Friday, 4 January 2013

Kappa and the Samurai’s Grave

Decorations in Kappabashi-dori
My favourite yokai is without a doubt the kappa (although I am partial to the umbrella spirit  傘お化け too). One day when this came up in class, a co-worker asked if I was aware that there are kappa in the river behind our school. The students expressed some disbelief, and she reminded them about the grave stone. There was a general chorus of “ooooh, yeah” and “that’s right!” Afterwards I asked the teacher about it and she told me the story of a local samurai whose death at the hands of kappa is commemorated with a monument near the river bank.
The samurai grew vegetables, and one day he noticed some eggplants (aubergines) had grown with a pattern in their skin that resembled the daimyo’s family crest. He was excited at the idea of presenting the ripe eggplants to the daimyo and wondered what sort of reward or good fortune might come his way as a result. He carefully tended to the young eggplants, but one morning he found that one had been taken. The next night he laid a trap and waited in ambush. A kappa swam up out of the river and came into the garden, taking another eggplant. The samurai leapt out and killed him. The next day the samurai was summoned to meet with the daimyo. As he hastened down the road the kappa's three sons bared his way and demanded that, having killed their father, he must duel one of them. In a rush to get to the daimyo to samurai refused, promising to discuss the matter with them on his return, and rushed away. The incensed young kappa vowed vengeance. They gathered all the kappa of the river and laid an ambush. When the samurai returned from his meeting with the daimyo the kappa leapt out and slaughtered him.
Although in this story it was an eggplant, traditionally kappa are meant to like cucumbers. So, obviously, I thought eating a cucumber near a stream might be a good way to find some. Sadly it didn't work.
I was very excited to see the grave stone, but although everyone vaguely knew the story no one seemed to really know where it was. I got a map from the library that had historical sites marked, but like most Japanese sightseeing maps there was no consistent scale and no minor roads marked. I rode down the little side street I thought it might be, between scary old houses that looked abandoned but had very angry sounding dogs chained in the yards, and ended up at an old temple. I could see an overgrown graveyard through the trees so I decided to go in and look for the grave. The bell tower was crumbling away and I was afraid that it might collapse as I walked under it, but being crushed to death by a giant Buddhist bell in the middle of an abandoned temple while looking for a monument to a samurai killed by kappa seemed like a suitably dramatic way to go, so I walked through the gate anyway.

Someone was obviously coming in to care for the graves, but the same could not be said of the temple itself. Vines were growing all over it, through the windows, and monkeys seemed to have moved in. I couldn't find the right grave stone and it started to rain, so I gave up.

I walked into a classroom, gave a student a bit of paper and said "draw a kappa"... no questions asked she whipped this up for me in two minutes.
The next time I visited that school a student came to tell me where the grave was (a few steps from her house, actually). Word of my quest had gotten around. She told me that it had been overgrown and surrounded by trees, but recently it had "きれいになった" (been cleaned up). I found it easily following her directions but was disappointed to find that "cleaned up" meant covered in concrete as part of the construction of a cul de sac housing development. Ahh, Japan. Despite the lack of suitable atmosphere I was very happy to have finally found it.

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