Sunday, January 29, 2012

Big In Japan: Shirohebi.

Final entry of the week! After sooo many mammals, it's about time we did something at least slightly creepy, no?

Property of

...What? Some people I know are terrified of snakes. They will not come anywhere near Eros, my snow corn, who looks like she was pulled off of a Valentine's Day card. Color means absolutely nothing to ophidiophobes. Culture, especially Asian culture, would tend to disagree with such people, especially in regard to white snakes.

Even though snakes are usually vilified, there are two that tend to be exceptions to the rule: cobras and pure white snakes. Cobras have the badass hood (and king cobras eat other snakes for breakfast); white animals in general have this sense of holiness attached to them, in part because white animals rarely last more than two seconds in the wild. White snakes are no exception. China and Japan both love them.

The DVD cover for a box set of a TV series retelling the story of "Madame White Snake" - a Taiwanese folktale that evolved from a horror story to epic spirit romance. Not Japan. Still a kickass white snake.

In Japan, white snakes are considered lucky. They are seen as messengers of the goddess of love and fortune, Benzaiten, who was adapted from the Hindu Sarasvati. Depending on who you ask, Benzaiten either has a dragon (read: magic snake) as her consort or slew him (if you follow the Sarasvati tradition). Regardless, the close affinity between her and various serpents led her to be pictured with a white snake on several occasions. Seeing a white snake is almost as good as catching a leprechaun in Japan...only better, because Iwakuni, a small town near Hiroshima, is chock full of them.

Shirohebi are an albino variation of the Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora). The regular E. climacophora, or aodaisho ("blue general") is one of the most common rat snakes in Japan- sort of like their version of the corn snake. (I have, however, seen it mistranslated as 'garter snake.')  Iwakuni is the only place with 'official' Shirohebi, although one can still buy albino climacs from Kunisir Island. Nobody quite knows why the white population has flourished (there are still a LOT of cats there), but having the misty atmosphere from Lord of the Rings is a good start. I call divine intervention.

So, what is one to do with a town full of white snakes? Make it a tourist trap, of course! I have personally been to Iwakuni, the only place in Japan with a wild albino Elaphe climacophora population, and they love their white snakes. The Shirohebi charm I got there still lives on my phone. Businessmen really do go there to pray to the snakes. They even have Shirohebi parades. Snake-lovers, Benzaiten has heard your wishes.

Shirohebi are nationally protected. Like the Iriomote Cat, they are listed as a national treasure. People are not supposed to take the white snakes out of Iwakuni, but they do anyways. This protected population is shrinking (again). There are still some wild Shirohebi, and captive breeders are doing their best, but please do not take anymore out of Iwakuni. Steal from that little island that's not quite Russia instead.

Go to Russia or face Kanako's wrath. (BTW, anyone know who drew this?)

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