The cold never bothered me anyway: Yuki Onna

In the spirit of the holidays, let’s talk about a monster that can leave you looking like Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining!   

Yuki Onna (which translates to “Snow Woman”) is a Japanese yokai that borders on the edge of being too popular to be featured on this blog. First written about during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573), she has survived centuries to proliferate in movies, video games, and anime, even having her own TV Tropes page. There are as many versions of her tale as there are designs of a snowflake. Most nowadays cleave to a romantic, sorrowful, un-Monster-Meet-like interpretation of her, but it was not always that way.

Thin ice

Yuki Onna
Yuki Onna doin’ her thing and wearing clothes.

Different Japanese prefectures have different takes on Yuki Onna, but by and large, she was originally conceived of as either a harbinger of the changing seasons and/or a gifter of icy death.Travellers would spot something in the falling snow: a beautiful woman with translucent skin, black hair, blue lips, and turbulent, violet eyes. Leaving no tracks–sometimes having no feet at all–she would drift lightly a few inches above the snow. Though the wind might howl and the traveller’s eyelashes be crusted with ice, the woman would be wearing nothing more than a light kimono (and sometimes less than that). 

If you as a traveller were exceptionally stupid, you might persue this woman, whereupon she would lead you to your icy death (pro tip: never follow supernatural beings in the wilderness; they almost always lead you to your death. Especially if they’re trying to be all seductive.). Try to ignore her, and Yuki Onna might call to you. In certain prefectures, responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine your death. In others, not responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine to your death. 

Sometimes Yuki Onna would show up with a child in her arms (especially if there was one missing and their parents were out searching for them). Try to take the child, and it would become so heavy that you would be dragged down and die frozen in the snow. Refuse to take the child and you would be–have you guessed it?–shoved down a ravine to your death. Alternately, Yuki Onna might just eat you (if you looked her in her face), or suck out your vital energy (if you happened to live in a certain prefecture). 

When not frightening strangers in snowy passes, Yuki Onna could be found tricking her way in (or straight up busting in) to houses to freeze everyone inside. She’d also wander through villages demanding water (give her cold water, and she would bulge to a monstrous size; hot water, and she would disappear). There are several stories of her appearing on or around the New Year, which range from simply showing up in a ghostly, frightening manner to her stealing away children en masse to play in a field. 

In sum, Yuki Onna seems to have started out representing all of the cruelty of winter. It might even be said that she represented the cruelty of life, as Wikipedia puts it (with shocking poetry): “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.” 

Cold comfort

After the 18th century, Yuki Onna started reflecting a more romantic version of reality. Nowadays, she shows up less as a scantily clad woman who would brutally murder you and more as a scantily clad woman who maybe you could marry and be happy with for a while–at least until her identity is revealed. 

One story makes her out to be a moon princess, who long ago grew bored with her pampered life and so fell with the snow to the earth. Now she can’t get back, and so appears on winter nights with the full moon, longing to go home. (This seems much more romantic than, say, the version of Yuki Onna that eats child livers.) 

Yuki Onna reconstituted.

Another tells of tells of a man who married a beautiful woman who was pale as snow. The man loved to take long, hot baths at night, and was puzzled by his wife’s refusal to bathe as he did. Finally he badgered and cajoled her enough to try it, and when he looked in to see how she was doing, all that was left of her were a few icicle fragments in the water. 

The most popular tale comes from a Westerner retelling (probably with embellishments) a story he was told while collecting Japanese ghost stories around the turn of the 20th century. The tale describes two woodcutters–one older, the other younger–who were stranded in a hut during a blizzard. The younger man woke in the dead of night to find a pale woman standing over his friend. As he watched, she sucked the life out of the older man until he was nothing but a frost-covered corpse. The woman went to do the same to the younger man, but stopped at his handsomeness. She told him that she’d let him go, but that if he ever spoke to anyone–even his own mother–of what had happened, that she would find him and kill him.

The young man recovered from the trauma of the night, never saying a word of it. He met a pretty young woman on the road one winter, and ended up marrying her. They led a happy life, having a whopping ten children. Then, one fateful night, the man was watching his wife sew in the light of a paper lantern. Something about it reminded him of his terrible vision during the blizzard all those years ago. He finally got it off his chest, telling his wife every detail. She listened patiently until he was finished, and then turned on him, lips darkening, eyes black with rage. Only then did he recognize her as the woman from the hut. Yuki Onna raged against him, stopping short of killing him only for the sake of their children. Then she vanished in a gust of snow, never to be seen again. 

Snowglobe

So what’s the deal with legends of deadly women emerging from the snow? Yuki Onna is hardly unique in that regard–there are stories of snow women from all over the place

One interesting take involves “paradoxical disrobing”–the phenomenon where people with severe hypothermia suddenly feel very hot and start to take off their clothes. It could be that before that phenomenon was known, those that happened upon half-naked corpses in the snow drew their own conclusions about what had gone down. Other explanations include optical illusions brought on by temperature inversion, delirium from hypothermia, or just plain hyperactive imaginations during cold, dark storms. 

It makes sense for us to be afraid of winter. We may have forgotten just how much sense it makes, locked up inside our cozy homes drinking beverages with enough cholesterol to kill a horse, but it does. Stories like that of Yuki Onna help us remember if not the particulars, then the emotion behind them. 

Stay warm out there. 

If a ghostly snow lady called to you, would you answer, or pretend to be absorbed in your phone? Share your survival plan in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Sawaki Suushi for thoughtful Yuki Onna and Brigham Young University for the smug Yuki Onna.

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