Illustration by @danaxbraga
There was once a farmer named Jiro, whose wife went missing near the river running behind their farm. At first, Jiro believed that his wife had been distracted, in the way she often is, by some interesting water bird. She kept a small journal by her bed that was filled with sketches of the different birds she found on her walks around the countryside. After trips to the river, where so many birds gathered, she would come home frantic with the need to journal. But as the day moved past and night fell with no sign of his wife, Jiro became seriously concerned. At the break of dawn he set out to search for her.
He smelled it before he saw anything – a foul stench like an overflowing latrine caused the bile to rise in his throat. As he pushed through the reeds, his head spun. He was looking at his wife, or rather, parts of her, strewn along the river bank. Creeping out from the water was a creature that looked like a turtle that stood on two legs, about the size of a child. It tilted its head sideways, appearing somewhat curious and not terribly concerned about Jiro. Overwhelmed with disgust, Jiro could not help but bend over and stare at the ground. The thought of the creature attacking was far from him in his moment of shock, and it was all he could do not to vomit up everything he had ever eaten. He gathered himself, looked up, and was surprised – the creature had mimicked him. It seemed to be… bowing. Not knowing what else to do, he bowed back, a little deeper this time. The creature immediately returned the gesture and Jiro saw water spill out of a strange bowl-like depression on its head. It stopped moving all together. Jiro waited what seemed like hours before approaching. The creature remained frozen in a bow. Jiro could not bear to look at the remains of his wife. Instead he stared and stared at the strange bowl in the center of the thing's head, like a cup emptied and now begging to be filled again.
Kappa are found in rivers, lakes, ponds, and man-made waterways throughout Japan. They are amphibious, but there bodies are designed to perform in water. They are about the size and shape of a human child, with four-digit, webbed hands and feet. Like a turtle, their is a large carapace on their back and a beak in the center of their face. Their scaled, reptilian skin is usually an earthy green colour but they can sometimes be blue or even red in places. Their forearms are attached to one another underneath their shells so that they can slide in either direction, making one arm short while the other grows longer. They are very strong - stronger than an adult human, and they are very gifted swimmers and wrestlers. Kappas smell terrible. Their elastic skin reeks of fish and they have 3 anuses. But their most interesting characteristic is a bowl-like depression at the center of their heads (called a sara) which is always full of water. That water is the source of all their power. If it spills out, the kappa becomes paralyzed and can even die. They can be restored if the sara is refilled water from the source where the kappa lives
Despite Jiro's encounter with the kappa, they are generally revered by humans. Kappa are very intelligent and can learn to speak our language. They have a deep knowledge of medicine, especially the art of setting bones. Legend tells us that Kappa may have been the ones to pass on this medicinal knowledge to humans in the time before written memory. Kappa are proud and honorable. They will never break a promise. It is this strict honor code that allowed Jiro to defeat the kappa by unknowlingly engaging it in a bowing competition. That strict code can provide leverage over the Kappa for clever humans. More than one has been committed to forms of servitude, living out their days fulfilling some promise to a human. These bonds of honor often evolve to deep and lasting friendships with the Kappa.
Ultimately, it is best to consider Kappa as tricksters. They adore causing mischief of all kinds. They will do things like pass gas in public and harass women. They enjoy sumo wrestling and other games of skill and sometimes those challenges can get out of hand quickly. It is when their appetites get carried away that the Kappa can become dangerous. They will sometimes kidnap and drown humans, or even worse. Their two favourite foods are cucumbers and raw innards. They believe that there is a most-delicious and sacred ball of human flesh called the shirikodama that contains the soul just inside the anus. They hate cows and horses and will kill them outright. When they attack, they prefer to drag victims under the water and bite them to death. Should you ever encounter a kappa, you will have no hope of defeating it in the water. You must find some way to draw it on to dry land where you may be able to outwit or outrun it.
Some people take additional precautions to avoid the more violent types of mischief from Kappa. There are many festivals in Japan that include offerings of cucumbers to appease them. In Edo (old Tokyo), there used to be a tradition where people would write the names of their family members on cucumbers and send them afloat into the streams to mollify the kappa, to prevent the family from coming to harm in the streams.