Just as children in Britain have been brought up with stories of the Loch Ness Monster, those in Japan will have learnt all about the kappa – a mythical water goblin that forms an integral part of Japanese folklore.
As with many mythical creatures around the world, the kappa, translated as “river child” or “water sprite”, doesn’t always look exactly the same. However, if you encounter a reptilian creature about the size of a large monkey, which has humanoid arms, walks upright and is green or bluish in colour, you’ve probably run into a kappa.
So, if you’re planning the holiday of a lifetime, but are not quite sure what to do in Japan, perhaps you could spend some of your time learning more about this elusive, and by all accounts rather mischievous, river-dwelling imp.
First of all, let’s put a few things straight. The kappa we’re referring to here has nothing to do with the early 1990s sport brand. That Kappa was very real, although many of you who spent your formative years in a “poppered” tracksuit may wish it was just a bad dream.
Proof of the existence of the kappa we’re referring to in this case is less conclusive. The legend of the kappa is said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander, or hanzaki, which absolutely exists. This salamander is known to be an aggressive creature that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Kappa clearly mimic this behaviour, as they’ve been used over the years to warn children of the dangers of rivers, lakes and even ponds. It’s said that kappa try to lure people towards the water’s edge and pull them in when they get too close.
However, there are also theories that the legend of the kappa was based on historical sightings of the now-extinct Japanese river otter. Otters have been known to stand upright, and it is thought that when spotted from a distance, or seen by an inebriated passerby, they could have been mistaken for a creature with human characteristics.
While the sceptical among you might suggest that the kappa was made up to keep children from swimming in dangerous places, just a couple of years ago there was a significant discovery that could change your mind.
Some kappa believers claim to have found remains purporting to be from the river imp. The mummified bones of a webbed hand were put on show in Japan, and are supposedly the remains of a kappa that was shot on a river bank in 1818. Unfortunately, no experts have examined the bones to date, and there are apparently no plans to do so in the near future.
According to local legend, the best place to spot kappa is in the Kappabuchi pool in Tōno, a city located in Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku region of northern Japan. The kappa are rumoured to have actually made this pool their home, while the nearby Buddhist temple has dedicated a komainu (lion-dog) statue to the kappa for their help extinguishing a fire.
Those searching for more evidence of the existence of the kappa should also head to the Sogneji Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. According to tradition, the mummified arm of a kappa has been enshrined within the chapel hall.
Tokyo is the world’s most populous city, with a reported 37 million residents, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s no shortage of places to stay. Hotels in Tokyo tend to be small and quite expensive, but with everything from boutique hotels to budget options, and even the ultra-modern capsule hotels, you will be able to find something that suits your budget.
Tokyo is split into districts, each offering different advantages for tourists. Shinjuku is the most popular district for tourists thanks to its central location; Asakusa is more suited for travellers on a budget; while Tokyo Station is very convenient but does not have any budget accommodation.
If you’re looking for cheap flights to Tokyo, you’ll need to book as far in advance as you can. The only airport that offers direct flights from the UK is Heathrow, but most of the UK’s other airports offer flights with just one stop, usually somewhere like Shanghai, Hong Kong or somewhere in Europe.
If you choose to rent a car in Tokyo, you’ll be able to explore rural Japan, where public transport can be infrequent, on your own terms. It can also prove to be an economical alternative to pre-arranged tours.