The creepy tales of Japan: The tale of the yuki onna – the snow woman

Yuki onna. Image found on hyakumonogatari.com.
Yuki onna. Image found on hyakumonogatari.com.

— See my previous post for an overview of Japan’s tradition of creepy things. —

Yuki onna – the snow woman

The snow came down dense and thick on a dark, moonless night. A lone traveller, huddled up in gear that failed to keep out the fangs of the wind, was desperately looking for shelter. As he plodded on with dwindling vigour, relief suddenly washed the snowflakes from his eyes as the vague shape of a woman appeared in the distance. He was saved. Surely, she lived nearby and had heard his calls for help. As the traveller approached her, her blurred form crystallised and he could see she was both young and beautiful, with long, black hair. Deceptive warmth overtook him as he followed the resolute steps of the woman, failing to notice that she had no feet and simply floated across the snow, or that her white kimono was so paper-thin she should long since have frozen to death. Losing himself in her vision, the traveller was lost forever, as the woman soothingly turned him into a block of ice with the touch of her breath.

The snow woman, or yuki onna, is a spirit on speed. An extreme busybody, she appears in many different legends across (but not exclusive to) Japan’s northern reaches that see heavy snowfall in winter and seek to explain why people sometimes disappear or reappear as frozen corpses. The short story above is but one random version (that somehow made its way out of my ice cream-cold brain) that encompasses some familiar elements of this myth; there are countless variations on the story, some of which I will shed some light on in this post.

The yuki onna, while referred to as a yōkai (demon), resembles classic yūrei (ghosts), with a pale complexion, white garments and long black hair, either floating or lacking feet entirely. In most tales, she is a young, bombshell beauty with no good intentions whatsoever, killing unsuspecting mortals with her bad, icy breath, or leading them astray so the elements can do her dirty work for her.

Undoubtedly a legend of great antiquity, the yuki onna first appears in writing in the Sogi Shokoku Monogatari, an account written by the monk Sogi, who lived during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). He saw a ten feet tall version of the yuki onna standing in his garden, who vanished when he tried to speak to her. With no one actually getting hurt, this is a bit of a mild, warmup version of the legend.

Sometimes, she appears as a mother holding a baby, looking all vulnerable and in need of help. When not-so-paranoid souls proceed to jump to her aid and take her child from her, they are turned into living icicles. I would imagine this particular manifestation of the yuki onna has a fairly decent success rate when targeted at parents who are desperately searching for their lost child. Yuki onna have also been known to invade houses, ruthlessly killing those inside. It’s probably not a good thing that thanks to this particular aspect, the more superstitiously susceptible of us might hesitate when a half-frozen stranger in need of actual help starts pawing at our door in the middle of the night.

Though she’s never a goody two-shoes, the yuki onna occasionally shows a softer side as well. In the best-known version of her story, recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, she astonishingly appears capable of having mercy. The tale tells of two woodcutters, one young and the other old, who find themselves trapped by a blizzard and are forced to seek shelter in a mountain hut. That evening, a beautiful woman comes in and kills the old guy by unleashing her horribly bad breath on him. The yuki onna spares the young man, warning him never to tell anyone what he had seen, or else she would come back to send him to his grave, too. Several years later, the man is happily married with children, with a wife distinctly more beautiful than Peggy Bundy (sorry!). One night, when looking at his wife he is reminded of the strange incident in the mountain hut, and – you can probably see this coming – he actually decides to tell her about it. Of course, his wife turns to him and reveals herself to be that very same yuki onna. Out of love for their children, she lets him live, despite her earlier warning. How touching. In a flurry of melancholy, she then waltzes out the door and vanishes. Or melts into a puddle. Versions differ a little. (I’m sure you can guess which one is my favourite).

So much for her softer, more-in-touch-with-cute-snowflakes-side. By contrast, hard as winters from hell, the yuki onna sometimes manifests as a terrifying snow vampire, staying alive by sucking the life out of her victims. It is said that first, she freezes her targets, after which she gives them a proper dementor-style kiss, sucking their souls out through their mouths. In the Nigata prefecture, this version of the yuki onna supposedly even prefers the life-force of children.

And again, this is merely the beginning. There are so many different stories regarding this strange, strange lady, I’m going to be sensible and call it quits at this point. I just love the kind of stuff we humans come up with in order to explain deaths or disappearances connected with natural phenomena. I think we have a deep-seated hunger for scary stories, too, at a very basic level. There’s something very appealing about messing ourselves up a bit and having a good fright night, even if we inevitably end up looking way less heroic and hiding behind pillows – whether they are of the human or of the fabric variety!

The creepy tales of Japan: The tradition – monsters, spirits, and darkness

'Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper' from the 'Omoi Tsuzura' by Yoshitoshi
‘Various Yokai Flying out of Wicker Clothes Hamper’ from the ‘Omoi Tsuzura’ by Yoshitoshi

— I wanted to include both a general overview of the Japanese tradition of creepy things as well as highlight one story in particular, so I  divided this post into two parts. Click here to jump head-first into the tale of the yuki onna, or snow woman. —

The tradition

You might recall the Japanese horror films Ringu, which revolves around a woman with abnormally long hair continuously spider-crawling out of  television sets, or Ju-On: The Grudge, in which vengeful spirits haunt a house and quite literally scare everyone to death. Both are fairly good candidates for creeping yourself out to get into the Halloween spirit.

I first saw those films when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. I remember this one time when a friend and I had just watched either Ringu or The Grudge – I don’t recall which one; during this period we re-watched these way too often – in my very dark attic room in the house I grew up in. Afterwards, we hauled our asses downstairs to hang out in our living room. After a couple of minutes of post-film discussion, mid-sentence, the television suddenly switched on, without either of us being anywhere near the remote. I’m practically underground regarding how down to earth I am, so it was more of a creepy moment to instantly make fun of, but still. Sadako? House spirits? And I do love a good ghost story.

When it comes to ghost and/or horror stories, these two films are merely the tip of the Japanese iceberg, so I thought it might be a good idea to seek out the skeletons in Japan’s closet. Join me at your own peril.

I can only stare in awe at Japan’s ability to come up with ridiculously wonderful, horrible monsters and ghosts. Different regions obviously have their own tradition of specific tales and stories – I imagine them being told by old ladies to scare the village children into behaving themselves. However, general trends regarding phenomena such as yōkai (demons/monsters/apparitions) and yūrei (ghosts/spirits) can be observed at least from the time when far to the west, Europe was busy being all kinds of primitively medieval.

Yōkai, sometimes also referred to as mononoke, come in many different shapes and sizes and range from pure evil to merely mischievous. They tend to be somewhat in touch with their inner Uri Geller, as they are often ascribed supernatural powers. As early as the eighth century, the Shoku Nihongi (completed in 797) states that yōkai appeared in the imperial court with alarming frequency, and that Shinto purification was performed to ward them off. Clearly, the demons weren’t deterred enough, or else they would never have become Japanese canon.

Now for some shapes and sizes. Many animal yōkai – some of the more famous of which are kitsune (foxes), tanuki (raccoon dogs), hebi (snakes), and inugami (dogs), are shapeshifters (obake) that often play tricks on people, for instance by using their human forms. More definitively ominous yōkai come in the shape of oni: horned demon/ogre amalgamations that wear loincloths and swing giant clubs or swords about like there’s no tomorrow. More ambiguous are the tengu; bird-like demons that were traditionally deemed disruptive harbingers of war by Buddhism, but who evolved into (still dangerous) spirits who protect the mountains and forest. I can go on for a while still – there are so many different kinds! – but I’ll limit myself to mentioning one last type of yōkai, the tsukumogami. This class is built on the fascinating idea, which dates back at least as far as the tenth century, that certain ordinary household items come to life on their hundredth birthday. I mean, imagine your tea pot playing pranks on you, or angrily seeking payback for all those years of making disgusting mint tea in them. Or your straw sandals. Or your hand mirror. Apparently some of these items even teamed up to take revenge on people who had mindlessly thrown them away…

Besides all these strange monsters, there are also more familiar creeps to be found in Japanese horror history. Yūrei, like their ghostly western counterparts, are spirits who ran into a brick wall while trying to cross over to the afterlife. There is obviously a reason why they find themselves in this sticky situation; generally these people died ever so slightly abnormal deaths. I’ll leave it to your own imagination to come up with the specifics. Powerful emotions such as revenge, jealousy and sorrow can also tie spirits to this world, in which case their particular conundrum needs to be sorted out before they can finally move on. As time wound on, these ghosts took on a fairly standardised appearance: white robes or clothing; long, unkempt black hair; lifeless hands and feet. Ringu’s main character, anyone?

My favourite type of yūrei is the onryō, or vengeful spirit, thought to be capable of all kinds of nastiness (even natural disasters) in order to secure their revenge. They are far more powerful in death than they ever were in life. So, for megalomaniacs, this seems to be the ultimate career path. The same eighth century Shoku Nihongi which mentions yōkai also records the first instance of someone being possessed by an onryō. Clearly, the author must have been an interesting figure. The text states that a man named Fujiwara Hirotsugu had died in a failed insurrection aimed at removing from power his rival, the priest Genbō. Hirotsugu’s soul then returned to literally scare the life out of the priest. Another tale, of uncertain age, but recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in 1904, tells of a samurai who promised his dying wife that he will never remarry. It will come as no surprise to you that he could not keep his feeble mind in check and ends up breaking the promise with alarming speed. His dead wife’s ghost is far too good of a woman for coming to warn him first, before proceeding to murder the young bride by ripping her head off when her warning wasn’t heeded. Yikes.

These kinds of wrathful ghosts are often present in a game I feel should regain some popularity – Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales. It first became popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), and because of this game, the demand for the gathering of kaidan (ghost stories) from all over Japan increased. The game involves a hundred candles or lamps being lit, and the players taking turns recounting ghoulish tales, be they folkloric or focused on personal/local supernatural experiences. After the end of each story, the storyteller douses one light; spirits were obviously drawn to the darkness like moths to a flame. As the game progressed, the room grew darker and darker, leaving more room for creepy apparitions to come and peep at the players from the darkness. Much cooler than an Ouija board, if you ask me.

These little anecdotes are just the beginning; Japanese ghost stories are definitely worth digging into, if you’re into that kind of thing. In the next part, I will tell one such tale; that of the snow woman, or yuki onna. I ensure you it is nothing like Disney’s Frozen.

Here are some creepy pictures that do a much better job at providing an adequate punch line than I ever could.

Onryō by Hokusai
Onryō by Hokusai
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Ukiyo-e print of yōkai, by Aotoshi Matsui
Oni in pilgrim's clothing. Tokugawa period.
Oni in pilgrim’s clothing. Tokugawa period.

History’s awkward endings Pt.2: Frederick Barbarossa

Frederick Barbarossa, middle, flanked by two of his children, King Henry VI (left) and Duke Frederick VI (right). From the Historia Welforum.
Frederick Barbarossa, middle, flanked by two of his children, King Henry VI (left) and Duke Frederick VI (right). From the Historia Welforum.

The twelfth century almost reminds me of the world created by Marvel for their superheroes such as Captain America and Iron Man. It is without a doubt my favourite era of the Middle Ages. The hero of today’s story, Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, Holy Roman Emperor from 1152 until his death in 1190, shared the stage with some other truly larger-than-life figures who made sure they would occupy a good amount of pages in future history books. So, I naturally can’t tell Frederick’s story without filling in some of this context, for fear of these chaps coming back to haunt me.

Quickly rising to celebrity status was bold King Henry II of England, who consolidated what would become known as the Angevin Empire, and who famously quarreled with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and had him stabbed to death inside his own cathedral. Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a plotting she-wolf who joined some of her sons in rebellion against him. One of those sons, warrior-poet Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, placed his stamp on the crusades by making his Muslim adversary Saladin’s life fairly stressful. (By the way, for those interested in the poet part: look up Richard’s song ‘Ja nuns hons pris’ on youtube. It’s great.) And, according to Disney, Richard had a fabulous follower named Robin Hood. Finally – I’m forcing myself to cut this list short – my favourite Pope, Innocent III, who was incredibly pompous and stuck his oversized nose into literally everything within reach, began his reign just before the end of this century in 1198.

Now, let’s fill in part of the board on which these chess pieces played their game. Imagine upcoming cities with guilds, booming trade, a powerful Church, kings and vassals, knights in shining armour going off to chop Muslim infidels into tiny pieces in the Holy Land, and ever-shifting boundaries as neighbouring kingdoms harried each other’s territories. On this stage, tales of chivalric romance often sung by wandering minstrels carrying out-of-tune lutes, for example recounting the legend of King Arthur, were busy becoming the rock stars of their day. In short, this period is about as quintessentially medieval as it gets.

For Frederick Barbarossa, the conditions for becoming a medieval superhero were all in place, because by the time he became emperor the Holy Roman Empire was eh, having some issues. Superheroes must have something to battle and overcome, of course.

The Holy Roman Empire was made up of a plethora of principalities, duchies and the likes, stretching from the Low Countries to northern Italy, the core of which would later become Germany. A.K.A., not the most easily governed mishmash. Complicating matters further, its emperor was often elected, and was then crowned by the Pope. In time, the popes (in this case, Gregory VII) decided they wanted a piece of the pie and tried to strong-arm one of Frederick’s predecessors, Henry IV, into letting them appoint local church officials. The ensuing struggle, known as the Investiture Controversy, almost literally crippled Henry, who had to beg on his knees for forgiveness. Henry’s initiate pig-headedness had also led to uprisings within his empire, increased power for local German princes, and the rebellion of his sons. Even after the Controversy was ended in 1122, strife continued to plague the empire in the form of power hungry princes and two squabbling rival houses. So, you can imagine the Holy Roman Empire wasn’t entirely shipshape by the time Frederick appeared on the scene.

Perfect circumstances for some legacy-building, or so Frederick thought. Frederick, who was the nephew of King Conrad III, was born in 1122. In a Game of Thrones-worthy episode, he won the king’s confidence during the Second Crusade (1145–1149), and proceeded to make sure he was present at the king’s deathbed in 1152, along with just one other person. Both Frederick and his buddy afterwards declared that Conrad had handed the royal insignia to Frederick rather than to his own six-year old son. Not bad, Freddy.

He instantly realized that in order to restore some of the recently lost power to his position, he had to cut some smart deals. The first item on his to-do list was establishing peace in the mess that was the German states, which he achieved by making lavish concessions to the German princes. Consequently, he bombarded the empire’s Italian domains with a bunch of campaigns intended to restore imperial authority, which were moderately successful. He also reinstated the (originally sixth-century) Justinian Code of law, which he used to add divine powers to his office. Overall, this man had the skills and the charisma to breathe new life into imperial authority, and he is considered to be one of the Holy Roman Empire’s greatest medieval emperors.

Such a great man as this Redbeard (which is what Barbarossa means) obviously deserved a heroic – or at least a dignified – exit. There was certainly a grand opportunity for him to go out with a bang. In 1187, Balian of Ibelin, represented by ladies’ favourite Orlando Bloom in the film Kingdom of Heaven, had been forced to surrender Jerusalem to the Muslim leader Saladin; the Third Crusade was launched in 1189 in an attempt to reconquer the lost lands. Frederick Barbarossa joined King Richard the Lionheart and the French king Philip II Augustus in taking up the cross. It could have been great. It could have been wonderful. Instead, it was ever so slightly damp.

En route in Anatolia, before even reaching the Holy Land, the great Frederick Barbarossa drowned while crossing the river Saleph. How the hell did this happen? The sources all vary ever so slightly, and there’s no space here to go through all of the versions. According to our main source, the Historia de Expeditione Frederici Imperatoris, the army had trudged through the blistering heat on unforgiving terrain for days, scaling cliffs ‘accessible only to birds and mountain goats’. The author has it that Frederick wanted to cool down a bit, as well as avoid another mountain peak, so he jumped right into the swift-flowing river. Straight into a whirlpool, apparently. Thus, Frederick ended up sleeping with the fishes (bonus points if you get the Worms reference). There is also a source that states that Barbarossa attempted to give his horse some swimming lessons by crossing the river, but failing miserably; both Frederick and his horse were swept away by the current. Of course, as befits a proper knight, he was wearing his full plate armour, and sank like a guilty witch.

After his death, his army more or less dissolved and most of the German knights returned home. Without the German army, Richard the Lionheart failed to reconquer the holy grail that was Jerusalem, despite capturing the important cities of Acre and Jaffa. Luckily, in World War 2 the Nazis realised what a great emperor Frederick had been, and wanted to honour him by naming one of their operations after him. However, Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union which was started in June 1941, met a similarly awkward end when the troops drowned in mountains of Soviet snow. Perhaps they were tempting fate by naming it after Frederick.

The death of Frederick Barbarossa as depicted in the Gotha manuscript of the Sächsische Weltchronik.
The death of Frederick Barbarossa as depicted in the Gotha manuscript of the Sächsische Weltchronik.