When people think of Japan, they often envision bustling cities and neon lights, industrialization and modernization, a place where every square inch is stuffed with cars, people, skyscrapers and bullet trains. What many do not realize is that Japan is an intensely mountainous country, with most development occurring in the heavily populated coastal plains. There are vast swaths of remote terrain that is undeveloped and around 90 percent of the population occupies only around 10 percent of the land area. Could there be new species awaiting discovery deep in the mountain forests of this island nation?
One of the most well known of the Japanese cryptids is a type of snake known as the Tsuchinoko, also known by a plethora of other regional names such as nozuchi or bachi-hebi (in Northern Honshu), tsuchi-hebi (in Osaka), and many others. The Tsuchinoko is said to inhabit the deep, remote mountains of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu islands as well as some parts of the Korean peninsula. The Tsuchinoko is reported to be around 2 to 3 feet in length, most commonly described as being a mottled black or rust color, and with a bright orange belly in many cases. The scales are said to be large and prominent, the mouth resembles a grin, and horns or ears above the eyes are often mentioned. The eyes themselves are usually described as being very large and sometimes as being somewhat mesmerizing. Perhaps the most unique trademark characteristic of the Tsuchinoko is the shape of the body, which is somewhat flat, bulging and rounded in the middle, and tapering off to a short tail often described as looking like the tail of a rat. Some reports describe the body as being triangular in the middle rather than round. It is said to be highly poisonous, with the ability to spit corrosive venom a considerable distance, yet is nevertheless peaceful and more likely to flee from aggressors than attack. Another odd trait worth mentioning is that they are reported to have a particular odor like that of chestnut tree flowers.
The Tsuchinoko is noted as having some peculiar ways of getting around. It is reported to move ahead in a straight line, spine undulating up and down as it goes rather than the side to side undulations seen in most other snakes. The snake is also famous for making spectacular leaps of up to a few meters, often leaping along in one enormous hop after another. Even more bizarre than this are some stories that describe the Tsuchinoko putting its tail in it mouth and rolling along like a wheel, or even tumbling along end over end. They are also supposedly good swimmers that are very fond of water.
This mystery snake also supposedly exhibits an incredibly wide range of vocalizations. It has been said to make barks, chirps, snores, grunts, groans, moans, squeaks, snarls, growls, and to even mimic human voices on occasion. Some old legends claim it could actually remember a rather large vocabulary and even converse with people. In fact, the Tsuchinoko was mostly portrayed in folklore as a mischievous creature having a great propensity for telling lies and trying to befuddle and confuse travelers. The only true way to keep them quiet was said to be to ply them with alcohol, which legends say they have a great fondness for.
The Tsuchinoko has been present in Japanese folklore throughout reported history on the islands. Their likenesses have been found on pottery dating back to the very earliest civilization on the islands, and they are mentioned in the Kojiki (or Hurukotohumi), which dates from 712 and is the oldest known book in existence on ancient Japanese history. In modern days, the Tsuchinoko is a major fixture in pop culture, appearing in commercials, video games, and on a large range of merchandise ranging from Tsuchinoko-shaped candies to hot water bottles. Interestingly they are not presented as evil or scary as Westerners might portray a type of snake. On the contrary, they are almost always made out to be cute, cuddly, benign, and friendly creatures.
So are they just folklore or do they really exist? The Tsuchinoko has been sighted by a wide range of people right up to the present day, usually deep in the mountains and woods far from civilization. Mikata, in Hyougo prefecture, is quite famous for boasting the highest concentration of sightings of these mystery serpents, and many high profile sightings hail from here. On May 8th, 2000, 90 year old farmer Sugie Tanaka was out looking for bamboo shoots (a common food in Japan), when she happened across two metallic colored snakes with what she described as “tails like rats.” In June, 1994, 73 year old Kazuaki Noda was cutting grass with his wife when they came across a huge snake with a thick body like a beer bottle and a head described as being like that of a tortoise. Other sightings cropped up in the area around the same time. One such sighting occurred in June, 2000, when 82 year old Mitsuko Arima saw a Tsuchinoko swimming along a river. She described its eyes as being the most striking feature, saying “I can still see the eyes now. They were big and round and it looked like they were floating on the water.” She added “I’ve lived for over 80 years but I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
In response to the persistent sightings, Mikata and indeed many other areas in Japan purported to have Tsuchinoko have offered huge rewards for the capture of one. The town of Yoshii in Okayama famously offered 20 million yen for one, and many areas hold regular Tsuchinoko hunts, which usually consist of groups of volunteers scouring the wilderness for the snakes or indeed any sign of them. Mikata, a hotspot which has the highest concentration of Tsuchinoko sightings in all of Japan, holds an annual event to look for the snake in the surrounding wilderness but these expeditions have proved fruitless so far. In fact to date, there is a complete lack of any physical evidence brought forward at all. Many of these hunts offer considerable rewards for anyone lucky to find one. In Itoigawa, Niigata prefecture in 2008, there was a major hunt mounted for the Tsuchinoko. The reward was a jaw dropping 100 million yen offered for a live Tsuchinoko. A lot of people criticized it as a mere publicity scam, saying that the city never really thought it would have to pay out.
Despite the lack of results these hunts have produced, there have been several cases of remains being brought forth, although none of them turned out to lead anywhere. An alleged Tsuchinoko specimen brought in by a mountain villager in turned out to be a rat snake and another turned in by a group of loggers to the Japan Snake Center in Gunma prefecture in 2001 was found to be a common grass snake. Yet another case involves a live Tsuchinoko which was reportedly captured in the same region in June, 1969 by an M. Tokutake. He supposedly captured it with a forked stick and kept it for a couple of days before deciding to eat it. He reported that it had a double backbone, which is a very interesting detail. There have also been numerous shed skins allegedly from Tsuchinoko brought in and some small villages proudly display these, although they are mostly thought to be from known snakes, likely rat snakes.
Another notable case occurred in May of 2000, when a farmer saw a snake-like creature with a face like a famous Japanese cartoon cat make its way across his field, again in Mikata. He apparently injured it with a farming implement but it escaped into a nearby stream. A few days later, a 72 year old woman found the snake’s body lying by the side of the stream and she buried it. Later, she realized how important the find might be and upon digging the body up sent it to the Kawasaki University of Medical Welfare for examination. I’m not sure exactly what became of the body after that, and details are sketchy from that point.
Mikata is not the only hotbed of Tsuchinoko activity, nor the only area to have claimed the body of one. In Yoshii, Okayama prefecture, the Tsuchinoko is a regular town attraction that draws tourists from all over with its annual Tsuchinoko hunt and the town boasts its own Tsuchinoko rice cakes and wine. Another live specimen was reportedly captured in Yoshii on June 6th, 2000. Apparently it was put on display in a glass box in the city’s visitor center. I’m not sure what became of it, but it has been widely believed to have been a hoax to drum up publicity for the town and its annual hunts. These expeditions are big business as they draw in people and tourist yen from all over the country. According to Naoki Yamaguchi, who has interviewed over 200 eyewitnesses and is author of the book Catching the Illusory Tsuchinoko, these searches don’t do much good in the way they are handled. He wrote, “The number of sightings from people on these searches is barely one percent of the total.” Yamaguchi blames this mostly on the search parties’ failure to delve very deep into the wilderness, and cites people who venture deep into the mountains, such as avid hikers, mountain stream fisherman, and loggers as among the types most likely to have a sighting.
Even with the lack of any hard evidence, the sightings continue. What could these eyewitnesses be seeing? One very common argument is that the sightings are of known species of snakes that have just recently fed. This would give the snake that trademark bulging middle and I can see this as a rational explanation for the Tsuchinoko’s odd appearance at least. However, one problem I find with this is that the Tsuchinoko is reputedly able to leap several meters, which would be a very unlikely thing for a snake to be able do in the first place, let alone a gorged snake. In my opinion, none of the types of movement described are very realistic for any known snake in the first place. The only way I could see the kind of active jumping described as being possible is if we are dealing with perhaps some sort of gliding snake.
Another explanation often heard is that the reports are misidentifications of the blue tongued skink of the genus Tiliqua. These skinks are hardy, easy to keep as pets, and are kept by some people in Japan, so it is argued that escaped specimens could be the culprits. This is an interesting hypothesis considering I’ve heard of a version of the Tsuchinoko reported in New Guinea of all places, which is also home to a distinct species of skink that is from the same genus as the blue tongued skink. That seems very intriguing, and the color is certainly right for the Tsuchinoko. The only problem is that the skinks tend to be smaller than the Tsuchinoko reports say and of course the skinks have legs.
Then there are the sounds the Tsuchinoko is said to make. Snakes aren’t exactly known for their vocalizations, least of all mimicking human voices. While it is true that snakes such as the gopher snake show an ability to produce a wide range of creative hisses, this is a far cry from what the Tsuchinoko is reportedly able to do. I tend to think that the sounds could be from other insect, birds, or other wildlife in the vicinity that have mistakenly been attributed to the snake. It’s possible I suppose that under the right conditions a snake might evolve to have a certain capacity to make some of these sounds, it just seems unlikely that one would develop the kind of range of sounds supposedly displayed with the Tsuchinoko.
If the Tsuchinoko is real, then it definitely seems possible that some of its traditional characteristics such as mimicking human voices and hoop rolling might be colored by folklore or exaggerated a bit. However, to me that still doesn’t rule out the possibility for new species of snake existing in Japan. A lot of known animals in Japan are shrouded in folklore and superstition so maybe a real animal lies at the heart of the stories of Tsuchinoko as well. If we are talking about a new species of snake, then I would say that based on some of the descriptions the most likely candidate is a new species of Viperdae (true vipers), or Crotalidae (pit vipers), specifically the Agkistrodon genus which includes cottonmouths and copperheads.
Considering that water is a very common factor in sightings, it is also likely that we might be looking at a snake that has evolved to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Because of this, I am particularly interested in the possibility of the Tsuchinoko being perhaps a semi-aquatic snake like the water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorous), which is a member of the Agkistrodon genus of Crotalids (pit vipers). It is always found near water and even in the sea, and it looks very Tsuchinoko-like. Perhaps the Tsuchinoko has evolved in a similar way and is a new, water loving species of Agkistrodon, a subspecies, some other water adapted type of viper, or maybe even its own genus or subfamily.
Whatever the Tsuchinoko is, it appears to be here to stay. Japanese culture has fully embraced this cryptic snake and made it into something that has transcended mere folklore and cryptozoology to become a phenomenon embedded within the Japanese psyche. Regardless of whether it really exists or not, it is a very real part of the cultural landscape in the Land of the Rising Sun. Perhaps one day, someone will manage to locate a specimen for us to look at, and we will lay the question of its true existence to rest once and for all, no matter what justice that may or may not do to the heights to which the Tsuchinoko has been elevated in popular culture. Until then, those vast swaths of mountain wilderness in this island nation hold their secrets close, and perhaps are the lair of creatures beyond our current understanding.