the year of the snake


A month or so ago, just when it was starting to become truly cold in Osaka, I happened to discover a snake lying on the side of a concrete walking path that runs along the Senri River, which is only a ten-minute walk from my house.  Though I’ve been living in Japan for over six years, it was my first time to see a snake here.  There are numerous snakes in Japan, but it’s not all that common to run into one.  The snake that I found is called a shima-hebi (シマヘビ), or ‘striped snake,’ and is one of the most common non-poisonous snakes in Japan.  It was lying in the shade and moving sluggishly across the path.  In fact, I’ve never seen a snake move more slowly.  Since the path that the snake was on is also used by bikes I was worried that it might get crushed and so I decided to pick it up and move it somewhere that was both safer and warmer.  I reached down and picked the snake up at the back of its head — it was so cold out that the snake offered no resistance at all — and I started walking down the river, looking for a good spot to leave the snake.  I eventually found a large, sunlit garden that had several trees in it and plenty of uncultivated areas that were just perfect for snakey comfort.  I set the snake down in a warm pile of leaves and it blinked at me several times while it was warming up in the sun.

Since 2013 is the Year of the Snake, this felt like an auspicious encounter.  In Japan, the snake in the 12-animal zodiac (十二支) is often, though not always, represented as being white.  I’ve always wondered about this, especially since the only reference to a white snake that I know of is the stone monument on White Snake Mound (白蛇塚) at Kyoto’s famous Kinkaku-ji temple.  There are two stories about this monument.  The first is that one of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu’s many concubines became jealous of the others and threw herself into the pond.  In an effort to supplicate her soul, he had this monument built.  The second story, which is much less interesting, is that the white snake was the guardian deity of the family that owned the land before the Ashikaga Shogunate took it over.

While I was trying to find information about the appearance of white snakes in Japanese mythology, I discovered that The Legend of the White Snake is a famous Chinese legend about two snake sisters who have practiced Taoist magic for hundreds of years in order to become human.  This also happens to be the setup for Tsui Hark’s Green Snake, a 1993 masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema.  The original legend is definitely worth reading in full, but Hark modifies it to make it into a complex meditation on the conflict between a rigid adherence to morals (which can have catastrophic consequences) and the chaotic fluidity of emotional desire.  Hark’s film, which is full of luscious sexuality and and the most vibrant polychromaticism since The Wizard of Oz, seems itself to embody a resistance to notions of purity, though in the end both purity and desire are shown up as potential forces of grand destruction.  The movie also has a fantastic soundtrack.

Sadly, the contemporary remake of the legend — The Sorcerer and the White Snake — is an intellectually flat movie with poor acting (though Jet Li does what he can) and computer-generated effects that make it look as if the actors have been pasted into the scene after the fact.

Japan’s own indigenous herpetological legend involves a snakelike creature called a tsuchinoko (ツチノコ).  Here’s a quick rundown from Wikipedia:

Tsuchinoko are described as being between 30 and 80 centimetres in length, similar in appearance to a snake, but with a central girth that is much wider than its head or tail, and as having fangs and venom similar to that of a viper.  Some accounts also describe the tsuchinoko as being able to jump up to a metre in distance.

According to legend, some tsuchinoko have the ability to speak and a propensity for lying, and is also said to have a taste for alcohol. Legend records that it will sometimes swallow its own tail so that it can roll like a hoop, similar to the mythical hoop snake.


The night after I found the shima-hebi by the river, I had a dream involving a tsuchinoko.  In the dream I was walking with a young woman through a pine forest.  Suddenly, we ran across a tsuchinoko that was lying in the pine needles.  We stopped and exclaimed, at the same time, “I can’t believe it!  Tsuchinoko are real!”  The tsuchinoko was almost entirely black, but it had a white diamond pattern on its back.  Behind its head it’s body flattened out at two parts into wide, disc-like shapes, as if the snake had swallowed a couple of enormous pancakes.  The tsuchinoko was about half a meter long and it calmly and casually sauntered off into the forest as if it couldn’t care less that we were surprised at its existence.

You can find a wonderful “mummified” tsuchinoko here, and don’t forget to watch the video below if you want to find out the secret of how the tsuchinoko can jump so high into the air.

(Drawing of tsuchinoko is from Wikimedia Commons.)

2 Responses to “the year of the snake”

  1. 1 ann

    like…shared with Snake Lani

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Being a snake sign has to be one of the coolest things ever. I’m a pig in the Chinese zodiac (though in Japan it gets the slightly more dignified moniker of ‘wild boar’). Since I’m a Pisces as well, does that make me a fishy pig?

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