Yuki Onba and Yukinko – The Snow Mother and the Snow Child

Suuhi_Yuki-onna

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Miyagi-ken no Kowai Hanashi, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

Walking along a forest path at night in the dead of winter, you come upon a poor young mother. She is dressed in only a thin, white kimono, and desperately clutches her newborn baby to her chest. Seeing you, her face lights up with hope and she holds out her baby to you, begging for help. But you must harden your heart and walk away from this tragic scene—for if you take the offered baby, you will be frozen to the spot, trapped; a fresh meal for the Yuki Onba and her terrible little offspring, the Yukinko.

What Do Yuki Onba and Yukinko Mean?

Yuki Onba’s name is a little awkward to put into English. It uses the kanji 雪 (yuki; snow) + 乳母 (onba; nursing mother.) English doesn’t really have a specific word for mothers with newborns who are still nursing. In Japanese, the word onba can also mean wet-nurse, but it this case it refers specifically to a woman with a baby still young enough to be breastfeeding.

The baby in this two-person yokai combo is called a Yukinko, and uses the kanji雪 (yuki; snow) + 子 (ko; child) to make 雪ん子 – Yukinko.

Yuki Onna or Yuki Onba?

The Yuki Onna, Japan’s Snow Woman, is one of the most difficult yokai to write about. Mostly because there are innumerable different versions of her tale, and a multitude of names that she goes by. It is difficult to determine exactly what a Yuki Onna is. Like this one—is the Yuko Onba a separate yokai, or just the Yuki Onna by a different name?

I thought the two were different enough that I decided to break the Yuki Onba stories out as a separate yokai. But just as often you will hear the same stories referring to a Yuki Onna. Even then, no matter what you call her—Yuki Onba or Yuki Onna—she is just a snowy version of Japan’s famous ubume legends (See Two Tales of Ubume).

I don’t know what it is in Japanese folklore about a woman offering you a baby to hold, but there are few things more terrifying. In the snow or in the woods or on the beach, if a mysterious woman in Japan asks you to hold her baby, just say no. There are often grave consequences.

What is the Yukinko?

The little baby in this two-yokai combo doesn’t play much of a role—it is just a newborn baby asleep in swaddling clothes. There is some questions as to whether the Yukinko exists at all, or is just a creation by the Yuki Onba as a way to lay her trap. But as you will see from some of the stories, there is evidence that the Yuki Onba cares deeply for the Yukinko. This suggests it is a real child after all.

Buson_Ubume

Tale of the Yuki Onba and Yukinko #1

This story comes from Hirosaki city, in Aomori prefecture.

It is said on dark and snowy nights, travelers sometimes encounter a poor woman holding tight a child standing alone in the middle of a forest. The woman will approach the man and beg him to hold her child. If the man accepts, and holds the child, he is frozen to his spot. Unable to move, the Yuki Onba laughs as snow drifts build around him and freezes him to death. If the man refuses to hold the child, the consequences are equally deadly. The Yuki Onba pounds the man on the head in rage, and drives him into the snow like a hammer hitting a nail. Either way, the man becomes a feast for the Yuki Onba and her demon child.

One clever warrior got the better of the Yuki Onba though. Accepting the offered child, he took his short sword and held it between his teeth. As he held the child, he pulled its head closer to his dagger. Finally, when the sword was a hair’s breadth from slicing the child, the trembling mother asked the man to return her child. The warrior returned the child to its frozen mother, who wept with joy. The Yuki Onba was so grateful she showered the warrior with gold and gifted him supernatural strength.

Tale of the Yuki Onba and Yukinko #2

This story comes from Miyagi prefecture.

A group of samurai were on duty, guarding the borders of their lord’s town. They camped in the forest, and huddled around a fire at night to keep warm. As they sat around the fire they swapped tales. One samurai said these woods were terrorized by a Yuki Onba, and that she had been seen recently. His companions laughed and chided him for believing in children’s stories.

Eventually, one of the warriors excused himself and headed into the dark forest to relieve himself. As he went further into the forest, he saw the dim outline of a beautiful woman clutching a tiny baby. He approached cautiously, and saw that she was crying. The woman asked the samurai to please hold her small child and protect him from the cold. The samurai was moved to sympathy by the scene, and took the baby in his arms. To his surprise, it was colder than the snow around him, and stuck fast to his arms. He could not put it down. The child also grew immensely heavy, and the warrior fell to his knees under its weight. The last thing he saw on Earth was the woman’s tears fading and a broad smile growing across her face.

The next morning, his companions found him frozen solid, clutching a giant icicle.

After other encounters with the deadly Yuki Onba, the samurai were determined to rid the town of her and set off hunting her in the forest. One warrior came across a tiny child running freely in the snow. The man was shocked, as the child was so small he came up only half-way to his knees. As he chased after the child, something incredibly happened. With each step, the child seemed to grow larger and larger. Soon it was past the warrior’s waist, and then his shoulders, and then as tall as the warrior himself. Suddenly, the boy turned and grinned at his pursuer. And he kept growing. Right before the warrior’s eyes, he grew to the size of a house.

Steeling his nerves, the warrior drew his sword and charged at the gigantic baby, slashing with all his might. Much to his surprise, the baby shattered into a million shards with a single blow, like a hollow ice sculpture. There was nothing left.

And, for whatever reason, the Yuki Onba and her child were never seen again in that forest.

Translator’s Note:

A new snow yokai for December! I had a difficult time figuring this one out. Originally I put the Yukinko with the Snow Babies entry, but it didn’t really fit. Then I had them both in the general Yuki Onna entry (Coming soon!), but it didn’t fit there either. I finally decided the stories were unique enough to warrant their own entry.

The only problem is—there are no pictures. I wasn’t able to find a single image of a Yuki Onba (or Yuki Onna) carrying her child. Even though the stories are a large part of the folklore, it doesn’t seem to have been a popular topic for artists. Probably because the general tale is so similar to Ubume legends. (Similar being an understatement—this IS the Ubume legend, just set in the snow.)

So I cheated on the pictures. These are actually pictures of a Yuki Onna and an Ubume. You’ll have to use your imagination to put them together for a true image of a Yuki Onba and her murderous child, the Yukinko!

Further Reading:

For more Japanese snow monster tales, check out:

Yuki Warashi / Yukibo– The Snow Baby

Yukinba / Yukifuriba – The Snow Hag

Oshiroi Baba – The White Face Powder Hag

Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 83n831
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 15:09:49

    Perhaps the snow demon Reiha in the anime TV series “Vampire Princess Miyu” is a good representation of the Yuki Onba, as she is always seen carrying a small child or doll, who is actually her magical helper Matsukaze (“Wind in the Pines,” also the name of a famous 14th C Noh drama). A quick look at a VPM wiki indicates that she is assumed to be a Yuki Onna by nature.

    I have a nice cel of the two that could help fill out the narrative’s image (except that she NEVER lets anyone handle her child-like helper).

    http://sensei.rubberslug.com/gallery/inv_info.asp?ItemID=190379

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Dec 18, 2013 @ 22:48:51

      That cell is perfect! Can I post it?

      Reply

      • 83n831
        Dec 19, 2013 @ 07:57:16

        The image can’t be downloaded from this page because of site restrictions. But here’s a link to it from my image housing site:

        Password (if it prompts you for one): yukionna

        BTW, the Inuyasha episode lady39jane refers to is No. 101: “The Snow from Seven Years Past.” It is a “filler episode” meaning it was added to the adventures by one of the studio’s script team. So it won’t be found in Takahashi’s manga. I’d guess this person (one Junki Takegami, according to an online credits list for this ep.) did a little homework in the same places you did.

  2. chanteru
    Dec 17, 2013 @ 15:29:47

    I’m glad it doesn’t snow where I live…

    Reply

  3. lady39jane
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 19:48:37

    In an episode of the anime InuYasha, Miroku, the wandering monk, and Sango, the yokai slayer, go after what sounds like a Yuki Onna. When she appears, she lures Miroku away, claiming that they have met before, and that she has borne his child. She leads him to a large house, where there are many children, which she claims are all Miroku’s, and leaves him to tend them. InuYasha and the rest of the gang dig Sango from a snowbank, and go to rescue Miroku. They find him in the abandoned house, cradling little bundles of snow. The Yuki Onna calls up a snow yokai to attack them. Using fireworks and a magic potion, they manage to defeat the snow yokai. The Yuki Onna vanishes into the sky, and the gang speculate that the Yuki Onna was a lonely woman ghost who collected the lost spirits of children, and was somehow possessed by the evil snow yokai.

    A clever twist on this story line.

    Reply

    • Zack Davisson
      Dec 18, 2013 @ 22:50:02

      Interesting! Never read Inu Yasha, but that sounds like a neat twist on the Yuki Onba / Yuki Onna legend. Finding people cradling an icicle or a pile of snow is a typical part of these stories.

      Reply

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