The Tsuchinoko is a legendary figure in Japan. Akin to our bunyip, many endeavouring souls have attempted to prove its existence – with varying degrees of success.
If you happen to be walking in heavily forested areas or on the slopes of mountains in Japan, particularly in very hilly parts of Honshu, Shikoku and the Kyushu Islands, you may stumble across a tsuchinoko. If this happens, you need to be very careful because a tsuchinoko can jump up to a metre high and its sharp fangs can inject a venom more powerful than any snake. It’s not necessarily an aggressive animal, but if it feels threatened then watch out! A tsuchinoko can be anything from about 30-90 centimetres long and is quite hard to spot: being essentially the colour of earth it’s easily camouflaged by the forest floor, but if you’re alert you’ll be able to hear the strange squeaking or grunting sounds it makes as it slithers across the ground and if it turns over you may spot its bright orange belly.
Never heard of the tsuchinoko? It does go by other names depending on where in Japan you happen to be. In the north of Honshu, it’s often called the bachi-nebi and in places like Osaka it’s more commonly known as the tsuchi-hebi. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s a creepy varmint that holds a special place in Japanese popular culture. It closely resembles a snake only without the sinewy grace of the serpent. Its mid-section is very thick so at first glance you may think it’s a slug without the feelers, but don’t be deceived—there’s nothing slow about the tsuchinoko. This formidable creature has the ability to take its tail into its mouth thus forming a hoop, so when it’s pursuing prey, especially down a hill, it can propel itself at breakneck speed and the object of its chase has no chance of escape. Mythology lovers will recognise that this characteristic of the tsuchinko to look as if it’s eating its own tail is pretty similar to the ouroboros, the hooped serpent or dragon that first appeared in Egyptian legend.
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But the tsuchinoko has other traits that distinguish it from other similar mythological beings. It’s said that they have the gift of language—apparently, they have an excellent vocabulary—but if one ever speaks to you, it’s probably best not to take too much notice because they’re renowned liars. You know, “Greetings stranger, be my friend and I won’t attack you,” when in fact it means nothing of the sort. And don’t look into its eyes: they’re said to have a hypnotic quality and the last thing you need is to be bedazzled by its mesmerising gaze. It is perhaps possible to trick the creature by giving it a nip of whiskey or some such—it’s well known that the tsuchinoko enjoys alcohol—but I certainly wouldn’t rely on such spurious hearsay.
There have been accounts of sightings of the tsuchinoko for well over a thousand years and even in recent times, people have reported seeing them swimming in rivers and undulating across the ground in bamboo groves and leaf litter, but no one has yet managed to produce tangible evidence of this elusive cryptid. The search continues. Before merging with the city of Ibara in Okayama Prefecture in southwestern Honshu, the town of Yoshii once famously offered a substantial reward for the capture of a tsuchinoko, a reward no one managed to claim. Today, enterprising groups organise “tsuchinoko spotting” expeditions in wilderness areas.
To date, a few keen hunters have caught snakes they thought may have been tsuchinokos, but no one has ever brought an actual tsuchinoko out of the wild and into captivity.
Maybe the seekers just didn’t go deep enough into the forest or high enough up the mountain to find one, maybe the tsuchinoko is simply too clever to be caught, or maybe it really is just a fantastical creature of Japanese folklore.