Once upon a time, an old and venerable temple overlooked a mighty river. For miles around many came to pray there, dearly hoping to encounter its high priest.
Ruling over the monks for years, he was a revered man, famous for his moral rectitude. Unwavering, he would never pardon his flock if their regrets were not honest and absolutely sincere.
Yet, under his stern face and austere attitude, the high priest also had good heart and was always ready to guide lost souls on the path of redemption.
One night, after a very long service of prayers and sutra recitations, the holy man finally headed for the restroom. As it was customary, those toilets had been built over the flowing river, a clever natural flush.
In the small room only lit by dim candlelight, the high priest pulled up his black heavy robes and squatted.
Before he had the time to relieve himself, something cold and wet touched his bottom. He started:
– My, the river must be running very wild tonight!
He squatted back, ready to do his business. But once again, the cool and slippery feeling returned. This time there was no mistake: a small hand was definitely patting his behind!
The high priest was a calm man, not easily shaken nor flustered. He did not squeak or pull away and run. Below him, the watery hand was still patting blindly, slowly but surely approaching his most private part.
With tranquille move, the man seized the knife tuck into his belt. Then swiftly, he turned on his heels and caught the wandering limb. And with a precise strike, he cut it off.
The priest quickly stood up and approached the flickering lamp. He furrowed his brow: the hand he was holding had nothing human. Instead of fingers, the appendage looked like a webbed feet, topped with sturdy claws. In the faded light, damp greenish scales glittered darkly.
Outside the restroom, a gurgling noise suddenly rose in the dark:
– Hurt! I am hurt!
The holy man opened the door and froze. In front of him, dripping wet amid the wooden hallway, stood a sobbing little creature. Green and slimy from head to toes, its impish features were crowned by a bald and flat scalp.
The water imp extended its wounded arm:
– Master please: give me back my hand!
The high priest snorted:
– You had it coming! Don’t you think I know that you kappa folks love to steal human souls?
The kappa’s eyes widened and it whined:
– But they’re so tasty!
The man squared his shoulders and said, in his most solemn voice:
– This is but a fair punishment. I hope this will teach you a lesson! Now begone!
The kappa bawling swelled and swelled and soon, it disappeared into a puddle.
The next evening though, as the high priest was sleeping soundly, he suddenly woke up with a start. A pungent smell of rotten fish filled his nose.
A small voice pierced the night:
– Master please: give me back my hand. What I did was bad, I swear I won’t do it again!
The priest was not a bad man and not exactly proud of having wounded a living creature. He sighed deeply:
– Kappa, you and your brothers are mischievous beings at heart. I am not sure you have truly understood your mistake… You must repent sincerely, from the bottom of your heart.
The imp lowered its bald head, its huge eyes watery. Moments later, it had plunged back into the river.
Days passed, uneventful. The high priest had put the kappa’s hand away into a wooden box. And he ended up forgetting it. Yet one night, as he was absorbed by his prayers, he felt a slight nudge. The kappa had finally returned.
The creature bowed politely, then kneeled in front of the high priest, its webbed feet neatly tucked under itself.
– Master, I have decided I will never annoy or harm human beings ever again.
The holy man was surprised: gone was the wimpy trickster, the kappa sounded calm and composed, at peace with itself.
– Good, this is very good. I believe you want your hand back now?
The kappa had a small laugh and answered with a fangy smile:
– You can keep it! After all, I deserved it: I did try to eat your very soul!
The priest was taken aback, he had not expected that reply. Heart beating, he took the wooden box and bowing offered it to the water imp:
– You have truly repented my friend, and I am proud of you! Here, take your hand back, it was harsh of me to cut it down!
The kappa’s eyes glittered with tears as he seized the box:
– Master, you truly are a wise man.
The beast took its hand and like by magic, the lost limb reattached itself to its arm. In a matter of second, it had completely healed, with not even a soft scar showing.
The high priest gasped: he knew kappa had a deep medical knowledge, but seeing it from his own eyes was a miracle. The imp caught his unabashed admiration:
– You know Master, I could teach you to heal bones and wounds if you’d like!
The man looked up, surprised, and whispered:
– That would be the most precious gift ever offered to this temple…
And from this day on, the repented imp, true to its word, taught the high priest everything he knew. Soon, the temple became renowned for its healing monks and many people were saved – all thank to the nimble hand of a kappa.
Kappa are one of the most famous Japanese monsters. If those funny looking (and cucumber loving) imps are now considered somehow cute, it had not always been the case. For centuries, kappa have been in fact deeply feared: people thought that they loved to drown all those foolish enough to enter their territory.
Kappa were also said to avidly searched to steal human’s shirikodama, a mythical jewel which was then thought to be the physical form of our soul… and was located inside the anus. Kappa are often shown having an obsession for human’s buttocks: in ukiyo-e and tales, you can find them depicted trying to get that pearl, by patting bottoms – or biting them! This myth could have been caused by the look of drowned people behinds when their were finally found.
But kappa also had a brighter side and were sometimes shown harmless pranksters, quite attached to courtesy rules. Those imps were also known for their great medical skills – be it bone setting or medicine making, a talent often linked to water creatures.