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 this yōkai: Yuki-onna.
The Snow Woman
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. Often portrayed as a vengeful spirit who appears during terrible snowstorms, Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman, is also sometimes known as the Snow Hag, though this clashes with her usual description – that of a beautiful, ethereal woman with pale skin and haunting eyes.
As Sōgi wrote, the mysterious Yuki-onna appeared to him one day as an extraordinarily pale, beautiful woman, wearing an equally pale kimono, just outside of his home in Echigo. 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. 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. He never saw her again.
Sōgi’s original story, complete and in Japanese, is available to read here. His account also appears in the Kaii-Yokai Densho Database, maintained by the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (an interesting place, so long as you can find your way around and, in my case, have a translator ready).
Don’t Get Lost
In most stories, like the one above, the Yuki-onna appears tall and pale, and cold as ice. However, she doesn’t always appear quite so serene.
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.
You can read a version of that story here. I won’t spoil it for you.
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 exists or not: Don’t get lost in Japanese mountains during a snowstorm.