Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture is home to albino Japanese rat snakes that are the only one of their kind in Japan. They are called shirohebi meaning white snakes in Japanese .They are designated as a national treasure in Japan. Normally, Albinism only lasts one generation but the offspring of the Iwakuni White Snakes all inherit albinism from their parents.
Unlike in western countries, Snakes, especially white ones are have a positive connotation in Japan. They are a scared animal in Shintoism. The Japanese goddess of arts and financial success, Benzaiten is accompanied by a large white snake. Since the Edo period, people in Iwakuni regarded white snakes with reverence as house guardian deities who could bring good fortune to their homes. Their sacredness and their appetite for pests like mice are likely the reason for their survival and popularity in Iwakuni. Due to loss of habitat and prey, their numbers have been declining but there are many people and organizations in Iwakuni striving to protect them.
Where to see white snakes in Iwakuni
Today, you can see white snakes at the Imazu White Snake Observation Facility(Imazu Tenjin Shirohebi Shiryokan), they breed them both indoors and outdoors. There are 5 facilities in Iwakuni that are dedicated to protecting and breeding White Snakes as their albinism makes them easy targets for predators in the wild.
There is the Iwakuni Shirohebi(white snake) Museum that is close to the famous Kintaikyo Bridge, a wooden arched bridge with 5 arches. The museum has exhibits on the history of the snakes in Iwakuni as well as live specimens to view.
The last place related to White Snakes that I will talk about is the White Snake Shrine(Shirohebi Jinja) which, is perfect for seeing the religious importance of our pigment lacking slithering friends. It is located next to the Imazu White Snake Observation Facility. The shrine is dedicated to Benzaiten and people visit there to pray for blessings regarding financial and business matters. The shrine is centered around the white snakes and that can be seen in statues and decoration around the shrine grounds. You can also purchase white snake-themed charms and other goods at the Shrine`s store.
One last thing, you can also see Cormorant fishing on the Nishiki river if you come during the summertime. This is a 300-year-old method of fishing where the Commorant catches fish for the fisherman and is now done primarily for tourism. But keep in mind, there is a ring around the birds` neck to prevent them from swallowing large fish which you may find cruel.
If you click here you can get more information about White Snakes in Iwakuni. The website is in Japanese so use google translate on your browser to translate it to English.
Iwakuni is 50 minutes from Hiroshima station. It is 1 hour and 45 minutes from Yamaguchi station by train and bus.
Imazu White Snake Observation Facility
From JR Iwakuni station take the Iwakuni bus and get off at “Nagayama Koen” or “Tenjincho” stops. Then walk for 5 minutes. The White Snake Shrine is located next door.
Admission: 100 yen
Iwakuni Shirohebi Museum
From Iwakuni station take the number 21 bus heading to Shin-Iwakuni station and get off at the
Kintaikyo stop. Its around a 15 minute bus ride. It is 10 minute walk to the museum.
Admission: Adults-200 yen Children-100 yen
Hours:9am to 5 pm