Have you ever wondered why a cucumber roll is called Kappa maki? And what is a kappa anyway? Get into Halloween mood with our little guide to the most famous yōkai (monsters, beasts and demons) of Japan!

One of the most famous yōkai is the kappa. A kappa is a water demon or goblin, a green creature, sometimes resembling a monkey, sometimes a giant turtle. It has a tortoise shell, and a hole on the top of its head, that’s filled with water. If this water is spilled, the kappa loses its supernatural power.

Unusal for sure, now let’s move to the scary part!

Kappas are keen on drowning young children and animals into the water. It’s believed the kappas try to drown people either to obtain their shirikodama (a ball believed to be found at the opening of the anus), or their internal organs. They can also possess people, and bring drought or flooding to the area they live.

One of the kappa’s favourite food is cucumber, and in certain areas of Japan it’s a tradition to leave cucumbers in the shrines and water to placate the kappa living there. Hence the name “kappa-maki” for the sushi rolls with cucumbers!

An another yōkai that’s very well-known is the kitsune fox. This dangerous shape-shifter can take the from of a human to deceive others, or luring them to unfamiliar places by emitting a ghost-fire called kitsune-bi. The most powerful foxes can maintain their human form for a long time and behave perfectly like humans do, so they go unnoticed. They usually transform themselves into beautiful women, seducing powerful man and help their advancement or lead them to downfall.

Kitsune foxes serve the deity called Inari, so you might have seen statuettes of them around shrines devoted to Inari, who itself is often thought of as a fox.

One of their favorite food is abura-age (the deep-fried tofu pockets wrapped around the rice in an inari-zushi), hence the name “kitsune-udon” for udon soups topped with abura-age.

Another yōkai you might be familiar with is the tanuki, the shape-shifter racoon-dogs. You might have seen little pot-bellied sculptures of tanuki holding a sake bottle in front of Japanese shops. Or you might came across these furry friends in Studio Ghibli’s film Pom Poko (1994), as well as in Nintendo’s game Animal Crossing, where the character Tanukichi (Tom Nook) is a tanuki.

Just like the kitsune, these monsters are also based on a real animal, but unlike “normal” racoon-dogs, they have the ability to shape-shift and prank people. Most of the time they are playing silly little pranks, emit ghost fires or crete optical illusions to lead people astray. They’re considered less vicious than the kitsune for example, and more like pranksters, however they can play evil tricks sometimes. There’s a famous folktale called Kachi-kachi yama, in which the tanuki kills and cooks an old woman in soup, then serves the soup to her husband after transforming itself into the woman’s shape.


Davisson, Zack. Kappa to Shirikodama – Kappa and the Small Anus Ball. Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. [Online] 2012. January 25. https://hyakumonogatari.com/2012/01/25/kappa-to-shirikodama-kappa-and-the-small-anus-ball/

Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, 2015.

Kappa – Japanese Mythology. Britannica. [Online] https://www.britannica.com/topic/kappa-Japanese-mythology

Sheehan, Kendra. Modernizing and Marketing Monsters in Japan: Shapeshifting Yōkai. Matthew Hodge,  Elizabeth Kusko. Exploring the Macabre, Malevolent, and Mysterious. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020.

Casal, U. A. The Goblin Fox and Badger and Other Witch Animals of Japan. 1959.


Thin sushi roll with cucumber (V), cut in 8 pieces


Sushi rice wrapped in sweet fried tofu (V), 1 piece


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