A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Kappa`s Hand at the Sanoko Community Center – and the Sanoko Kappa Festival (postponed this year) 佐野子の河童の手


The tiny “Kappa`s Hand” preserved at the Sanoko Community Center (formerly the Manzo-ji Temple), on the western bank of the Sakura River. For centuries revered as the “Guardian of the Village” ( believed to prevent drowning accidents and bring rain in times of drought), it is put on display every year on the first weekend of June, the centerpiece of the Kappa Matsuri Festival (which has been postponed this year). After having examined it, zoologists at the Ueno Zoo declared that the “hand” belonged to neither human nor monkey – but could not say for sure what creature it did come from – so who knows? According to local legend (recounted below) the hand was pulled off a mischievious water-sprite (kappa) who had been responsible (the locals believed) for several drownings and near drownings. In summer, kappa festivals are held all over Japan*, but the one that takes place in this tiny village is rare in that it is centered around this strange artifact.  (I have translated two versions of the Sanoko Kappa legend  into English and provide them below)

By Avi Landau

I often bring guests (or come by myself) to this segment of the Sakura River (just to the north of where the annual Tsuchiura Fireworks Competition is held) – for the old soy-sauce factory (on the eastern bank) – and the magnificent, stinky and raucous egret roosting grounds (both located near the spot from which I took this shot.

On the eastern bank, across the Suijin Bashi Bridge (if you are coming from Tsukuba) , is the old Shibanuma Soy Sauce factory. And when I say old, I mean it. The family started making and selling soy-sauce back in 1688 and they would transport their wares to Edo (now Tokyo) by ship – traversing Lake Kasumigaura and a few rivers and canals to get there.You can still buy their products at any of Tsukuba`s supermarkets (and in 35 countries around the world, as well).

One of the more exciting places for bird-watching in the Tsukuba area (actually Tsuchiura, but only about 5 minutes by car from Tsukuba Center) this Sagiyama (egret nesting ground) is just north of the bridge that most Tsukubans drive over to get to Tsuchiura.

Hidden behind a protective embankment (constructed in 1957), is the bucolic hamlet of Sanoko (can you see the rooftops among the trees?) Though I`d passed it hundreds of times, I had never even noticed it was there – until I did, and made some exciting discoveries!

The village of Sanoko (佐野子) consists basically of this single main road, lined with houses on each side, sandwiched between the river embankment and the rice fields. A book on local place-name etymologies suggests two possible meanings for this hamlet`s unusual moniker. One, apparently provided by the villagers themselves, is that their ancestors had come to this spot from a village called Saya (佐谷), in what is now Kasumigaura City, and thus called themselves SA no KO, meaning: the children (descendants) of Sa(ya). Another theory, (which seems far-fetched to me), is that that the sounds SA NO KO (and not the actual Japanese characters actually now used to write the name) mean – “a little corner, tucked inside a little corner of a hill by the water” (???)

This impressive 23rd Night sacred stone (carved in 1811) is what first drew my attention to the Sanoko Community Center as I cycled by it one day – and led to my discovery of the Kappa Hand legend. According to the engraved inscriptions, it was erected by the Young Men`s Association of the village for their monthly 23rd Night Meetings. Such KOH (講) prayer groups were an important part of village life in this area, especially during the Edo Period (and they still exist today). The 23rd night according to lunar calendar is the night of the half moon. Since that was believed to be a very inauspicious time to concieve a child, men and women did not spend the night together. In some villages (such as Sanoko) it was only the men who stayed in the prayer hall, and in others, it was only the women. (The most popular night of the month in the Tsukuba area for these types of KOH is the 19th JU-KU-YA (十九夜).)

In the Tsukuba/Tsuchiura area, small hall`s like this one usually contain rustic old statues of Kukai, the founder of the Shingon Sect of Esoteric Buddhism. But the sign on the front of this one, reading; Kappa Hall (かっぱ堂), told me that it sheltered something quite different.

Peering inside the grating, I found this stone statue of a Kappa (Japanese water-sprite), erected in 2010.

On the side of the small Kappa Hall is this sign – which explains the history of the hall ( saying that it was built in 2010, on the 70 anniversary of Tsuchiura`s incorporation as a city) and also recounts the Legend of the Kappa Hand (one version of it). See below for my translation.

A Roku Jizo (Six Jizo) set in the overgrown brush. These were made in 1848. You might not believe it, seeing them like this, but these jizo are quite beloved in the village and when visits to ancestral graves in the adjacent cemetery are made in spring, autumn and August, the first stop everyone makes is at these six stone Buddhas.

Just to the east of the Six Jizo is this statue of Jizo Bosatsu, erected in 1779. The name of the village is also engraved on the base: 常陽佐野子村(Sanoko Village of Joyo).

The Sanoko Community Center was built (1957) on the spot where the Manzo-ji Temple (established in the year 1013) long stood. Located on the banks of the Sakura River meant the old temple was damaged time and again by floods. It had been repaired and rebuilt repeatedly , until finally, when a new river embankment was constructed in the late 1950s, it was decided to put its survivng “treasures” (the Kappa Hand and a few fine 14th century painted hanging scrolls) in this “modern” (for that time) structure.

Another distinctive characteristic of this tiny hamlet is that some of it homes have the family name written on ridge-end ornamental roof-tiles – very rare!

Back on the other side of the river are these old wooden tubs that were used at the Shibanuma Soy Sauce Factory. In the Edo Period there were three famous soy sauce towns – Choshi, Noda and Tsuchiura. And while Noda still thrives as the Sho-yu capital of Japan (when you get off the train there your nose is met by the its strong aroma wafting in the air!) only one of Tsuchiura`s old soy-sauce makers has survived.

Going dow for a closer look.

Now this is something VERY rare in the Tsukuba area – a Shogun jizo (勝軍地蔵), dated 1795. This type of Jizo (easily recognizable as a Jizo on horseback) was long a popular object of worship among warriors starting way back in the late Kamakura Period (not surprising since its name means the “Victory in Battle Jizo”), but the common-folk were devoted to this same deity for another reason – they believed it prevented fires (in association with the Shinto deity of Atago Shrine. In fact, the people in Sanako call this Shogun Jizo “Atago-sama” and a representatives of the village go to the Atago Shrine in Iwama every January 24th to pay respects and bring back an amulet (Ofuda). This very special sacred stone is up on the embankment at the far end of the village.

Another rarity – Aizen Myoo (愛染明王)! Dated 1773, this unique Japanese deity (worshipped by those who suffer from sexual frustration, helping them to channel their desires into spritual growth!) has been designated as an Important Stone Carving of Tsuchiura City. It was paid for by the “Old and Young Men`s Association”. Aizen Myoo prayer meetings were held on the 26th of every month.

This Seishi Bosatsu (勢至菩薩) dated 1795, is probably one of the more finely carved sacred stones in the area. This deity is worshipped on the 23rd night – so as you have probably guessed, it was paid for by the same “Young Men`s Association” that had the large and impressive 23rd Night Stone that I`ve posted above erected. It`s located in the same grove as the Aizen Myoo.

This magnificent GORITO monument is the largest of its kind in Tsuchiura (standing 2.65 meters tall) and it has been designated an Important Cultural Property of the city. It is located in a small graveyard in the middle of a wild field about 3 hundred meters west of the Aizen Myoo shown above. There is no date inscribed on it, but based on its design it is thought to have been made in the mid-Muromachi Period (which would mean sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries). The locals believe it to be the grave of Myo-zawa Shonin (1307-1388), the priest of the Manzo-ji Temple involved in the “Kappa Incident” described below.

It is very easy to understand why the kappa legend was created – to keep children away from rivers amd irrigation canals! And that really strikes a chord with me. My greatest stress while living out in a traditional village near the foot of Mt. Tsukuba was that my kids would fall into the irrigation canal that ran along our front yard. It was always STAY AWAY FROM THE RIVER! And with active little kids you could never let your guard down. Traditionally fear of kappa (whose fictional characteristics are a blend of turtle and river otter and probably led to many imagined sightings) helped keep the kids away! (This 17th century illustration was made in what is now Oita Prefecture on Kyushu).

Kappa have many set characteristics in Japanese folk-lore. Most importantly, is that the top of their head is shaped like a shallow dish which always has to have water in it (or they will lose their strength!). They also usually have a turtle-like shell on their backs.

Kappa are said to love sumo wrestling – and cucumbers (sushi rolls containing cucumber are called Kappa-maki!)

Another of the many Edo Period illustrations of Kappa.

When people drowned in Japan, it was believed that they died because a kappa had pulled something called the SHIRI KODAMA out of their rectums! You can see that happening in this illustration.


The Kappa Hand (version found in Folktales of Tsuchiura)

Long, long ago, in a village called Sanoko, there was a household of well-to-do farmers known as Kyuzaemon. One of the members of that family was a young many of great strength, known in the area as “Grand Champion” of local Sumo wrestling.  One year in May, when everyone had to start readying the rice fields for transplantation, this young man was out with horse turning up the muddy soil.

When evening came and he had finished his work for the day, he took the horse, all caked in dirt, into the river behind his house, as he usally did, for a good cool-down and scrubbing But something must have frightened the beast, because suddenly, it gave a terrific start and frantically made its way out of the water. Keeping his eye on the horse to make sure it was alright, the young man saw something clinging onto its tail – an animal of some sort. At first glance he thought it was a monkey… but he quickly realized it was creature he had never seen before – and a strange looking thing it was, too!

Well without hesitating even a second, the young man grabbed whatever it was of his horse`s tail, and tried to squeeze the life out of the thing, as if it were a test of strength of some sort. As he pressed down on it, the creature put its front hands together as if in prayer – as if it were pleading for its own life… and just like the soft-hearted person he really was, the powerful young man felt pity for the miserable critter. He lifted his face and consulted the villagers who`d gathered round to watch the spectacle.

He said, “I don`t know what, but for whatever the reason, I`m gonna let this thing live.”

And with that, he looked down at the creature and said, ” Every year there are kids around here who are pulled under the river, and some of them die… that`s your doing isn`t it? Well, listen to me and listen good. I`m gonna let you live, y`hear. But there is one condition. You`re gonna promise that nothing like that is ever gonna happen again – no more drowning, do you understand?”

But before he let it go, the young man needed a sign, something to proof that the deal had been sealed… so he cut its left hand off and let it slip back into the river.

And after that there were no more drowning, and the villagers felt safe and secure. They realized that it must have been because that kappa whose life had been spared had changed his ways and was now protecting them. As a way of saying thanks, the people to the hand that had been cut off over to the local Manzo-ji temple, where services were held in its honor.

One year when the rice plants were not doing well because of drought, the villagers remembered the kappa hand that was being kept at the temple. They immediately had it brought out, and festive HAYASHI music was performed. It wasn`t long before the rain started to fall and the rice crop was saved. Since then, the kappa hand has always been revered as a bringer of rains in times of emergency.

(Translated by Avi Landau)


A Kappa statue perched on a bridge in Ushiku (the city just to the south of Tsukuba). Kappa`s are the official mascot there.

And another version, found posted on the side of the kappa Hall….

Where the Sakura River flowed past the village of Sanoko, there lived a kappa water-sprite who loved to play mischief of all sorts. One thing it especially liked to do was pull children playing on its banks down into the river, and as a result, every year, several children would drown.

One evening, after hed finished turning up the soil in the rice fields, Master Uhachi took his horse, all dirtied with mud, into the river and started to wash it. But suddenly the horse jolted with surprise and started bucking in terror. Wondering what in the world was going on, Uhachi tried to calm the animal down while at the same time he moved towards its back end so he could see what it was that was wrong. And wouldn`t you know it! Clinging onto the horse`s tail, and trying with all its might to pull it down into the water was a kappa!

“Well, well,” said Uhachi, “this must be the kappa that been causing all the trouble in these parts! So y`know what? I`m gonna catch me the little devil !”

So pretending he hadn`t noticed a thing, he snuck up stealthily, grabbed the kappa firmly by the arm and pulled it up out of the water! Then he he bound it up with a rope and took it into the village.

When the villagers heard him call out – “Hey! I`ve caught the kappa ! – all the hatred and resentment that had being building up inside them (with all those children having drowned over the years) came gushing to the surface. There were cries of “Let`s kill it!” and “Let me at it!” ringing out everywhere.

Hearing the commotion, the Reverend Myo-zawa, the priest of the Manzo-ji temple came out and said: ” I understand your anger, everyone. And you have every reason to feel that way.”

But he pleaded with them over and over again: ” I will make sure that it never causes us trouble ever again. I promise that. I only ask of you one thing though – that you let it keep its life. And since their beloved priest seemed to feel so strongly about it, the people eventually gave in.

And to make sure it could never pull any children or animals down under the water ever again, he cut off its right hand. Then, saying: “Don`t make trouble ever again!” he released the kappa and it slipped back into the water.

The priest took the severed hand back to the temple, where he performed a special service for it. Then he wrapped in a fine cloth and then stored in a special lacquer box where it dried out and has been preserved successfully for 700 years surviving the floods and fires that ravaged the temple itself (the villagers never forgot to rush in and rescue it when the temple was inundated or in flames).

Translated by Avi Landau


Statue of a kappa (Ushiku City). The Ushiku version of the kappa legend goes like this: Someone was walking along the shores of Lake Ushiku, happened upon an unusual object – a kappa`s finger! Feeling himself quite lucky, he took it home with him. But that night, the kappa who`d lost the finger appeared to him in a dream pleading -“Give me back my finger… please! How about a trade? If you give it back, I`ll teach you how to make a cure-all medicine!” And finding those terms quite favorable, the man returned the finger – and got the recipe for a cure-all long-used in the area Iwase Manno Ko- (岩瀬万応膏)

The sign on the hall then goes on to say something interesting. That whenever the kappa`s hand was taken out of its box, there would be heavy rain and flooding. So for many years it was not shown to anyone – and that`s why a bronze statue was made – to be a surrogate “Guardian of the Village”, one that was safe to look at!

The reason I find this so interesting is that this was the same story I heard when I went to see the Noguchi Family Masks (in Kukuzaki, Tsukuba) – that if they were taken out of their box, heavy rains would fall!

Kappa on a bridge in Ushiku

*Within easy reach of Tsukuba there are two other Kappa Festivals – a big, lively one in Ushiku (the artist Ogawa Usen, who lived in that city, is most famous for his kappa paintings), and then a smaller one in Omitama, now Namegata City (near the Ibaraki Airport). There you can find a small bridge called the Tebai Hashi (手奪橋) – The Hand Losing Bridge – whic is connected to a story that is a little different than the one told in Sanonko.  Though the horse and the hand-cutting remain the same, in the Namegata version instead of promising not to drown children, the kappa promises to give the villagers a special cure-all medicine!

And here`s is something exciting that I have come to realize while writing this post. Kappas are always attacking horses (as the one in the Sanoko legend does). But it is also said that monkeys can keep the horses safe – and that is why in pre-modern times, monkeys (or images of monkeys) were kept inside stables (as seen, for example, in this 13th century picture scroll). And that is why the Saru Mawashi monkey trainers (who you can still see around Ibaraki Prefecture today (now as mere entertainers) would be paid to take their monkeys around the homes of the wealthy at New Year`s time – not only to keep out misfortune – but to keep the kappas away!

This bridge across the Sakura River is called Suijin Bashi (Water Deity Bridge) – but since the kappa is also a “water deity”, on the day of its festival this bridge is called “Kappa Bashi” Bridge. And this can help explain the “logic” behind the monkey`s power to protect horses from kappa. You see, according to one theory, the kappa is the “Deity of the Water” and monkeys are the “Deity of the Mountains” and being opposites, they cancel each other out, and the kappa`s threat to any horse protected by a monkey is neutralized!

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