Now that I’ve moved back to Tokyo and finally settled into the new apartment, it’s time to start shopping to kit out my kitchen. Compared to my old kitchen in Kumamoto, I have three times the space in this one. No more carting appliances from the living room when I want to use them and no more balancing my cutting board on my trash can when I run out of room! So, when the weather cools down, it’s off to Kappabashi – the kitchen neighborhood of Tokyo – to fill out some of these empty shelves.
Kappabashi gets its name from the mythical kappa, a creature that is known as a river imp or water sprite. Kappa live in rivers, lakes, streams or other bodies of fresh water. Kappa have a very unique physical appearance that seems to combine the characteristics of several animals – webbed hands and feet like a frog, an ape-like head, and a tortoiseshell on its back. On its head is a bowl-like cavity. Allegedly, this hollow cavity holds the kappa’s life force or strength. That’s why it is always advisable to bow deeply upon meeting a kappa. Manners (and kappa are apparently very proper, I hear) dictate that the kappa bow in return, causing him to spill what’s contained in his head and lose his strength.
Depending on the portrayal, a kappa can look harmless or downright frightening. In centuries past, the excuse of the kappa was used to keep children away from rivers and lakes, ostensibly preventing drowning. Kids were told that the kappa would kidnap them and carry them off to watery realms if they got too close to the water. In some regions of Japan, kappa also pursued women, dragging them away in the night for nefarious purposes.
Apparently, the kappa does have a decent side. When taken from his watery realm and stripped off his strength, the kappa can be quite benevolent. He’s a noted bone-setter and primitive healer and also assisted communities in the fields with their harvest.
The casual traveler may come across the kappa at the sushi restaurant … at least in the form of kappamaki, or cucumber rolls. One of the only makizushi, or roll type sushi, to be perennially popular in Japan, the food is so named because kappa LOVE cucumbers. Even today, festivals that pay homage to the kappa always include an offering of cucumbers.
The mascot of Kappabashi is a cartoon kappa and you can actually visit a shrine dedicated to the kappa about midway along the shopping street.