Skip to main content

Kappadera, the temple for naughty water sprites

I need to warn you that this post is X-rated.

Right, now that I've made sure you'll read until the end, let's continue.

You probably all know about Kappabashi, also known as Kitchen Town, right? It's the street in Asakusa where you can buy kitchen utensils, plastic food and razor-sharp Japanese knives.

どこへ行くの あさくさ!Where are you going to? Asakusa!

This is one of my favourite streets in the shitamachi.

Kappabashi is written 合羽橋 in Japanese, and its mascot is the kappa (河童, river child), legendary water sprites that are full of mischief: they love farting loudly or looking up women's kimono, but they can also get nasty and kidnap children. Have you noticed that the street and the water imp have different kanji in their names? That's partly because they're homophones (Japan does love its homophones) and partly ... keep reading.¹

The street itself is famous, but did you know that there's a kappa temple in this area? It's called Sōgen-ji (曹源寺) and it's a Soto Zen temple situated in Matsugaya 3-Chōme, almost exactly halfway between Ueno Station and Asakusa Station.

The entrance to Sōgen-ji


The temple complex includes a smaller temple with a big name, 波乗福河童大明神 or Namenori-fuku-kappa-daimyōjin, which roughly means "the temple that enshrines the god that helps you ride the wave of success". Well, that's what I was told, and it makes sense, since it's commonly believed that if you see a kappa, your business will thrive.²

The smaller kappa temple next to Sōgen-ji

A notice board at the temple explains the story in more detail. A raincoat maker called Kappa Kawatarō³ lived in this vicinity in the 19th century. The area used to be a basin with poor drainage, and floods would often cause undue trouble for the residents. Kawatarō started constructing a series of drainage ditches with his own money. The project was completed with the help of river kappa that Kawatarō had treated kindly in the past. There's a stone in front of the kappa temple that's allegedly Kawatarō's grave.

The temple has several kappa statues, and they're clearly boys. There's one girl who modestly protects her girly bits. Too cute.

Kappa at Sōgen-ji

Kappa are said to love cucumbers, and you'll always see fresh cucumbers left as an offer at this temple. If you visit, do yourself a favour, walk up the steps and peer into the temple itself. You'll see a superb collection of kappa paintings, statues and trinkets.

Cucumbers for hungry kappa

That entire area is a shining example of good branding: you see kappa on the street, on rooftops, in shops, on menus and, if you look closely, in chōzubachi (手水鉢) at temples. Promise.

Another tip for tourists who might stumble onto this post: most foreign tourists visit the broad street that runs parallel to the Sumida River, because that’s where you'll find the kitchen shops, but I recommend that smaller street that I followed to the temple. (See my map.) That's the one with the real shitamachi atmosphere.

Kappa branding above your head and ...

... under your feet.

Incidentally, I've done zazen at Sōgen-ji (link). I wouldn't recommend it to all and sundry. It would be better to have some understanding of Japanese and some experience of zazen. These photos of me were taken by another practitioner:

1) I plagiarized myself in this paragraph. It comes from an older Kappabashi post which you can find here.
2) The Japanese word for surfing is 波乗, naminori, wave riding.

3) Kappa Kawatarō = Raincoat Kawatarō.

Kappanogi-chan is a statue next to Sōgen-ji's entrance.
Do you think he's supposed to look like a cucumber?


This is Kawatarō's grave.

Golden statue in Kappabashi

Typical restaurant

I have no idea why Anpanman is flying high above Kappabashi.
Because ... Tokyo.

Autumn is here.

A Facebook page for kappa, and below, umai kappa ramen, delicious
kappa ramen and various kappa-approved snacks.
I've also included several examples of kappa lights above shops.

This warning in Asakusa Station (on the Tsukuba Express Line) cracked me up.
Tourist-san, if you're looking for the Ginza Line in this area, you're really lost!
It's thataway, other side of the big temple, towards the river.

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.

It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

South Africa is not a safety country (hallelujah)

I did. Smile. Nonstop. Al die pad dwarsdeur end-uit.

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.

I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

The golden flower of the emperor

I never paid much attention to the golden flower, despite the fact that it's the symbol of Japan's imperial family. Chrysanthemums – the English name is derived from the Greek wordschrysos (gold) and anthemon (flower) – were just too uptight. Very prim and proper and fussy and rigid.
They look plastic, I thought, until I accidentally bumped into a chrysanthemum display at Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya and noticed the wide variety of cultivars. I jumped into my books and went surfing with Google, and think I owe the chrysanthemum an apology. It's a very interesting flower.

It was first cultivated in China in the fifteenth century BC, and was regarded as one of the so-called four noble plants: orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, chrysanthemum. The book Bencao GangmubyLi Shizhen, which was written during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644),lists hundreds of varieties. Nowadays, I understand, there are thousands.
The flower eventually found its way to Japan, where it was called kiku (菊) and revered…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

Yotsuya Kaidan, Japan's favourite ghost story

Kaidan! Ghost stories! You ready?
August is the month of Obon (お盆), a Buddhist festival that honours ancestral spirits, who are believed to return to their birthplaces in this week.  Since otherworldly beings are wandering about, it's also the perfect time for ghost stories or kaidan.
Kaidan (怪談) consists of two kanji: 怪 (kai) meaning "strange, mysterious or bewitching apparition" and 談 (dan) meaning"talk"or "recited narrative". It's a slightly old-fashioned word that conjures up tales from the Edo era, and we're going to start our August Kaidan Series with an old Edo tale of murder, betrayal and revenge that remains the most famous ghost story in Japan.
It's called Yotsuya Kadain (四谷怪談), and it proves that "heavenhas norage like love to hatred turned, norhellafury like a woman scorned".¹ It's roughly based on a real event: a woman called Oiwa² married a man called Tamiya Iuzaemon, but after their divorce, various misfortunes be…

The bamboo grove at Hōkoku-ji in Kamakura

I love bamboo in all its forms: from strolling through a bamboo forest to eating takenoko (bamboo shoots). I also think wind in bamboo is one of the loveliest sounds in the world.

The most famous bamboo forest within reach of Tokyo is in the Arashiyama district near Kyoto, but there's another one – less known, but in a way much more charming – in Kamakura. It's more a grove than a forest, but you can find it at Hōkoku-ji (報国寺)in the eastern part of Kamakura. It's on Route 204 that runs from Kamakura to the Yokohama-Yokosuka Expressway.

Although Hōkoku-ji is tiny compared to Arashiyama, it's better in one way: it's more intimate. Arashiyama is a big forest, but the bamboo is fenced off and you walk along an asphalt road that's wide enough for a car. Hōkoku-ji is small, but you walk through it on a narrow path made from stones, and the only barrier between you and the bamboo is very low rope. The disadvantage of Hōkoku-ji's easygoing approach is this:

I don'…