Yuki-onna, the Japanese Snow Woman

yuki_onna_by_raulovskyAnother frozen mistress of the North, this time the Japanese spectre called Yuki-onna, embodies the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Winter season! With dual temperaments and disturbing habits, she terrorizes Japan’s frozen regions. Move over Yeti, the Snow Woman is on the hunt! 

I think it’s appropriate to ponder the legend of Japan’s Yuki-onna, or Snow Woman, on a snowy February evening when the snow is once again inundating parts of the country. (Artwork right by Raulovsky.) While we sit in our warm and cozy homes, our minds can wander into the storm and ponder whether there is any truth to this legend, or not.

Yuki-onna’s story is an ancient one. Her name means Snow Woman but she is considered a spirit or as we might call her, a ghost. Accounts describe her as tall and beautiful with nearly transparent skin that seems to recede into the snow itself. Her most definite features are her long black hair and her beautiful face with its legendary blue lips.

Many tales describe her as clothed in a flowing white kimono, while just as many others describe her as being nude. As is the case with most Japanese ghosts, she is said to have no feet, gliding along the snow and ice like the spectre she is.

Her dual temperament is very characteristic of the season she represents. First is her soft side which is much like the beautiful, quiet snowfall we see from our windows. We enjoy its beauty as it shimmers and glistens in the fading light. She is a creature of  benevolence and consideration in this persona.

Yuki_Onna_by_JR_McGeeThen we have the frightening, vengeful side which reflects those times when snow and ice threaten our lives and well-being causing accidents, pipes to burst, terrible falls, and things of that nature. (Artwork left by JR McGee.)

Through the 18th Century Yuki-onna was considered evil, but since then her softer side has prevailed at times. Today she is seen as the ghost of a beautiful woman doomed to forever walk the snowy depths of Japan.

Variations

When She Appears

Though mostly known throughout Northern Japan, one source states that almost every prefecture  (a jurisdiction within the country) in Japan has a story about a Yoki-onna except Okinawa and Hokkaido.

In some traditions she appears towards the end of the New Year’s celebration, while in others she arrives on New Year’s Day and leaves a month later.

Other traditions say she arrives only during full moons when there is “new-fallen snow.”  Yet other traditions say she comes and goes with the blizzards. Rounding out this mix, one tradition states that she appears on the cusp of Spring to mark the end of winter until the next year.

How She Appears

According to Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, a monk named Sogi wrote about the Yuki-onna sometime during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573). He had traveled to Echigo province (now called Nigata prefecture) and there met a Yuki-onna.

yuki_onna_by_yoshiyukikatanaHyakumonogatari Kaidankai wrote, “Sogi writes that he went out of his house one snowy morning and saw a beautiful and unusual woman standing in his frozen garden. She was huge; almost 10 feet tall, with skin whiter than any human being. Although her face was young and beautiful, her hair was stark white and hung loosely about her shoulders. Her kimono was white to the point of being translucent, and was made of some magical gossamer fabric that clung to the woman’s body. (Artwork right by Yoshiyukikatana.)

Sogi attempted to speak to her, but she vanished into the snow. Discussing the vision later with a friend native to the region, Sogi was told that she was the Spirit of Snow who normally appeared during heavy snowfall. It was rare for her to appear at the cusp of Spring.”

Other Variations

According to this account there are thousands of variations on the Yuki-onna story, but here’s a rundown of the more popular ones.

  • Yuki Nyobo: The Snow Wife
  • Yuki Onba and her Child the Yukinko
  • The Moon Princess
  • The Snow Vampire
  • The Talking Snow Woman

See the article mentioned above in the References section at the end of this article if you’d like to read more about these other manifestations of the Yuki-onna.

Original Story

Lafcadio Hearn is credited in multiple documents as having covered this tale, I guess for the first time in the Western world. This is the story he tells:

A long time ago, there lived two woodcutters, Minokichi and Mosaku. Minokichi was young and Mosaku was very old.

One winter day, they could not come back home because of a snowstorm. They found a hut in the mountain and decided to sleep there. On this particular evening, Mosaku woke up and found a beautiful lady with white clothes. She breathed on old Mosaku and he was frozen to death.

Yuki_Onna_by_yazukiwolfShe then approached Minokichi to breathe on him, but stared at him for a while, and said, “I thought I was going to kill you, the same as that old man, but I will not, because you are young and beautiful. You must not tell anyone about this incident. If you tell anyone about me, I will kill you.” (Artwork right by Yasukiwolf.)

Several years later, Minokichi met a beautiful young lady, named Oyuki (yuki = “snow”) and married her. She was a good wife. Minokichi and Oyuki had several children and lived happily for many years. Mysteriously, she did not age.

One night, after the children were asleep, Minokichi said to Oyuki: “Whenever I see you, I am reminded of a mysterious incident that happened to me. When I was young, I met a beautiful young lady like you. I do not know if it was a dream or if she was Yuki-onna.”

After finishing his story, Oyuki suddenly stood up, and said, “That woman you met was me! I told you that I would kill you if you ever told anyone about that incident. However, I can’t kill you because of our children. Take care of our children. Then she melted and disappeared. No one saw her again.”

Real or Imagined?

So ends another tale about a complex entity that spans the imaginations of many living throughout Japan. It seems certain that the actual Yuki-onna is a myth and more of a cautionary tale than anything.

Is it possible that once in the distant past there was a young woman who died in the snow and gave birth to this legend? Possible, sure, but we’ll never know for certain.

Over time the legend has taken on a life of its own until now it seems like a good ghost story to tell while sitting around the fire, especially when it’s snowing outside.

What do you think? Have you ever seen a Yuki-onna?

References

http://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/12/18/yuki-onna-the-snow-woman/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuki-onna

http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_folklore/yuki_onna.shtml

http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0703.html#yuki

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