It’s hard to be in Japan a long time and not encounter a story or two about kappa.
Are they monsters? Are they sprites? Are they… real?
Among the varied cast of Japanese haunts, kappa seem to be taken more seriously for their possible existance. Given the abundance of water throughout Japan and the dangers that come with it, this does not surprise me, but whether kappa warn children about the dangers of drowning, or whether the kappa themselves are the dangers, differs depending on the stories of each locale. Their descriptions vary according to each account, but in general, they are child-size aquatic creature with a little depression on the top of their head that serves as a little basin for water. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai is a blog that focuses on Japan’s stories of ghosts and other strange things, and they have written more extensively about kappa, but being a San’in region blog, I’ll leave the more detailed descriptions to them.
Here in Matsue, if you want kappa, you go to Kawatsu-cho, a neighborhood with a river running through it where kappa are said to live. The local elementary school has made kappa-themed signs and posters, both taking the creatures as an unofficial mascot. In Sakaiminato City right across Lake Nakaumi, which is of course known for its connections with Mizuki Shigeru, Japan’s ultimate modern folklorist, has kappa mixed in with the hundreds of other haunts found there.
However, the best place in the region for any dedicated kappa fan is Okinoshima-cho, on the largest of the Oki Islands. A neighborhood near the ferry port is so filled with kappa legends that the Kappa Federal Republic (yes, that’s a thing) held their 26th annual summit there in 2013, with members of this roughly 500-person Republic coming together from all over Japan. I was there the following year and found their commemorative statue.
A kappa tour by boat is offered April through September by the Okinoshima-cho Tourism Association. Besides taking you on a hunt for the possibly real, possibly mythical creatures, they provide a nice view of the harbor, island, and neighborhood scenery and a good way to cool off on a hot summer day.
Although I did not spot any live kappa from the boat, I did receive a nice kappa fan, which was great for the weather. Ah, not to mention the kappa I met while walking around afterward.
Although people everywhere has some idea what a kappa is and what sorts of places you’d find them in, locales like Okinoshima-cho have a public awareness of these creatures’ supposed presence, evident both in local shrines and art.
Even without the kappa, the Oki Islands are the ultimate quiet island-life getaway, with a very unique homegrown culture almost as unique as the islands’ geological and biographical features. I very much so enjoyed during my visit, but despite the decreasing population like that which plagues most of rural Japan, this is the kind of place that grabs so people’s hearts and attention so much that they happily drop their city lives and transplant themselves here for good.
It probably helps that the kappa here are on the friendly side–sort of. There are many stories throughout Japan of kappa being helpful tricksters only if you trick them first, after which point they keep their promises. One such story took place in this neighborhood, where an old lady named Saito caught a kappa strealing cucumbers from her garden (kappa do love cucumbers, after all). Old Lady Saito caught it and cut off its hand, which shriveled up as the kappa escaped into the river. She kept the shriveled hand as a trophy, and some time later, the kappa sheepishly returned and begged for its hand back. She agreed, on the condition that the kappy protect her family. Thereafter, all the neighborhood kids would shout “I’m the grandchild of Saito!” before jumping into the river so that they kappa would not attack them or save them if they face drowning.
While no one can promises a kappa encounter where they are nonetheless frequently sighted(?), your best bet any time of year is to visit the Kappa Park, which an amusing array of kappa themed art to enjoy. I feel it’s fairly safe to say that these are on the harmless side.