Sometimes you walk with your tongue savouring the place names in translation. It seems to fit with the carnival air, with making things up. Head up Willow St from International Avenue, toward Thunder Gate – that’s Kaminarimon – around the corner from the Tyrolean-style coffee house called, in Roman letters, Angelus. Coming up is a shop called House of the White Snake, with a banner that says Happiness Castle, and another sign, the Ringed Treasure Dragon King, Horin Ryu Oh. Oh, you’re not sure what this means? Look, there’s a young man dressed in a mustard cotton happi, he will explain.
He is touting, but he doesn’t look like a tout, not like the ones you see in Shibuya or Shinjuku; he seems gentle, young, a little amateur but not lacking in confidence. He doesn’t have a bottle-tan or perm, in fact he could do with a haircut. Come in, he says, and see the only gold-hooped white snake in Japan. Just 500 yen.
Behind the tout, whose name you learn is Yuki, stands an older woman in red. She thinks you should come in too. She is the manager, Masako, and she is Yuki’s aunty and as you will learn, she loves ballroom dancing. Inside the spacious single room, there is an outdoor furniture setting, and she could give you kakigori, shaved ice, dressed with fruity sugar syrup and condensed milk, to eat on the sticky table, 300 yen.
Shaved ice dessert. That’s what they sell here, along with various lucky charms. Yuki says in winter they plan to sell yaki-imo roast sweet potatoes. But the point is, really, to pray to the snake.
Yes, says Yuki. Five people in Tokyo have become millionaires!
He takes you past the partition at the back of the store, where there is a little replica shrine shrouded in wood shavings behind acrylic sheet under fluorescent light. Through the shadows you make out the glowing halo of the coiled Treasure King. There is an offering box for coins. Yuki shines a torch and tells you the snake is a genetic throwback, that its parents were just mud-coloured, and it is being rented for the year from its owner in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu, at great cost. It molts a couple of times a month, as it has a big appetite. Every 10 days it polishes off mice from the pet shop: 3 adults, 3 children. It’s in constant transformation. Yuki says, It has grown so much in these six months.
People take it seriously. You see Yuki bow deeply to a customer who has come on behalf of a friend who is too sick to make it. And he says over the first days of New Year they had queues down the block. It is, of course, the year for snakes.
It’s common to pray for oneself. The sign outside says people who have seen the snake and then won the lottery now number: 14. Yes, says Yuki. Five people in Tokyo have become millionaires! You ask, is that in yen or dollars. Yes, says Yuki, smiling, in yen.
Another woman quietly appears, small and deeply tanned, in sneakers, no socks. She watches you quizzically. Her name is Yoko. She says, Business is tough in Asakusa, it all depends on the festivals. We had a lot of people for the samba. But yesterday only 13. Some days even no one.
The music is Hawaiian, but it’s not annoying like muzak. It sounds like real Hawaiian, like Sol Hoopii, even though he recorded in LA. It’s a bit corny but it feels genuine. Maybe that’s how you survive the wonderland around here. Cheesy but sincere.
You ask Masako on a hunch if she likes hula. Ooh yes, I love social dance, she says. I learned it at a studio in Kameido where I live, that’s near Skytree. You ask her, show me some, and she titters and takes you and directs your two left feet as your hand rests on her warm waist, and you are sort of waltzing near the tables on which you can eat shaved ice. It’s nice you are the only customer. Then Yoko says, I have a dance too. She shuffles across the floor swinging both arms in deliberate measures, singing Dig, dig, Sow, sow, Reap, reap, a traditional farming ondo dance. And then the words change into a song about shaved ice, and she soon has Masako and Yuki dancing too, as she wields the mascot kewpie in front, a doll with a blue crocheted outfit she made herself.
Shaved ice, shaved ice,
Buy it, buy it,
Eat it, Eat it,
There is a final transformation. How about a hula pose, you say as you are leaving. Then Yuki’s arms become snakes, so it’s now a snake hula, probably the only one in the country.