Snake icon becomes Shinagawa image booster

Yasuyuki Saito and the Kubotchi mascot at Kami-Shinmeitenso Shrine in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo

The chief priest at a shrine that deifies the white snake in the Futaba district of Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, is working with local business owners to promote their community as a "snake town."

The area, which includes the shrine and a local shopping street, used to be called Hebikubo village. Hebikubo literally means "snake hollow."

The priest and business operators have produced a character featuring the snake. They have also created an illustrated map for the shopping street. At the shrine, local stores and other places, copies of the map have been distributed to visitors.

The idea of using a snake to help revitalize the neighborhood comes from Yasuyuki Saito, the 41-year-old chief priest of Kami-Shinmeitenso Shrine.

Last year, the year of the snake, a small altar in the shrine dedicated to the white snake was featured on television and in magazines as a "divine spot."

The shrine saw about 100,000 visitors on New Year's Day, 10 times the number that usually visits.

Later, tourist buses began bringing group tours to the shrine, turning it into a popular locale.

"I thought maybe we can use the uniqueness of the snake and its connection to improving luck with money to help out the neighborhood," Saito said.

Hebikubo village encompassed what is now the Futaba and Yutakacho districts, as well as parts of Togoshi and Nishi-Oi.

There are several theories as to where the name came from. Some think it is because the area used to be a major snake habitat, while others believe it is because the shrine has deified the white snake since the Kamakura period (1185-1333).

The name disappeared in 1932 when Ebara County, which the village was part of, was incorporated into Tokyo.

At the time, the name was unpopular with local assembly members and others, who thought having "snake" in the name gave a bad impression.

Saito began his efforts by asking his niece, a talented artist, to come up with a snake character, which they named Kubotchi after the old village name.

A Kubotchi suit was made in September, which is said to purify those who stand in front of it and chant "kashikome kashikome."

The character became a popular figure in the neighborhood, appearing on primary school sports days and at events on the shopping street.

A "Snake Town Map" was completed this month, showing the locations and contact information for 123 participating local businesses.

The map states, "It's lucky to come to a neighborhood that idolizes the white snake for shopping, dining and even getting work done."

With the help of the shopping street, a local dish made with thin flour dumplings was created. Known as "white snake dumpling curry soup," the dish will be sold at the shrine during the first three days of the new year.

Saito had been wanting to do something for the community before his shrine's white snake became popular.

"The shrine used to only be able to help out the community at the annual festival. I'm still in the planning stages, but by the time the next year of the snake comes in 2025, I want to build on what we have and really establish the area as a neighborhood of the snake," he said.