Folklore

Cold Ones: Yuki Onna and Tsurara Onna #folklore

I decided to do a bit of research on Japanese folklore creatures (yokai). My favourite among these, and regularly confused with each other, is Yuki Onna and Tsurara Onna. Tsurara Onna is the Icicle Woman and Yuki Onna is the Snow Woman.

Enjoy!

Folklore about Yuki Onna and Tsurara Onna

KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn [1904]

YUKI-ONNA

In a village of Musashi Province, there lived two woodcutters: Mosaku and Minokichi. At the time of which I am speaking, Mosaku was an old man; and Minokichi, his apprentice, was a lad of eighteen years. Every day they went together to a forest situated about five miles from their village. On the way to that forest there is a wide river to cross; and there is a ferry-boat. Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.

Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home, one very cold evening, when a great snowstorm overtook them. They reached the ferry; and they found that the boatman had gone away, leaving his boat on the other side of the river. It was no day for swimming; and the woodcutters took shelter in the ferryman’s hut,–thinking themselves lucky to find any shelter at all. There was no brazier in the hut, nor any place in which to make a fire: it was only a two-mat hut, with a single door, but no window. Mosaku and Minokichi fastened the door, and lay down to rest, with their straw rain-coats over them. At first they did not feel very cold; and they thought that the storm would soon be over.

The old man almost immediately fell asleep; but the boy, Minokichi, lay awake a long time, listening to the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door. The river was roaring; and the hut swayed and creaked like a junk at sea. It was a terrible storm; and the air was every moment becoming colder; and Minokichi shivered under his rain-coat. But at last, in spite of the cold, he too fell asleep.

He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw 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. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound. The white woman bent down over him, lower and lower, until her face almost touched him; and he saw that she was very beautiful,–though her eyes made him afraid. For a little time she continued to look at him;–then she smiled, and she whispered:–“I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feeling some pity for you,–because you are so young… 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!”

With these words, she turned from him, and passed through the doorway. Then he found himself able to move; and he sprang up, and looked out. But the woman was nowhere to be seen; and the snow was driving furiously into the hut. Minokichi closed the door, and secured it by fixing several billets of wood against it. He wondered if the wind had blown it open;–he thought that he might have been only dreaming, and might have mistaken the gleam of the snow-light in the doorway for the figure of a white woman: but he could not be sure. He called to Mosaku, and was frightened because the old man did not answer. He put out his hand in the dark, and touched Mosaku’s face, and found that it was ice! Mosaku was stark and dead…

By dawn the storm was over; and when the ferryman returned to his station, a little after sunrise, he found Minokichi lying senseless beside the frozen body of Mosaku. Minokichi was promptly cared for, and soon came to himself; but he remained a long time ill from the effects of the cold of that terrible night. He had been greatly frightened also by the old man’s death; but he said nothing about the vision of the woman in white. As soon as he got well again, he returned to his calling,–going alone every morning to the forest, and coming back at nightfall with his bundles of wood, which his mother helped him to sell.

One evening, in the winter of the following year, as he was on his way home, he overtook a girl who happened to be traveling by the same road. She was a tall, slim girl, very good-looking; and she answered Minokichi’s greeting in a voice as pleasant to the ear as the voice of a song-bird. Then he walked beside her; and they began to talk. The girl said that her name was O-Yuki; that she had lately lost both of her parents; and that she was going to Yedo, where she happened to have some poor relations, who might help her to find a situation as a servant. Minokichi soon felt charmed by this strange girl; and the more that he looked at her, the handsomer she appeared to be. He asked her whether she was yet betrothed; and she answered, laughingly, that she was free. Then, in her turn, she asked Minokichi whether he was married, or pledge to marry; and he told her that, although he had only a widowed mother to support, the question of an “honorable daughter-in-law” had not yet been considered, as he was very young… After these confidences, they walked on for a long while without speaking; but, as the proverb declares, Ki ga areba, me mo kuchi hodo ni mono wo iu: “When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.” By the time they reached the village, they had become very much pleased with each other; and then Minokichi asked O-Yuki to rest awhile at his house. After some shy hesitation, she went there with him; and his mother made her welcome, and prepared a warm meal for her. O-Yuki behaved so nicely that Minokichi’s mother took a sudden fancy to her, and persuaded her to delay her journey to Yedo. And the natural end of the matter was that Yuki never went to Yedo at all. She remained in the house, as an “honorable daughter-in-law.”

O-Yuki proved a very good daughter-in-law. When Minokichi’s mother came to die,–some five years later,–her last words were words of affection and praise for the wife of her son. And O-Yuki bore Minokichi ten children, boys and girls,–handsome children all of them, and very fair of skin.

The country-folk thought O-Yuki a wonderful person, by nature different from themselves. Most of the peasant-women age early; but O-Yuki, even after having become the mother of ten children, looked as young and fresh as on the day when she had first come to the village.

One night, after the children had gone to sleep, O-Yuki was sewing by the light of a paper lamp; and Minokichi, watching her, said:–

“To see you sewing there, 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.”…

Without lifting her eyes from her work, O-Yuki responded:–

“Tell me about her… Where did you see her?

Then Minokichi told her about the terrible night in the ferryman’s hut,–and about the White Woman that had stooped above him, smiling and whispering,–and about the silent death of old Mosaku. And he said:–

“Asleep or awake, that was the only time that I saw a being as beautiful as you. Of course, she was not a human being; and I was afraid of her,–very much afraid,–but she was so white!… Indeed, I have never been sure whether it was a dream that I saw, or the Woman of theSnow.”…

O-Yuki flung down her sewing, and arose, and bowed above Minokichi where he sat, and shrieked into his face:–

“It was I–I–I! Yuki it was! And I told you then that I would kill you if you ever said one work about it!… But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment! And now you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!”…

Even as she screamed, her voice became thin, like a crying of wind;–then she melted into a bright white mist that spired to the roof-beams, and shuddered away through the smoke-hold… Never again was she seen.

Ancient Tales and Folk-lore of Japan by Richard Gordon Smith [1918]

THE SNOW GHOST

PERHAPS there are not many, even in Japan, who have heard of the ‘Yuki Onna’ (Snow Ghost). It is little spoken of except in the higher mountains, which are continually snowclad in the winter. Those who have read Lafcadio Hearn’s books will remember a story of the Yuki Onna, made much of on account of its beautiful telling, but in reality not better than the following.

Up in the northern province of Echigo, opposite Sado Island on the Japan Sea, snow falls heavily. Sometimes there is as much as twenty feet of it on the ground, and many are the people who have been buried in the snows and never found until the spring. Not many years ago three companies of soldiers, with the exception of three or four men, were destroyed in Aowomori; and it was many weeks before they were dug out, dead of course.

Mysterious disappearances naturally give rise to fancies in a fanciful people, and from time immemorial the Snow Ghost has been one with the people of the North; while those of the South say that those of the North take so much saké that they see snow-covered trees as women. Be that as it may, I must explain what a farmer called Kyuzaemon saw.

In the village of Hoi, which consisted only of eleven houses, very poor ones at that, lived Kyuzaemon. He was poor, and doubly unfortunate in having lost both his son and his wife. He led a lonely life.

In the afternoon of the 19th of January of the third year of Tem-po—that is, 1833—a tremendous snowstorm came on. Kyuzaemon closed the shutters, and made himself as comfortable as he could. Towards eleven o’clock at night he was awakened by a rapping at his door; it was a peculiar rap, and came at regular intervals. Kyuzaemon sat up in bed, looked towards the door, and did not know what to think of this. The rapping came again, and with it the gentle voice of a girl. Thinking that it might be one of his neighbour’s children wanting help, Kyuzaemon jumped out of bed; but when he got to the door he feared to open it. Voice and rapping coming again just as he reached it, he sprang back with a cry: ‘Who are you? What do you want?’

‘Open the door! Open the door!’ came the voice from outside.

‘Open the door! Is that likely until I know who you are and what you are doing out so late and on such a night?’

‘But you must let me in. How can I proceed farther in this deep snow? I do not ask for food, but only for shelter.’

‘I am very sorry; but I have no quilts or bedding. I can’t possibly let you stay in my house.’

‘I don’t want quilts or bedding,—only shelter,’ pleaded the voice.

‘I can’t let you in, anyway,’ shouted Kyuzaemon. ‘It is too late and against the rules and the law.’

Saying which, Kyuzaemon rebarred his door with a strong piece of wood, never once having ventured to open a crack in the shutters to see who his visitor might be. As he turned towards his bed, with a shudder he beheld the figure of a woman standing beside it, clad in white, with her hair down her back. She had not the appearance of a ghost; her face was pretty, and she seemed to be about twenty-five years of age. Kyuzaemon, taken by surprise and very much alarmed, called out:

‘Who and what are you, and how did you get in? Where did you leave your geta.’ 1

‘I can come in anywhere when I choose,’ said the figure, ‘and I am the woman you would not let in. I require no clogs; for I whirl along over the snow, sometimes even flying through the air. I am on my way to visit the next village; but the wind is against me. That is why I wanted you to let me rest here. If you will do so I shall start as soon as the wind goes down; in any case I shall be gone by the morning.’

‘I should not so much mind letting you rest if you were an ordinary woman. I should, in fact, be glad; but I fear spirits greatly, as my forefathers have done,’ said Kyuzaemon.

‘Be not afraid. You have a butsudan?’ 2 said the figure.

‘Yes: I have a butsudan,’ said Kyuzaemon; ‘but what can you want to do with that?’

‘You say you are afraid of the spirits, of the effect that I may have upon you. I wish to pay my respects to your ancestors’ tablets and assure their spirits that no ill shall befall you through me. Will you open and light the butsudan?’

‘Yes,’ said Kyuzaemon, with fear and trembling: ‘I will open the butsudan, and light the lamp. Please pray for me as well, for I am an unfortunate and unlucky man; but you must tell me in return who and what spirit you are.’

‘You want to know much; but I will tell you,’ said the spirit. ‘I believe you are a good man. My name was Oyasu. I am the daughter of Yazaemon, who lives in the next village. My father, as perhaps you may have heard, is a farmer, and he adopted into his family, and as a husband for his daughter, Isaburo. Isaburo is a good man; but on the death of his wife, last year, he forsook his father-in—law and went back to his old home. It is principally for that reason that I am about to seek and remonstrate with him now.’

‘Am I to understand,’ said Kyuzaemon, ‘that the daughter who was married to Isaburo was the one who perished in the snow last year? If so, you must be the spirit of Oyasu or Isaburo’s wife?’

‘Yes: that is right,’ said the spirit. ‘I was Oyasu, the wife of Isaburo, who perished now a year ago in the great snowstorm, of which to-morrow will be the anniversary.’

Kyuzaemon, with trembling hands, lit the lamp in the little butsudan, mumbling ‘Namu Amida Butsu; Namu Amida Butsu’ with a fervour which he had never felt before. When this was done he saw the figure of the Yuki Onna (Snow Spirit) advance; but there was no sound of footsteps as she glided to the altar.

Kyuzaemon retired to bed, where he promptly fell asleep; but shortly afterwards he was disturbed by the voice of the woman bidding him farewell. Before he had time to sit up she disappeared, leaving no sign; the fire still burned in the butsudan.

Kyuzaemon got up at daybreak, and went to the next village to see Isaburo, whom he found living with his father-in-law, Yazaemon.

‘Yes,’ said Isaburo: ‘it was wrong of me to leave my late wife’s father when she died, and I am not surprised that on cold nights when it snows I have been visited continually by my wife’s spirit as a reproof. Early this morning I saw her again, and I resolved to return. I have only been here two hours as it is.’

On comparing notes Kyuzaemon and Isaburo found that directly the spirit of Oyasu had left the house of Kyuzaemon she appeared to Isaburo, at about half-an-hour after midnight, and stayed with him until he had promised to return to her father’s house and help him to live in his old age.

That is roughly my story of the Yuki Onna. All those who die by the snow and cold become spirits of snow, appearing when there is snow; just as the spirits of those who are drowned in the sea only appear in stormy seas.

Even to the present day, in the north, priests say prayers to appease the spirits of those who have died by snow, and to prevent them from haunting people who are connected with them.


Footnotes

309:1 Clogs.

309:2 Family altar, in which the figures of various gods are set, and also the family mortuary tablets.

Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures by Theresa Bane

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Yuki-Onna

The Snow Woman of Japanese legends, who appears as a deathly pale and beautiful woman whose breath freezes unfortunate travelers caught in snowstorms. In older tales she is portrayed as an evil spirit, intent on inflicting an icy death wherever she goes, leaving no footprints in the snow. [Read more in the book.]

In My Own Words

I’ve been able to find older sources for the Yuki Onna legend (the two variations above), but I was unable to find any texts about the Tsurara Onna legend (at least in English and under a creative commons license). You are welcome to read the stories in the links below, but to quickly give you an idea of what the Tsurara Onna legend is:

Basically a lonely man stares at a beautiful icicle and wishes for a wife as beautiful to ease his loneliness. Like magic a woman fitting that description arrives, becomes his dutiful wife and he is a happy man.

One version then ends with the husband insisting on his wife taking a bath – she, being an icicle after all, melts and is gone.

The other version ends with the wife leaving when winter does, he remarries and then she returns the next winter: and sends an icicle through his treacherous heart.

Further Reading:

Featuring in Modern Culture

Yuki Onna is a favourite in anime. You can read all about the different types here:

In My Writing: Yuki Onna and Tsurara Onna

Origin of the Fae: Yuki Onna and Tsurara Onna
Two sides of the same fae.
Yuki Onna: white hair, white skin, white kimono, violet eyes. Snow fuels her glamour. She lives off human life-energy. Usually she preys on lost travellers during snowstorms.
Tsurara Onna: black hair, white skin, blue kimono, blue eyes. Icicles fuel her glamour. She lives off regular food and affection. She finds a human to adore her through winter. She bonds with this person emotionally, but has to leave in the spring. If she returns the following winter and the human stayed true, they can be happy once more; if not, the human gets skewered by an icicle.
This winter fae usually only appears in Japan, but they have been known to travel widely – keeping their appearance the same.
They appear to be young, beautiful Japanese women, taking on the glamour of either Yuki Onna or Tsurara Onna depending on their mood that winter. They serve the Cailleach and aren’t affiliated with any Court.

A drawing I did of her. Isn’t she terrifying when truly seen?
She also appears in one of the tales in “Freedom“.

Where did you hear about Yuki Onna/Tsurara Onna for the first time? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this fae.

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