Folktale Friday: Yuki-Onna, Lovely but Lethal

Photo by Samuel Berner on Unsplash

Yuki-Onna is a Japanese spirit (or Yokai) that appears to weary travellers on cold winter nights and freezes them to death with her icy breath.

With a name that translates to Snow Woman (雪女), or Lady of the Snow, the Yuki-Onna is a beautiful female spectre who personifies both the beauty and danger of winter.

Yuki Onna FAQs

“How do I know I’m looking at Yuki-Onna?

Described as a “a fair woman in dazzlingly white garments”, the Yuki-Onna has pale skin, flowing black hair and no feet, opting to glide across the snow towards her victims.

Source: Myths and Legends of Japan, F. Hadland Davis, 1912

“What is the threat level of a Yuki-Onna?

High.

While some tales depict the Yuki-Onna as a solemn sad figure who means little harm, she is most often portrayed as a killer who freezes men to death with her “winter kiss”.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

In the folktale The Snow Bride, two men, one young, one elderly, are journeying across Japan during a snowstorm. Taking shelter in an abandoned hut they fall asleep, but during the night, the younger man, Minokichi, is awakened and sees:

a woman in the room,—a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him;—and her breath was like a bright white smoke.

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904
Source: Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

After freezing his travelling companion to death, the Yuki-Onna turns her attention to Minokichi, but she doesn’t kill him, Instead, she says:

“You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody—even your own mother—about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you… Remember what I say!”

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

Because Minokichi is no fool, he agrees to the Snow Woman’s terms and never speaks of that night in the hut or how his travelling companion perished.

Soon after his encounter with the Snow Woman, Minokichi meets a fair maiden named O-Yuki whom he quickly marries. They have ten children and spend many happy years together, until one snowy evening when Minokichi looks at his wife and is reminded of the Yuki-Onna.

Soon, Minokichi is blabbing his secret:

“To see you…with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened when I was a lad of eighteen. I then saw somebody as beautiful and white as you are now—indeed, she was very like you.”

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

No sooner have the words left his lips than Minokichi’s wife reveals her true form. She is the Yuki-Onna he ran into on that terrible night. (Apparently, her name didn’t ring any alarm bells.)

Incensed by his broken promise, the Snow Bride curses Minokichi and his loose tongue and leaves him to raise their children alone.

Before she goes, however, she warns Minokichi that should he mistreat the children or give them cause to complain about his parenting – she will come back and kill him. Then she screams, turns to a snowy mist and vanishes.

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov on Pexels.com

“Hmm, that story sounds familiar…”

Yes, the Lover’s Vow segment from 1990 horror movie Tales from the Darkside is almost identical, except it swaps the Yuki Onna for a murderous gargoyle.

Does the Yuki-Onna only target men?”

It would appear in most retellings of her tale, even those that don’t end in murder like the story Kyuaemon’s Ghostly Visitor, her encounters are mostly with men.

If she isn’t killing them, she materialises to remind them of promises made to her when she was alive. Most often these promises involve the care of her children.

Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash

“So what have we learnt?”

Personifying both the beauty and danger of winter, the tale of the Yuki Onna reminds us that, while stunning to behold, winter kills. So, if you want to stay alive, don’t get lost in the beauty, keep your wits about you and ALWAYS keep your promises.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING:

Myths and Legends of Japan, F. Hadland Davis, 1912

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, Lafcadio Hearn, 1904

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