An Introduction To Japanese Yōkai: Yuki-onna

Amongst the numerous hobbies that I enjoy, is the study of Japanese history and culture. Nestled deep in Japan’s long history are countless tales and records involving the supernatural and extraordinary. The most striking are those that surround the Yōkai. Yōkai are spirits, demons, or otherwise supernatural entities. And they are numerous, popping up all over Japanese recorded history. Even powerful leaders like Toyotomi Hideyoshi have pondered their existence and meaning. Many Yōkai are perceived to be friendly or benign. Many are seen to be a bane to the people they come in contact with, often causing mischief and problems wherever they appear. Some are even seen as holy, and tied directly to the various gods in the Shinto religion. This series is an introduction into the very deep world of the Japanese supernatural.

Yuki onna


Yuki onna [pronounced: You Key Oh’n Nah] directly translates as: (Yuki)Snow (Onna)Woman. These are predatory spirits found in the colder, susceptible to heavy snowfall regions of Japan. Yuki onna are said to be beautiful women with long dark hair and incredibly dark eyes. Their skin as cold as ice, the color of snow, often covered in a white kimono. They are ageless, and always appear to be youthful and the picture of beauty. They cross the blankets of snow leaving no footprints, as they seemingly float across the frozen landscape. They have the ability to disappear into the night. leaving only a whirl of snow and wind in their wake. It is thought that these spirits were once woman that had gotten lost and had perished in a harsh winter storm.

Yuki onna hunt in the snow covered regions of Japan. Typically in the northern or heavily mountainous prefectures. Their prey are unsuspecting humans, often lost, trekking through the snow. They are often found near mountain passes, roads, and trails. They use various tricks to draw in their prey, and once ensnared the Yuki onna uses a frost breath to freeze their prey and extract their life force. Whats left behind is a frozen solid human, soon to be covered by the falling snow.

One of the most notable traps a Yuki onna uses to draw in her victims is to appear as a young lost mother carrying a baby wrapped in a blanket. She would appear to the unsuspecting man as shivering, clutching the baby close to her for warmth. She would then ask the man to hold her bundled baby for warmth. If the man agreed, they would take the bundle into their arms. The baby would seem to be unnaturally heavy, and would only grow heavier. The weight would increase until the bearer became encumbered. Eventually, the man would be pinned then covered by heavy snow and ice, and freeze to death. Some legends noted, that if the seemingly good-natured man tried to uncover the baby and look at it, all that would be there is a block of ice under the blanket. Others stated that if one were to refuse the Yuki onna’s request, they would be killed anyway. Either by the woman’s frost breath, or by being pushed to their death off of the mountain or into a ravine.

Yuki onna have been known to spare a man’s life, however. Particularly if the man is young and handsome.

Tales of the Yuki onna

While they are known to be vengeful Yōkai, the Yuki onna have been known to take lovers. In probably the most widely known story involving a Yuki onna, a man once fell in love with a beautiful woman with snow white skin, and they lived together for some time. Because they lived in a place plagued by brutal winters, the man loved to take long hot baths to soothe his frozen bones. On one particularly bitterly night he implored his wife to take a nice hot bath, as it was way too cold. To which she protested. Pondering deep on this, the man realized that he was not sure he had ever seen his wife bathe. But she was always the picture of beauty. But because of the cold, on this particularly cold night he insisted that she warm up in the bath. To which she reluctantly acquiesced. After some time, when she had not emerged from the bath, he went to check on her. But upon him entering the room, all he found was an empty bath. His wife was nowhere to be found. All that was left behind were small floating ice crystals in the warm bath water. She was never seen again.

Another story centers around an old man and woman that owned an inn along a mountain pass. One day the couple welcomed in a beautiful young woman to warm herself by the fire. Later the woman tried to leave and venture back out into the snowy night. The old man protested, as it was far too dangerous to go out in the storm. But the woman insisted and made for the door. The inn keeper, insistent on keeping the woman safe, reached out his hand to stop her. When his hand grasped her arm he found her skin was frozen. The shock of the cold removed all traces of warmth in his arm, as if sucking it away from him. The woman then disappeared in a swirl of snow and ice right before his eyes.

One tale speaks of a samurai that encountered a young woman clutching a baby close to her for warmth. The woman implored the warrior to take the baby and hold him for her. As discussed above, a known trap of the Yuki onna. The warrior did as she asked but he was also holding a Tanto(a short bladed sword). As he held the baby, the blade grew very close to the baby’s head. For whatever reason, this act nullified the Yuki onna’s trap, and nothing happened. The warrior then handed the baby back to the woman. As thanks for holding the child, the warrior was given some treasure, and the two parted.

The Tale of Minokichi and O-Yuki

by Lafcadio Hearn (Yakumo Koizumi)

There was a tale of Minokichi, a young woodcutter. He and his master, Mosaku had been busy working on a mountain when a bad snow storm reared up on them. Unable to make the trek back down the mountain to their homes, the two sought refuge in an unassuming hut. After they turned-in to sleep, Minokichi awoke in the middle of the night to find a gorgeous woman in white leaning over the sleeping Mosaku. The woman breathed a cold air on to the old man and he was instantly almost frozen. Mosaku, the young man’s master was dead.

The woman then made her way to a paralyzed by fear Minokichi and stopped short. She observed him for a short time and then spoke. She told the young man that she was going to kill him as well, but she had decided to spare his life because he was still young and beautiful. She went on to explain that if the young man told anyone of what happened here in this hut tonight, that she would find Minokichi and end him.

Some years later, the tight-lipped Minokichi met a young beautiful woman named O-Yuki*, and they fell in love. The two would have several children together and would be very happy as a family. However, as the man and children would age, the woman would seemingly retain her youthful visage. Ever beautiful as the day they met.

*Yuki has many meanings, but as stated above, in this context it means Snow.

One night, a lost in thought Minokichi looked at his wife and told her that she reminded him of a woman he had met many years prior. He went on to tell the tale of a massive snow storm and Mosaku’s death, and how that night he was spared. The woman listened to his tale and at the conclusion she slowly stood and strode over to him. O-Yuki told Minokichi that she was the woman from that night, and that she had warned him of what would happened if he ever spoke of what he had seen. However, she went on to say that she could not kill him now, because of their many children. They needed a caretaker. O-Yuki then bid him to properly look after their children or she would, in fact, return and finish him.

Then the beautiful O-Yuki, Minokichi’s wife and mother to his children, the Yuki onna, melted before his eyes. Gone forever.

Minokichi had now, two times, avoided death at the hands(or breath) of the Yuki onna, and no doubt cared for his children as best he could until his dying day.

This story was the basis for the 1968 movie, The Snow Woman. In this trailer you see many characteristics of the Yuki onna. Her white skin and youthful appearance, the villagers all in fear of the Yuki onna and her frost breath. Even the Yuki onna’s lover is seen asking her why her body is always so cold. She is also seen threatening him as well as attacking the villagers.

Yōkai Road

Image source
Shigeru Mizuki with Medama Oyaji(a talking eyeball and main character from GeGeGe no Kitarō) on his shoulder.

Manga artist Shigeru Mizuki(1922-2015), a veteran of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, was an authority on Yōkai, and spent most of his life studying and writing about them. He was the author of the widely known long running manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō, which centers on Yōkai lore. This series was also made into an anime.

In 1996 Mizuki had a street dedicated to his work in Tottori Prefecture, located in western Japan, where he was raised. On this street are well over 150 bronze Yōkai statues of various shapes and sizes. All situated in varying locations. There are also characters from his hit manga depicted in statue form.

A likeness of the Yuki onna can be found at Yōkai Road, with her hair being blown by the snowstorm, and seemingly floating across the frozen ground. This Yōkai appeared in numerous Shigeru Mizuki works.

For further information about Yōkai, I highly suggest A website run by Matthew Meyer. He has studied Yōkai and Japanese folklore intensively, and has also released a series of books that he wrote, designed, and illustrated. All devoted to the subject. His books and website were a major source of information for this series, and I regularly reference them. They are:

[This post was originally published at Otherverse Games & Hobbies]

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Robert is: a Hobbyist, a Music Lover, an RPG Gamer, a Mustard Lover, Chaotic Neutral, a Japanese Speaker, a Veteran, an Otaku, a Table Tennis Player, an Anime Fan, an Aviation Professional, a New York Rangers Fan, a Chaos Lover With Loyalist Tendencies.

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