In Japanese folklore, supernatural entities and phenomena are known as yōkai, and they come in many different shapes and sizes, good and bad. Some are monsters, some are demons. Others are shapeshifters, ghosts, or various inexplicable manifestations.
You know, the sorts of things we often cover here.
They’re all unique in their own strange ways, but given that we’re approaching winter, I thought we’d take a brief look at one of the coolest of these yōkai: Yuki-onna.
The Strange Tale of Yuki-Onna
Often portrayed as a vengeful spirit who appears during terrible snowstorms, Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman, is sometimes also known as the Snow Hag, though this clashes with her usual description – that of a beautiful, ethereal woman with pale skin and haunting eyes.
According to Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, an online collection of translated Japanese legends and ghost stories curated by Zack Davisson, the first documented Yuki-onna tale appeared in Japan during the Muromachi period, when the Japanese poet and Zen monk Sōgi shared his own alleged experience with the frosty yōkai.
As Sōgi wrote, the mysterious Yuki-onna appeared outside of his home in Echigo one day near the end of winter. She was a young, and extraordinarily pale, woman, who he described as about 20 or so years old. She wore an equally pale kimono, with “delicate and shiny threads” that seemed to illuminate the area. She was standing near a bamboo thicket.
She also stood nearly ten feet tall.
Sōgi, mesmerized by the sight of this strange woman, called out to her. “Who are you?” he asked. But she ignored him, and instead walked silently toward his vegetable garden. Then, just as quickly as she had appeared, she dissolved into the cold and snowy air. Only a faint glow remained, and he never saw her again.
The next day, when he told his story to others, he learned about the legend of Yuki-Onna, the snow ghost. “It’s a snow spirit,” he was told, “what is commonly known as a snow woman. It’s said that it will appear rarely during a heavy snow storm.”
Sōgi’s original story, complete and in Japanese, is available to read in Japanese here.
Other Variations of Yuki-Onna’s Tale
In most stories, like the one above, Yuki-onna appears tall and pale, and cold as ice. However, she doesn’t always appear quite so serene and aloof.
Instead, or so the legend goes, she often materializes during heavy snowfall, and her icy breath can freeze humans instantly. But that’s not the worst of it – she’s said to occasionally give lost travelers a final, chilling kiss before feasting upon their mortal souls, or inhaling their life force.
The most classic variation of the legend, however, contains an intriguing twist. Written by Lafcadio Hearn in his collection Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, published in 1903 (and later adapted to film in 1964), it shows that, perhaps, the Yuki-onna sometimes has a bit of a human side, despite being as vengeful as ever.
Hearn’s Story of the Two Woodcutters
Mosaku and Minokichi were two woodcutters, father and son, the former much older than the latter. One day, deep in the cold of winter, they found themselves trapped in a terrible snowstorm, and were unable to make their way back home. Luckily, through the harsh winds and ice they were able to find an abandoned cabin in the mountains. Protected from the raging storm outside, they fell asleep.
Not too long into the night, however, Minokichi was awoken by the sound of a beautiful woman in pale robes inside the cabin with them. He watched in horror as the ghostly figure moved over to Mosaku and breathed an icy mist upon him. He instantly froze to death.
The woman then turned to Minokichi, and approached him. But she didn’t breathe on him as he expected — instead, she spoke. “I was going to kill you,” she said, “But you are so beautiful and young. You will live, so long as you never tell anyone about what happened here. If you do, I will return to you and kill you.”
The snow ghost vanished, and Minokichi was left alone and terrified.
Years later, and long after the memory of that night had become distant and like a faded dream, Minokichi was on his way home when he met a woman named Oyuki. They fell in love, and eventually married, and had many children.
One night, when they were at home and the children were in bed, Minokichi watched Oyuki’s face, illuminated by the lamp light, and a strange notion struck him. “Oyuki,” he said, “You remind me of someone I saw long ago, you look so familiar…” He told her about the incident with the strange icy ghost when he was young, and what happened to his father.
Oyuki said nothing while he spoke. But afterwards, she stood and walked over to Minokichi and leaned forward, and he felt a certain coldness emanating from her face. “I told you I would kill you if you ever spoke of what happened!” she shouted.
And yet, she couldn’t kill him, for the sake of her children. Instead, she demanded that he take great care of them, and then melted away into an icy vapor. Minokichi never saw her again.
In another, perhaps more down-to-earth telling, the Snow Woman appears not as a vengeful spirit, but as one with unfinished business. Once a mortal woman who died during a fierce snowstorm, she returns to haunt her husband until he agrees to take care of her father. In the end, let’s just say, no one ever wins an argument with a ghost.
Is there any truth to these stories of the Yuki-onna? They date back hundreds of years – perhaps even into ancient times – so who’s to say? I’ll just leave you with some advice that’s probably good whether yōkai exist or not: Don’t get lost in Japanese mountains during a snowstorm.