, which is about equivalent to the idiom “piece of cake” and translates to “like a kappa farting” because kappa are artists whose medium is farts.
Lucky for you, the kappa’s flair for flatulence can actually be turned to your advantage. As much as kappa love their own farts, they absolutely abhor human farts, so if you let one rip the kappa should be sufficiently disgusted to leave you alone. Farts are only the first line of defense against this trickster. Kappa are cripplingly polite, so the most well-known way to defeat a kappa is to bow deeply upon seeing one, a gesture the kappa will be compelled to return and spill the water out of its head in the process. Losing the water in its head bowl leaves a kappa weakened or paralyzed, and refilling this indentation will leave a kappa indebted to you. Keep in mind that kappa are smart, however, and aware of the widespread knowledge of this weakness, so many have taken to wearing a metal cap when they leave the water. You can try the tried and true bowing strategy, but keep in mind that plan’s a bit played out.
A more difficult but equally effective way to get a kappa working for you is to pop off one of its arms. Kappa arms are apparently not super well attached, and it’s possible to pull them off. If you’re successful, a kappa will do just about anything you ask to get it back. Pro tip: kappa are incredibly skilled healers, so a smart move is to trade a kappa arm for their knowledge of salves and setting bones. Their love of cucumbers is also very well known, to the point that cucumber rolls are called kappa maki as a nod to the creature’s favorite food (the Japanese word for cucumber is kyuri). Offering cucumber to kappa is a way to keep kappa happy and away from your butthole. Some stories say that eating cucumber before swimming is a way to ward off kappa in the water, but other stories say that eating cucumber before swimming draws their attention so maybe try that out at your own risk.
Over time, the kappa has morphed from a classic cautionary tale to scare kids away from rivers and ponds to something of a mascot. Little cartoon kappas grace everything from baked goods to video games (looking at you, Animal Crossing) to campaigns encouraging the public to keep rivers clean. What began as a classic cautionary tale to keep children from drowning has become an adorable face for conservation, marking a shift in humanity’s relationship with the natural world from something to be feared to something to be protected.