Almost four decades ago, a phantom creature of ancient Japanese folklore captured the public imagination in a craze that would rival sightings of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster.

It began with a remote western village appealing to the rest of the country for volunteers to join a hunt for a snake-like being called the "tsuchinoko." A feverish but short-lived boom followed with offers of cash prizes that appeared to reflect the zeitgeist of the bubble economy, then at its peak.

Now, the village of Shimokitayama in Nara Prefecture where the hunt started is using the tsuchinoko legend once again to promote regional revitalization as it struggles to cope with depopulation and economic lethargy.

Supplied photo taken on April 17, 1988, shows over 200 people from around Japan participating in the "Tsuchinoko Expedition" in Shimokitayama, Nara Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Kazuo Nozaki)(Kyodo)

The tsuchinoko is described as having a body of between 30 and 80 centimeters in length, similar to that of a snake, with a girth around its middle as large as a beer bottle. The creatures are said to have the ability to jump as high as 2 meters.

According to legend, some have the ability to speak, but tend to lie. They are also said to be quite fond of Japanese sake. Extremely quick and agile with fangs that produce a lethal venom, they are known to swallow their own tails so that they can roll like a wheel to get around.

In the late 1980s, there were reports of sightings in Shimokitayama, and a "Tsuchinoko Expedition" was launched in 1988 by Kazuo Nozaki, 77, then a member of the village council, with the aim of capturing some of the mischievous creatures.

The village offered a reward of 1 million yen ($7,800 at the time) for the live capture of a tsuchinoko, and even 300,000 yen for the sloughed off skin of the animal. The bounty aroused interest, and more than 200 people from around the country joined the expedition.

Television and weekly magazines jostled for coverage, with reporters pouring in daily to capture images of the hunt.

Photo taken on Nov. 27, 2023, shows a display at Shimokitayama Tsuchinoko Park in Shimokitayama, Nara Prefecture, featuring the time of the Tsuchinoko craze. (Kyodo)

Given the abundance of alleged tsuchinoko sightings across Japan, the fervor led similar bounty-carrying hunting crazes to flourish in several other towns and villages, including Higashishirakawa, Gifu Prefecture; Susami, Wakayama Prefecture; and Joge (currently Fuchu), Hiroshima Prefecture, among other places.

However, Shimokitayama's expedition ended in 1990 when the economic bubble showed signs of collapsing. "No matter how hard we looked, we couldn't even find a tail," said Nozaki.

With the number of residents halving to about 800 today due to depopulation, the village once again turned its attention to the tsuchinoko legend, hoping to rekindle some of the excitement around the legend that captivated people during those heady times.

Kazuo Nozaki (L), who played a central role in the establishment of the "Tsuchinoko Expedition," and Kohei Michishita, executive director of Shimokitayama Tsuchinoko Park, are pictured in Shimokitayama, Nara Prefecture, on Nov. 27, 2023. (Kyodo)

As part of the initial step, Shimokitayama Tsuchinoko Park was established in March 2023 to evoke memories of the legend, which had all but become a thing of the past for local residents.

The character Tsuchinoko-kun was created as "a fairy transported through time from 35 years ago" to promote the local "jabara" citrus fruit (similar to yuzu) and other products, including T-shirts and key holders featuring its design.

With the popularity now spreading outside the village, visitors to Tsuchinoko Park can now see literature about the creature that Nozaki has collected as well as photos from the time of the craze.

Kohei Michishita, 43, the executive director of the park, used to operate an apparel company in Tokyo but moved to the village in 2022 to get the project under way.

Supplied photo shows a T-shirt with the Tsuchinoko-kun design. (Photo courtesy of Shimokitayama Tsuchinoko Park)(Kyodo)

While working on regional promotion, Michishita felt that "no matter how attractive a village is, it is difficult to convey it to a third party in a way that's easy to understand. Tsuchinoko is a powerful draw," he said.

As a child in the 1980s, Michishita saw the tsuchinoko buzz generated on TV. He does not seem to care whether the creature really exists -- or can even be caught.

"The trial and error for the community is the same now as it has been in the past," he said. "I would like to energize the village by cherishing the ideas of Mr. Nozaki and his colleagues."

Nozaki, for his part, is glad villagers are steadfastly holding on to tradition. "More and more villagers do not know the enthusiasm of those days. I am grateful that they are carrying on the spirit of the past," he said.

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