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Monday, June 11, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol. 1 - Kappa-dera Temple

I’d be lying if I said I had a clear direction on how to take this blog of the weird and wonderful and go wider with it.  The fact is, I originally planned eight posts about Southern California but the reaction was so positive that I’ve continued.  I don’t like to write about places I haven’t actually visited and we have quite a few local places that we haven’t made it to yet.  So, since I need time to recharge the SoCal weirdness batteries, I thought this was the perfect time to broaden the scope a bit.

It just so happens that my family and I love to seek out weird stops whenever and wherever  we go on a vacation and this past year, we’ve somehow managed to spend almost a month in Japan between two awesome trips.  I’m not an expert on the country or the culture and I don’t claim to be.  In the coming weeks/months on this blog, if I type something incorrect and you see it, please call me out on it and I’ll correct it.

That said, who wants to visit a shrine dedicated to a water monster that drowns kids?  

That doesn't interest you, huh?  Okay, does it make it better if they have mummified remains of one of the creatures on display?

Hell yes, it does!  Alright!  Let's go!

In Tokyo, there is a neighborhood called Kappabashi.  The name translates into “kappa’s bridge”.  Who or what is a kappa, you ask?  Well, in Japanese folklore, the kappa is a water monster, but think of it more like a troll or goblin.  They lie in wait near bridges or bogs and when an unsuspecting victim comes along, they grab them and drag them down into the murky depths. They tend to prey on children more than adults so kids, beware!

The kappa looks like a turtle and walks on two legs.  It has a small bowl-shaped indentation on its head that has to have water in it at all times or the creature can’t breathe.  If you encounter a kappa, you simply need to bow deeply in greeting.  Apparently, the creature obeys basic etiquette, as it will bow in return and spill the water from the bowl, forcing the creature to return from where it came.

So why would a town name themselves after a horrible monster who preys on children?  It’s a convoluted story that involves flooding and a raincoat merchant named Kihachi Kappaya.  In the 1800’s, the area had been so prone to floods that many adults and children who lived there lost their lives.  Some of the locals blamed the kappa.  After years of this, Kappaya the raincoat guy, came up with a plan to reduce the amount of flooding by creating a system of embankments and providing elevated bridges and paths for people.  

He invested his own money into the project and it was a success.  The bridge and town were named after him as much as the kappa legend itself.  In fact, there is a version of the tale that says Kappaya was assisted in creating his vision by a kappa water monster that just wanted its kind to be left in peace instead of being intruded upon by humans.

Fast forward to present day and the temple originally built to appease the kappa is still there.  It's well attended and offerings to the beast abound.  The place is called Kappa-dera (also Sogen Temple or Sogen-ji).  It’s a Buddhist temple, but it is definitely named after the kappa water creature, not Kappaya the raincoat seller.  

You see, as you walk from Asakusa station to Kappabashi, you’ll gradually start to see kappa statues and images everywhere.  They’re in store windows, on street corners and signs.  

Some are cute, others sinister.   Even the manhole and water meter covers have kappa related artwork on them. 

The temple itself is very small and it’s easy to miss it if you don’t have it plugged into the phone map.  Outside, there are small stone statues of kappa and people will leave coins in the indentations on their heads as well as cucumbers (which are rumored to be its favorite food).  The real treat here though is in the temple itself.  At the top of the stairs, you’ll find a small offering box and a room full of kappa related pieces.  One of those pieces is a real draw for monster lovers like myself.


In the picture above, you’re looking at a mummified kappa's hand and wrist that sits just inside the temple under a glass case.  It's been in the temple for many, many years but I was never able to find exactly how long.  The piece not very large (maybe eight inches long at most) and I can't tell you if it's really from some strange creature that man has driven out of existence.  However, I can tell you that it's pretty cool to actually see it firsthand.  This is something I'd heard about and seen small pieces of on sites like Atlas Obscura so actually being there was a treat!

On the walls are ancient scrolls depicting kappas in much more wicked and terrifying guises than the ones sitting outside the shops.  The centerpiece is this rather evil looking character who stares at you the whole time you take in the other parts of the temple. 

If you want to find this place for yourself, the best thing to do is plug it into your maps program on your phone.  It’s about a ten minute walk from Asakusa station (that’s the way we approached it) but there are other train and subway lines that put you slightly closer.  If you’d rather take a cab, you can certainly do that but I recommend walking it if possible.  The journey will take you through Kappabashi which is much more of a normal Japanese city/suburb than some of the flashier neighborhoods that most people visit (like Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc.).  You’ll pass a ton of tiny restaurants and shops where the locals are only too glad to have you stop in to grab a bite or a cold drink.

Next week, we’ll stay in the vein of temples and I'll take you to one of the coolest places I've ever had the honor of visiting.  We'll keep it a surprise for now.

See you next week!


- The M.A.D. Hapa said...

Fun post! Looking forward to more Japan goodness. Is Kappa-bashi the same as Kappa-bashi-dori where they sell the plastic food?

Cary said...

Yes! You'll walk through a major intersection on the way to the temple and all four corners are full of kitchenware shops. The street is lined with shops that sell kitchen and restaurant related items, including the plastic food. Once you cross that intersection though, it just becomes small shops that sell all sorts of things and restaurants that seat only a handful of people at a time.

If someone didn't know about the temple and the story, they'd have no idea why this weird turtle guy was showing up everywhere.