The Ape of Waters

Takagi Toranosuke capturing a kappa underwater
Artwork by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)

Lafcadio Hearn was a remarkable writer of the 19th century best known for his fascination with Japanese culture. Born in Greece and raised in Ireland, it was in 1890 that Hearn first visited Japan, its rich tapestry of history, folklore, and traditions instantly enchanting him. He wrote the following journal entry a year after arriving, capturing in his unique style the mesmerising observations and experiences of the country’s famed Obon festival. Five years later, reflecting his deep connection with his adopted home, Hearn would change his name to Koizumi Yakumo, immersing himself completely in the culture he had come to love.

The Diary Entry

It is the fifteenth day of the seventh month—and I am in Hōki.

The blanched road winds along a coast of low cliffs—the coast of the Japanese Sea. Always on the left, over a narrow strip of stony land, or a heaping of dunes, its vast expanse appears, blue-wrinkling to that pale horizon beyond which Korea lies, under the same white sun. Sometimes, through sudden gaps in the cliff’s verge, there flashes to us the running of the surf. Always upon the right another sea—a silent sea of green, reaching to far misty ranges of wooded hills, with huge pale peaks behind them—a vast level of rice-fields, over whose surface soundless waves keep chasing each other under the same great breath that moves the blue to-day from Chōsen to Japan.

Though during a week the sky has remained unclouded, the sea has for several days been growing angrier; and now the muttering of its surf sounds far into the land. They say that it always roughens thus during the period of the Festival of the Dead—the three days of the Bon, which are the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of the seventh month by the ancient calendar. And on the sixteenth day, after the shōryōbune, which are the Ships of Souls, have been launched, no one dares to enter it: no boats can then be hired; all the fishermen remain at home. For on that day the sea is the highway of the dead, who must pass back over its waters to their mysterious home; and therefore upon that day is it called Hotoke-umi—the Buddha-Flood—the Tide of the Returning Ghosts. And ever upon the night of that sixteenth day—whether the sea be calm or tumultuous—all its surface shimmers with faint lights gliding out to the open,—the dim fires of the dead; and there is heard a murmuring of voices, like the murmur of a city far-off,—the indistinguishable speech of souls.

But it may happen that some vessel, belated in spite of desperate effort to reach port, may find herself far out at sea upon the night of the sixteenth day. Then will the dead rise tall about the ship, and reach long hands and murmur: “Tago, tago o-kure!—tago o-kure!” [“A bucket honourably condescend (to give).”] Never may they be refused; but, before the bucket is given, the bottom of it must be knocked out. Woe to all on board should an entire tago be suffered to fall even by accident into the sea!—for the dead would at once use it to fill and sink the ship.

Nor are the dead the only powers invisible dreaded in the time of the Hotoke-umi. Then are the Ma most powerful, and the Kappa.

But in all times the swimmer fears the Kappa, the Ape of Waters, hideous and obscene, who reaches up from the deeps to draw men down, and to devour their entrails.

Only their entrails.

The corpse of him who has been seized by the Kappa may be cast on shore after many days. Unless long battered against the rocks by heavy surf, or nibbled by fishes, it will show no outward wound. But it will be light and hollow—empty like a long-dried gourd.

Further Reading

Journal entry excerpted from Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn, first published by Houghton Mifflin in 1894. Long out of copyright, its two volumes can be found online: Vol 1; Vol 2.


  • In Japanese folklore, the kappa is a river goblin. More at Wikipedia.
  • To learn more about the Bon festival, during which the Japanese honour the spirits of their ancestors, go here.
  • Lafcadio Hearn’s work at the Internet Archive.
  • Hearn’s papers at the University of Virginia.

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