Every decent country needs some weird mystery in order to ooh and awe the young and attract feeble-minded tourists.
Thus in America we have Bigfoot, or a sasquatch, or the Shaq or whatever you wish to call it.
Nepal, then, has those abominable Yeti, Scotland has the world’s most elusive lake serpent, and England and France are chock-full of cobwebbed old castles, deep in the cellar of any one of which might rest the Holy Grail. The big puzzle down under, meanwhile, is just who really does eat Vegemite.
Japan, being a decent country, needs some similar intrigue to increase its quirk quotient among the competitive nations of the world, something beyond generic UFO hysteria, which by all rights can be claimed by any land with an access to sky.
Fortunately — although largely unknown to visitors — Japan does have its very own quixotic creature, one that creeps eerily about the national forests up and down the archipelago. If you’re out to catch it, just remember one thing: Keep your eyes on your feet.
For Japan’s answer to the unicorn is none other than a slithery, slippery snake.
“No, not a snake!” claims a pith-helmeted friend, a cryptozoologist hereafter called “The Hunter.” “It’s a ‘tsuchinoko!’ “
What’s the difference? According to The Hunter, plenty.
When a snake moves, it undulates from side to side; a tsuchinoko, however, will wiggle its way straight ahead, rippling its spine up and down. Snakes tend to be slender; tsuchinoko can be as plump as bowling pins. Snakes merely hiss; tsuchinoko will chirp and snore. Snakes are proponents of gravity; tsuchinoko have been known to coil themselves together and spring through the air several meters at a time.
“Is that all?” I ask. “I mean, don’t they have, like, razor-sharp fangs or scales that sizzle with fire or tails that can rattle the tune to “Bad to the Bone”?
It would seem not. Beer-bottle brown in color, tsuchinoko have often been described as having a wide head with Hello Kitty eyes and a mouth curled up in a veritable “Nice to meet you” grin. The “C” word haunts their every description.
“Cute? A tsuchinoko?” The Hunter is aghast. He reminds me the name “tsuchinoko” comes from an old word for “mallet” — a “tsuchi” — with nothing cute about it.
“Why, these are wild, vicious creatures! If I were to encounter one head on in the woods, I wouldn’t know what to do!”
And neither would anyone else. For, you see, no one has ever encountered a tsuchinoko in the woods or elsewhere, though talk of their existence has dappled Japanese folklore for ages. In that respect, they can be grouped with bowl-headed “kappa” water sprites, blue-and-red ogres, a fully restored, booming economy, and all other Japanese myths.
The Hunter seethes at my lack of belief. For our world, he says, is full of incredible discoveries.
“People used to think the coelacanth was extinct, until one was caught off the coast of South Africa. Then look at the Annamite Mountains in eastern Indochina. With years of war slipping into the past, scientists have now found types of deer, birds and rabbits that before were just thought to be legends. Who is to say that somewhere in the Japanese mountains is not an odd species of snake that has yet to make its public debut?”
Japan, I hesitate to tell him, is a bit better traveled than the remote Annamite wilderness. And one would think — with the Japanese passion for details — that someone, somewhere, at some time, would have logged some tangible proof of a tsuchinoko. But there are no bones, no discarded skins and — highly notable in shutterbug Japan — no photographs.
“But,” he smiles smugly, “there are eyewitnesses.”
Uh-huh, just like there are eyewitnesses for Bigfoot, Nessie and Elvis. In fact, accounts of tsuchinoko “incidents” are all suspiciously similar. The observers were all old, near-sighted, and spied it from afar.
This, he snaps in return, does not account for the fact that in some communities — in rural Wakayama or Okayama, for example — fair numbers of folk even now claim to see tsuchinoko.
No, I admit, but mass hysteria does. Furthermore, scientists who keep up with reptiles note that a snake having just gorged itself on a frog or a mouse might indeed appear short, fat and subsequently waddle about in an odd manner — not unlike, perhaps, a bumbling human stuffed with pizza — and very close to the traditional depiction of a you-know-what.
But The Hunter then wields one more argument against my lack of belief: money.
For in an effort to draw visitors and their related travel business, some small communities have offered enormous rewards for the capture of a tsuchinoko within their borders. We are talking in the range of millions and millions of yen.
“So what?” I say. “It’s like offering a reward for a mermaid. You can be fairly assured that you’ll never have to pay.”
“But,” he smiles, “doesn’t it make you want to hunt?”
Yeah. It does. So — and don’t tell anyone, please — I did take part in a tsuchinoko camp a few springs back. After all, spring is the season of hope.
It is also the season when snakes yawn out of hibernation, and anyone out looking for reward money should be well forewarned. Much more likely than a tsuchinoko, they are apt to meet a snake — and some snakes in the Japanese forests are poisonous.
“So what happened?” The Hunter asks. “Did you find it?”
“Yes, I did. I saw a tsuchinoko and a Bigfoot trading sips from the Holy Grail. But only from afar.”
“Too bad!” he says.
And then he ends with the motto of all such wild hunts everywhere . . .
“Better luck next time.”