Japanese Folktales: Yuki-Onna, the Snow Woman

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In Japanese folklore, Yuki-Onna or Snow Woman, is a yōkai, which is  a kind of demon, spirit or supernatural monster.  There are many different Japanese folktales and traditions that feature Yuki-Onna and accounts of them vary from region to region. Presented here is a retelling of a story called Yuki-Onna, from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn.

Yuki-Onna

Mosaku and Minokichi were two woodcutters that lived in a village in Musashi Province. Mosaku was an old man and Minokichi was a lad of eighteen years of age and his apprentice.   Everyday they would walk the five miles to the forest to find wood and on the way they were obliged to cross a river.   The river was wide and in good weather could be swum but after heavy rains the current was too strong so they would use a ferry boat to cross to the other side.  There had been several attempts to build a bridge but on each occasion as soon as the river rose its fast flowing current washed it away, therefore people who wanted to cross had to use the ferry.

One winter’s day and Mosaku and Minokichi had gone out as usual and used the ferry to cross the river.  They spent the day gathering wood and as it was growing dark they realized a snow storm was approaching and made their way back the the river. Unfortunately when they arrived they found the ferryman had taken the boat to the other side of the river and gone home.  

The Snow Storm

The snow storm hit them and as it was no weather to swim they took shelter in the ferryman’s hut nearby. It was small and cramped but as the snow came down they thought themselves lucky to have such shelter at all. Unfortunately there was no smoke hole or brazier to light a fire in, nevertheless locking the door  they settled down to wait out the night covered only in their overcoats.  

At first they were quite comfortable and expected the storm to pass over quickly.  To begin with the heat from their bodies began to warm up the as the small hut and Mosaku fell asleep quickly.  Minokichi could not sleep and lay listening to the howling wind outside. He could hear the snow crashing against the hut and the roaring of the river as it began to rise.  The rickety hut began to creak and groan under the full force of the snowstorm and suddenly it grew very, very cold. The apprentice began to shiver and despite the cold he too fell asleep.

He was sharply awoken  with a start by a snow hitting his face. Opening his eyes in surprise he saw the door had been forced open.  Outside the snow had eased but was still falling and the ground had a thick white covering which glimmered strangely under the moon and stars.  

The Snow Woman

In the snow-light he was shocked to see that there was someone else in the hut apart from his master and himself.  He saw it was a woman who was dressed all in white and bending over Mosaku was blowing her breath upon him. It streamed over his face like bright white smoke.  Seeing Minokichi stir the woman turned and began stooping over him, lower and lower and lower.   He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t. He tried to move, but he couldn’t.

All he could do was watch in fear as her face drew nearer and nearer until it almost touched his and he could feel her cold breath.  He saw she was very beautiful but he was afraid of her eyes. She stooped over him looking at him for awhile and then she smiled and whispered softly,

“You are young.  You are so pretty!  Minokichi, tonight I intended to do with you as I have done with your companion.  Have no fear, I feel pity for you and I will not hurt you. You must never speak of what you have seen again, not to sun, moon, stars, not to anything. If you ever tell another person, even your own mother or another living being about what you have witnessed tonight I will immediately know.  I will come for you and I will kill you. Do not say you have not been warned!”

For a few terrible moments she gazed into his eyes, then she straightened up, turned and walked out of the hut and into the snow and was gone.  To his relief the spell that had held him transfixed was gone.  He jumped up and looked quickly out of the door but could see no sign of her, not even her footprints and the snow was thick on the ground.   He closed the door making sure it was secure wondering if he had been dreaming and the wind had blown the door open.

Turning to Mosaku, his master he was shocked to see that the old man had not moved through it all.  He called to him but there was no answer, He touched his face and it was as cold as ice. He shook his body but it was stiff and lifeless and realized his master was dead.  With nothing else he could do he settled down to wait out the night.

In the morning the storm was gone and the ferryman had crossed the river.  On entering his hut he was surprised to see the unconscious figure of Minokichi and the body of his dead master.  He promptly gave aid to Minokichi and managed to revive him but there was nothing he could do for Mosaku who was now frozen solid.

Recovery

With care and over a period of time Minokichi recovered in full from his ordeal.  The death of his master and his encounter with the Snow Woman had left profound mark on him.  He spoke nothing of these to anyone not even his mother took care of him. Eventually he grew fit enough to resume woodcutting to make a living.  Every morning he would walk to the river alone and cross over to the forest and collect bundle of sticks that he would take back and with the help of his mother sell.  

Time passed in this way and some twelve months later one winter evening he was walking home with his bundle of sticks on his shoulder.  He was walking fast wanting to get home when he caught up with a girl who was travelling in the same direction as he. She was very tall and very slim and also very pretty.  As he was striding past, so as not to unduly alarm her, Minokichi called out a friendly greeting.  She returned the greeting in a friendly way but Minokichi was struck by the sound of her voice which sounded  very pleasant to listen to like that of a songbird. He slowed to her pace and walked beside her and as she seemed amenable to conversation he began chatting with her.  

O-Yuki

He told her his name and she told him her name was O-Yuki and that recently she had been bereaved of both her parents.  She was on her way to Yedo where she had relatives and hoped they would help her find a place in a rich family as a servant.

He was absolutely intrigued by the girl and the more they talked and traveled together the more beautiful and entrancing she became to him.   They chatted easily together of many things and laughed along together. As they walked along and at last he asked her if she was betrothed. She blushed and laughed but told him that she was absolutely free.

In return she asked if he was engaged or married and he told her that he too was free and only had his aging, widowed mother to support.  Somewhere between them unspoken but in their minds were thoughts of an “honorable daughter-in-law”.  Both silently considered and they walked on in silence. but there is an old  saying,

“When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.”

The more they walked together the more they liked each other. When they reached the village lived Minokichi politely asked O-Yuki if she would like to rest and take refreshment at his home for awhile and meet his mother.

O-Yuki blushed and after hesitating agreed.  His mother made her very welcome and made her sit down and rest while she made her a hot meal.  O-Yuki was so polite and agreeable that his mother asked her to stop the night and take a break from her long journey. The next morning as she was preparing to leave his mother came to her and persuaded her to stay for a  few days saying she really enjoyed her company. Of course this pleased Minokichi greatly and it came to pass that O-Yuki never left and was gladly accepted into the household as “An honourable daughter-in-law.”

An Honourable Daughter-in-Law

Indeed, O-Yuki became something of the perfect daughter-in-law and when Minokichi’s mother died five years later her last words poured nothing but love and affection upon her son’s wife.  O-Yuki gave her husband ten beautiful children all, slim tall and as handsome as she.

All of neighbors and local people saw O-Yuki as a wonder.  Unlike the local women who grew old early through hard work and poverty she remained as young, fresh and beautiful as she been the first day she had met Minokichi even after giving birth to ten children.

Minokichi loved her dearly and one night after the children had gone to sleep he sat watching her sewing by the light of a lantern and said,

“Watching you sewing with the lantern light reminds me of a very strange experience I had when I was a young lad of eighteen.   In all of my life I have never met anyone as beautiful as you and as white and perfect as you, except once and she was very much like you.”

Without looking up or taking her eyes from her work O-Yuki said,

“Oh … Tell me about her.  Where did you meet her?”

Minokichi thought for a minute recollecting his memories of the experience. Then he told her everything that had happened the night Mosaku and he had taken shelter from the snow storm all those years ago.  He told her all about the mysterious Snow Woman and how she had smiled and whispered to him and about how Mosaku had frozen to death that night and said,

“In all of my life, either awake or asleep have I ever seen a person as beautiful as you.  However, this … Snow Woman … was not … could not have been human and I was terrified of her she was so white … pure … perfect … yet terrifying! Sometimes I think it was all a dream or a spirit of the snow.”

Sudden Change

O-Yuki snarled and flinging away her sewing jumped to her feet.  Stooping over him where he sat in shocked silence at her sudden change she lowered her face to his and shrieked,

“Do you not see that it was I … I … I! … It was I!  I told you that I would find you and kill you if you ever said another word about what happened that night.  If not for our children I would kill you here and now! Listen and remember! If you do not take good care of them. If they come to any harm through you – I will return and I will kill you.  Do not say you have not been warned!”

As she shrieked her voice became thin and wailed like the wind as she slowly dissolved into a pure, white mist that spiraled up and around the roof beams and left through the smoke hole, shrieking into the night and was never seen again.

© 04/06/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 4th, 2019 zteve t evans

4 thoughts on “Japanese Folktales: Yuki-Onna, the Snow Woman

  1. Pingback: Via Under the influence!-Japanese Folktales: Yuki-Onna, the Snow Woman – Fang & Saucer

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