She may also go by such names as yuki-musume ("snow girl"), yuki-onago ("snow girl"), yukijorō (雪女郎, "snow harlot"), yuki anesa ("snow sis'"), yuki-onba ("snow granny" or "snow nanny"), yukinba ("snow hag") in Ehime, yukifuri-baba ("snowfall hag") in Nagano. They are also called several names that are related to icicles, such as "tsurara-onna", "kanekori-musume," and "shigama-nyōbō."
Yuki-onna come from old times, and in the Muromachi period Sōgi Shokoku Monogatari by the renga poet Sōgi, there is a statement on how the poet saw a yuki-onna when he was staying in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture), indicating that the legends already existed in the Muromachi period.
In legends, in the Ojiya region of Niigata Prefecture, a beautiful woman came to visit a man and became the man's wife from the woman's own wishes, but she was very reluctant to go into the bath and when she was made to go in anyway, she disappeared, leaving only thin fragmented icicles floating there (see also: tsurara-onna). In the Aomori Prefecture and Yamagata Prefecture, there is a similar story about the one called the "Shigama-onna." In the Kaminoyama region of the Yamagata Prefecture, a yuki-onna would come visit an old couple on a snowy night to warm herself at the irori, and when late at night the yuki-onna would again go out on a journey, the old man would attempt to take her hand to stop her from going, when he noticed that she was chillingly cold. Then, before his eyes the girl turned into a whirl of snow that went out through the chimney. Also, it has some points of similarity with the kokakuchō and on the night of a blizzard, as the yuki-onna would be standing there hugging a child (yukinko) and ask passer-bys to hug that child. When one hugs the child, the child would become heavier and heavier until one would become covered with snow and freeze to death. It is also told that if one refuses instead, one would be shoved down into a snowy valley. In Hirosaki, it is said that there was a warrior (bushi) who was asked by a yuki-onna to hug a child the same way, but the warrior held a short sword (tantō) by the mouth and hugged the child while making the blade go close to the child's head, which allowed the warrior to avoid the aformentioned phenomenon, and when the warrior gave the child back to the yuki-onna, the yuki-onna gave many treasures as thanks for hugging the child. It is also said that those who are able to withstand the ever-increasing weight of the yukinko and last all the way through would acquire great physical strength.
In the Ina region of Nagano Prefecture, yuki-onna are called "yukionba" and it is believed that they would appear on a snowy night in the form of a yama-uba. Similarly, in Yoshida, Ehime Prefecture, on a night when snow is accumulating on the ground, a "yukinba" is said to appear and people would make sure not to let their children go outside. Also, in the Tōno region of Iwate Prefecture, and on Little New Year (koshōgatsu) or the 15th day of the first month, a yuki-onna would take along many children along to a field to play, so it is said that children are warned against going outside. It can be thus seen that yuki-onna are often considered the same as yama-uba and sharing the similarity that they are very fecund and take along many children with them. In the Ito region of Wakayama Prefecture, it is said that there would be a one-legged child jump-walking on a night when snow accumulates, and the next morning there would be round footprints remaining, and this would be called the "yukinbō" (snow child), but the one-legged snow kid is thought to be the servant of a mountain god. In the village of Oshika, Tōhaku District, Tottori Prefecture (now Misasa), it is said that a yuki-onna would come during light snow and say "koori gose yu gose" ("give me ice, give me hot water") ("gose" is a dialect word for "give me") while waving around a white wand, and the yuki-onna would bulge when splashed with water and would disappear when splashed with hot water. In the area of the Kumano River in Yoshino District, Nara Prefecture, the "oshiroi baa-san" or "oshiroi babaa" is also thought to be a type of yuki-onna, and they are said to drag along mirrors and making clinking sounds while doing so. These characteristics, that of waving around a white wand (gohei) and possessing a mirror, are thought to be the characteristics of a miko who serves a mountain god that rules over birth and harvest. In Aomori, it is actually said that a yuki-onna would come down to the village on the third day of Shōgatsu and return to the mountains on the first day of Rabbit, and it is thought that on years when the day of Rabbit is late to come, how well the harvest does will be different from before.
In the Iwate Prefecture and the Miyagi Prefecture, a yuki-onna is thought to steal people's vitality and in Niigata Prefecture, they are said to take livers out of children and freeze people to death. In Nishimonai, Akita Prefecture, looking at a yuki-onna's face and exchanging words with the yuki-onna would result in being eaten. On the other hand, in Ibaraki Prefecture and in Iwaki Province, Fukushima Prefecture, it is said that if one does not answer when called by a yuki-onna, one would be shoved down into the bottom a valley. In the Fukui Prefecture, they are called "koshi-musume" (越娘, "passing girl") and it is said that those who turn their backs to a koshi-musume when being called by one would get pushed into a valley.
In Ibigawa, Ibi District, Gifu Prefecture, an invisible monster called the "yukinobō" is said to change their appearance and appear as a yuki-onna. It is said that this monster would appear at mountain huts and say "give me water," but if one grants the request by giving water, one would be killed, so one should give hot tea instead. It is said that in order to make the yukinbō go away, one should chant "saki kuromoji ni ato bōshi, shimetsuke haitara, ikanaru mono mo, kanō mai" (meaning "a kurujo in front and a bōshi behind, by wearing these tight, nothing is possible").
The Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture legend about a yuki-onna coming back to the human world on New Years Day (Shōgatsu) and the legend in Tōno, Iwate Prefecture about yuki-onna taking along many children to play on Little New Year (koshōgatsu) both, from looking at the days on which they visit, give insight on how the yuki-onna has some characteristics of a Toshigami. The story of how when one person treated a yuki-onna with kindness on a blizzard night, the yuki-onna turned into gold the next morning show how even in old tales such as the Ōtoshi no Kyaku, the yuki-onna has some relation to the characteristics of a toshigami.
Yuki-onna often appear while taking along children. This is in common with another yōkai that takes along children, the ubume. In the Mogami District, Yamagata Prefecture, ubume are said to be yuki-onna.
They often appear in stories about inter-species marriage, and stories similar to Lufcadio Hearn's Yuki-onna where a mountain hunter gets together with a woman who stayed the night as a guest and eventually birthing a child when one day the man carelessly talked about the taboo of getting together with a yuki-onna resulting in the woman revealing herself to be a yuki-onna but not killing the man due to having a child between them and warning "if anything happens to the child, you won't get away with it" before going away can be found in Niigata Prefecture, Toyama Prefecture, and the Nagano Prefecture, which came about as a result of many stories about mountain people where those who break the mountain taboos would be killed by mountain spirits. There is also the hypothesis that the yuki-onna legend was born from a mixture of paranormal stories of mountain people and the paranormal yuki-onna stories.
Old tales about yuki-onna are mostly stories of sorrow, and it is said that these tales started from when people who have lived gloomy lives, such as childless old couples or single men in mountain villages, would hear the sound of a blizzard knocking on their shutter door and fantasize that the thing that they longed for has come. It is said that after that, they would live in happiness with what they longed for in a fantasy as fleeting as snow. There is also a feeling of fear, and like as in the Tōno Monogatari, the sound of a blizzard knocking on an outer shōji is called the "shōji sasuri" (rubbing a shōji), and there is a custom of making children who stayed up late go to sleep quickly when a yuki-onna rubs a shōji. From real sayings such as the shōji sasuri, it is said that things that one longs for sits back-to-back with fear. Also, winter is the season when gods would come to visit, and if one does not pay respects, terrible things will happen, so even if it is said to be things that one longs for, one cannot put too much trust in that. In any case, it can be said to be related to the coming and going of seasons. Nobuyoshi Furuhashi, scholar of Japanese literature, stated that the novel Kaze no Matasaburō is also probably somehow related.
There are various legends about the yuki-onna's true identity, such as saying that the yuki-onna is a snow spirit or the spirit of a woman who fell over in the snow. In a setsuwa of the Oguni region of Yamagata Prefecture, a yuki-jorō (yuki-onna) was originally a princess of the moon world and in order to leave a boring lifestyle came down to earth together with snow but was unable to go back to the moon and so is said to appear on snowy moonlit nights.
Yamaoka Genrin, an intellectual from the Edo Period, said that yuki-onna are born from snow. It was supposed that if there were a lot of something, a living thing would come forth from it, giving birth to fish if the water is deep enough and birds if the forest is thick enough. Since both snow and women are "yin," so in places like Echigo it is said that yuki-onna might be born from within deep snow.
Among Japan's traditional culture, yuki-onna can be seen in kōwaka such as the Fushimi Tokiwa (伏見常磐), which can also be checked in modern times. In Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Yuki-onna Gomai Hagoita, there is a story about how a woman who was deceived and murdered became a yuki-onna and took revenge. The bewitching and frightening aspects of a yuki-onna are often used in such depictions. Old tales and legends like these have been confirmed in Aomori, Yamatagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Niigata, Nagano, Wakayama, Ehime, among other places.
Yuki-onna appears on snowy nights as a tall, beautiful woman with long black hair and blue lips. Her inhumanly pale or even transparent skin makes her blend into the snowy landscape (as famously described in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things). She sometimes wears a white kimono, but other legends describe her as nude, with only her face and hair standing out against the snow. Despite her inhuman beauty, her eyes can strike terror into mortals. She floats across the snow, leaving no footprints (in fact, some tales say she has no feet, a feature of many Japanese ghosts), and she can transform into a cloud of mist or snow if threatened.
Some legends say the Yuki-onna, being associated with winter and snowstorms, is the spirit of someone who perished in the snow. She is at the same time beautiful and serene, yet ruthless in killing unsuspecting mortals. Until the 18th century, she was almost uniformly portrayed as evil. Today, however, stories often color her as more human, emphasizing her ghost-like nature and ephemeral beauty.
In many stories, Yuki-onna appears to travelers trapped in snowstorms, and uses her icy breath to leave them as frost-coated corpses. Other legends say she leads them astray so they simply die of exposure. Other times, she manifests holding a child. When a well-intentioned soul takes the "child" from her, they are frozen in place. Parents searching for lost children are particularly susceptible to this tactic. Other legends make Yuki-onna much more aggressive. In these stories, she often invades homes, blowing in the door with a gust of wind to kill residents in their sleep (some legends require her to be invited inside first).
What Yuki-onna is after varies from tale to tale. Sometimes she is simply satisfied to see a victim die. Other times, she is more vampiric, draining her victims' blood or "life force." She occasionally takes on a succubus-like manner, preying on weak-willed men to drain or freeze them through sex or a kiss.
Like the snow and winter weather she represents, Yuki-onna has a softer side. She sometimes lets would-be victims go for various reasons. In one popular Yuki-onna legend, for example, she sets a young boy free because of his beauty and age. She makes him promise never to speak of her, but later in life, he tells the story to his wife who reveals herself to be the snow woman. She reviles him for breaking his promise, but spares him again, this time out of concern for their children (but if he dares mistreat their children, she will return with no mercy. Luckily for him, he is a loving father). In some versions, she chose not to kill him because he told her, which she did not treat as a broken promise (technically, Yuki-Onna herself is not a human, and thus did not count). In a similar legend, Yuki-onna melts away once her husband discovers her true nature. However, she departs to the afterlife afterward the same way.
Lafcadio Hearn's version
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.
She 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."
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 a 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.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Yuki-onna.|
- Yuki Onnna – The Snow Woman at hyakumonogatari.com (English).
- An article that references Yuki Onna in the movies Japanzine By Jon Wilks