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

Yuki onna. Image found on
Yuki onna. Image found on

— 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!


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