Angels and trolls in the Land of the Rising Sun

Angels and trolls in the Land of the Rising Sun


Some say they look like apes while others believe they have beaked, tortoise-like faces. With thick shells and scaly skin in blue, green or yellow, they live in rivers and ponds and have webbed hands and feet. They supposedly smell like fish and swim like them too!
The secret of a kappa’s strength lies in a water-filled depression on top of his head.
Kappas can be outwitted if the water from their head is spilled or drained out. Yet, this can easily be done by appealing to a kappa’s deep and inherent sense of etiquette. If a person bows to a kappa, he will bow in return and in the process lose his life-sustaining fluid!

The Japanese custom of bowing is traditionally imposed on naughty and strong-willed children on the ground that it’s a defense and a safeguard against kappas.

In Japanese lore, kappas are troublemakers who steal crop, kidnap children, feed on humans by sucking out their entrails (blood, liver or life force).

Even today, signs warning about kappas can be seen near water bodies in some Japanese towns and villages. Kappas are said to be afraid of fire, so some villages organise a festival of fireworks every year to scare them away.

Fairy folk

Japanese folklore is full of mythological creatures. Harmless Japanese fairies, seen as birds, cranes or swans, are called yoseis. A heavenly creature who may appear on a mountain before a unsuspecting traveller is the tennin. Japanese Buddhists consider her an angel or a fairy. To meet a tennin, pilgrims used to eagerly scale summits.

There’s also Chin Chin Kobana. The musical name evokes the tinkling music of wind chimes, doesn’t it? Chin Chin Kobana are Japanese fairies who appear to be elderly but their energy is unbelievable. And this energy  is not a product of wonder food or spinach! Extremely agile, Chin Chin Kobana can be either male or female. They move into human homes and bless them as long as they keep their houses clean and tidy. Animals with powers of transformation for either benevolent or malevolent purposes are called henge in Japanese. The kitsune (fox) and the tanuki (raccoon) are considered masters of transformation.

The legendary tengu or bird-man goblin of the forests and mountains is revered and feared as the slayer of vanity and pride. With the head of crow but sporting human ears and hair, a tengu has bird-like hands, feet and a beak with sharp teeth.

Tengus can easily change their appearance and transform into human-like creatures, but they almost always retain a vestige of their true form, such as an extremely long nose or bird-like silhouette which is a clue to their real identity.  Tengus can either be benevolent or malicious. They love to play pranks by starting forest fires or fires in front of temples. They dupe lost mountain travellers by assuming friendly forms such as hermits.

Tanukis are also masters of magic. They have shape-shifting powers and can transform into a living or non-living object.  There are stories about how a tanuki can even assume the form of a tea kettle to play tricks on humans!

Living in lowlands, forests and mountain valleys, they are extremely mischievous and play tricks on hunters and woodmen. They are powerful illusioners, who can turn leaves into fake money.

Now that you familiar with kappas, you also know why the Japanese love to bow. It’s to outwit the kappas!

So, if you ever come across a kappa, just bow low. He will do the rest. And if you ever come across a tanuki, run for cover. Or else, he will dupe you in a jiffy!