One day in early May, Kiku and Miko-chan had gone along with Boss Panda to the White Crow Sake Brewery, to help with the current stage of sake making. The heat sterilisation was taking place before the sake was going to be stored to age it over the summer months, and it was all hands on deck.
When they arrived, they could hear a strange croaky melody coming from one of the rooms. As they poked their head around the door, wondering what was making the sound, they saw one of the brewery workers*, Oh-Kappa, busying himself with brewing tasks, whilst the wrinkled frog who lived in the bowl of water on his head was singing a little tune…
“After winter long
It’s time to sing our song
More often heard than seen
From underneath the green
We sing to one another
A mate we will discover
A month before the rains
You’ll hear our sweet refrains…”
Oh-Kappa was normally very focused on his work, but when he saw the friends inquisitive faces in the doorway he beckoned them over. “Hello friends!” he said, “You have come to visit on a great day – the day at the start of summer when frogs begin to sing! It brings in good fortune to the brewery!” He explained that frogs are an auspicious animal in Japan, connected to rainfall, which is important for agriculture and rice harvests in particular, and abundance/ fertility, because of the amount of eggs they lay. The modern Japanese word for frog is ‘kaeru’ which also sounds the same as the word ‘to return’, and so the frog symbol is seen as a way to encourage money back into your hands, or ensure a safe journey back to your home.
Kiku was excited because that very morning, he had checked the seasonal almanac and found that the current five-day seasonal marker was ‘frogs begin to sing’. “They also are a popular subject of poetry as they are so connected to different seasonal aspects”, added Oh-Kappa.
Suddenly the little wrinkled frog known as Pon-chan who had been singing his song the entire time they had been talking abruptly stopped his tune and piped up “don’t talk to me about poetry. Those pesky haiku poets always used to follow me around, especially when I lived for a time in Fukagawa, in the grounds of a little thatched hut.” Miko-chan was a little confused, as she didn’t remember seeing any thatched houses when she last visited the area. Oh-Kappa smiled, and said “Pon-chan is a little older than you might think – you might be surprised to learn that this lucky creature is over 400 years old.” Kiku and Miko-chan’s eyes widened. “400 years old!?” they both blurted out at the same time.
The little frog laughed – “indeed I am! After such a long life I am very much enjoying my retirement here in Oh-Kappa’s sara”**. And with a chuckle, he began singing his little tune again, whilst the friends spent the afternoon helping the brewery workers with the preparation of the storage containers.
Later in the day, when the friends were back home at the Bamboo Bathhouse, Kiku looked up a little of the history of Fukugawa, and was surprised to learn that from 1680 to 1694 it was the place that the haiku poet Matsuo Bashō*** had lived in between travels. Miko-chan wondered aloud “when Pon-chan talked about being followed around by haiku poets, you don’t think he meant Bashō and his disciples do you?” They both thought about this for a while, considering the age of Pon-chan, and his mention of thatched houses. Then, Miko-chan nearly choked on the water she was sipping, and spluttered, “Hang on – Kiku – you don’t think that Pon-chan is THE FROG!????”
* The brewery workers (kurabito) at the White Crow Sake Brewery are kappas – a kind of water deity, whose name means literally ‘river child’. Folklore tales about them have traditionally been used to warn human children of the dangers of playing near water. Whilst there are mischievous kappas, and tales of terrible deeds (as with most Yōkai), most Kappa are extremely polite with a strong sense of decorum, and for that reason, once a politeness has been shown to them are loyal and hard working. The chief sake maker, Toji Tanuki once helped save the three kappa working at the brewery from being killed when their pond was drained, and ever since they have repaid the kindness by working at the brewery. As water spirits they have a strong connection to water and a knowledge of its properties, which as one of the most important ingredients in sake making means their expertise has been invaluable.
**Kappas stand upright on two legs but have webbed hands and feet, and skin which can be slimy or scaled. They have a turtle-like shell on their backs and a beak. The most significant part of their appearance is the dish shaped indentation on their heads, called a sara – this must be filled with water when they are out of water, for if it spills they lose their power and can die. If you were ever to meet one in the wild, and feel threatened, make sure to politely bow – they will have to reciprocate and it will tip the water out. They then have to stand bowed until you fill it up again and would have to be nice to you after that.
***The poet Matsuo Bashō was born in the Kansai region but moved to the capital of Edo (now Tokyo) at the age of 28, and after nine years of living at Nihonbashi, the very centre of the city, he moved to the relatively rural and isolated area of Fukugawa near the Sumida River (where at that time there were no bridges across). When not travelling he lived in various rustic huts built by his disciples, one of which had a banana tree from where he adopted the pen name Bashō. He wrote the famous frog haiku in 1686 whilst living in Fukugawa. The poem has been the subject of many different language translations, an English version of which is:
a frog jumps in
the sound of water
Although the exact sites of his huts are unknown, a tsunami which hit the area in 1917 uncovered a stone frog that had been buried, and was thought to mark the spot of one of his dwellings as he was known to have loved the creatures and had possible been given the statue by one of his followers. The frog can now be seen in the Bashō Memorial Museum (芭蕉記念館), at 1-6-3 Tokiwa, Koto-ku, Tokyo.