Jakotsu Baba – The Old Snake-Bone Woman

Jakotsu_Baba_Shigeru_Mizuki

Translated from Konjaku Hyakki Shui, Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, and Japanese Wikipedia

If you are wandering through the woods at night and stumble upon something that looks like a carved stone stamped with the symbol of a snake—run! Maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe you have stumbled across the hidden grave of the long-dead Jako Emon. And that means that you are seconds away from an encounter with his wife, The Old Snake-Bone Woman called Jakotsu Baba.

What is the Jakotsu Baba?

With definitely one of the coolest names of all the yōkai, the Old Snake-Bone Woman’s kanji reads exactly that. 蛇 (ja; snake) + 骨 (kotsu; bone) +婆 (baba; old woman.) Depending on the region and dialect, she might also be known as Jagoba, the Five-Snake Woman: 蛇 ( ja; snake) + 五 (go; Five) + 婆 (baba; old woman).
The Jakotsu Baba originally appeared in Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku Hyakki Shui (今昔百鬼拾遺; Supplement to the Hundred Demons from the Present and Past). In the illustration she is drawn as an old woman with her body wrapped in snakes.

Toriyama wrote:

“There is an old woman from in northern Funkan-koku, China. In her right hand she holds a large blue snake, and in her left hand a red one. The people of this country call her the Jakotsu Baba—The Old Snake-Bone Woman. They say she is the wife of Jakoemon (Five-Snake Emon), and that she holds vigil over the family tombs. She is sometimes called the Jagoba—the Five-Snake Woman—depending on the dialect of the region.”

The Origin of the Jakotsu Baba

Sekien Jakotsu baba

Little is known about the Jakotsu Baba apart from what Toriyama wrote in his Konjaku Hyakki Shui. It is not known if he invented the character, or if he collected the legend from somewhere or someone. Jakotsu Baba does not appear in any prior collections, either in Japan or China. The other names mentioned by Toriyama—the Snake Family (云蛇塚) and the Old Snake-Bone Woman’s husband Jako Emon—have never been found in any other text, Japanese or Chinese. Nor has the snake-marked tomb been discovered. However, all of these peculiar and particular details give more flavor to the story than a typical Toriyama creation.

It is also interesting that this yōkai lives in China. The setting of the story—Funkan-koku—is mentioned in the Chinese geographic encyclopedia Shan-hai Ching (山海経; Classic of Mountains and Seas). Supposedly, Funkan-koku is a region particularly touched by the supernatural, and renowned for its mediums and fortune tellers. It is possible Toriyama set his story here just to give her a more mysterious air.

Yokai books from the Showa period expanded on the Jakotsu Baba and moved her mysterious grave to Japan. Showa period writers said that Jako Emon was a human, but when he died the sign of a snake was stamped onto his gravestone. To stand guard over his grave, his wife transformed into a yōkai, with a blue snake slithering into her right hand and a red snake into her left. She would attack anyone who came too close to her husband’s grave.

Blue Snake, Red Snake

Another unknown is the significance of the color of the two snakes, other than just to be freaky. The only colored snakes in Japanese folklore are white snakes, such as in the story The Tanuki and the White Snake. White snakes are considered sacred, and bring illness and death when accidentally killed.

The Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon

A yōkai figure with a similar name can be found in Minakata Kumagusu’s book Jyunishiko (十二支考; Twelve Signs of the Zodiac). Jyunishiko tells the how local farmers use charms and incantations and invoke the name of Jajai Emon (蛇除伊右衛門; Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon) as a ward when bitten by poisonous snakes. The book doesn’t go into much detail, but the “Snake-Repelling” part of Emon’s name is obvious. The fact that he is “Stylish” (伊) is just a cool addition.

Minakata says there are a few similar legends in Japan, which might account for a possible origin for the Jakotsu Baba and her Snake Family. However, this is just speculation.

The name Jakotsu Baba has been used a few times, such as in a kabuki play by Konto Mizuki and in a few Edo period short stories. However, there is usually little attachment to the yōkai described by Toriyama Sekein. His Jakotsu Baba is both too vague and too specific, and thus does not appear often in Japanese folklore.

Translator’s Note:

This was a request by reader Dominique Lamssiesk. I had a short window in my busy schedule, and fortunately as a Toriyama Sekien yōkai there wasn’t too much to tell about the Jakotsu Baba.

This is also a yōkai I didn’t know much about myself before researching it. I like the Voodoo vibe of these characters, especially Snake-Repelling Stylish Emon who I picture in a top hat looking something like a Japanese Baron Samedi. And of course the Old Snake-Bone Woman herself is a cool visual, keeping eternal watch over her husband’s grave. But for what reason and protecting him from whom? The stories never say—but I am sure an imaginative writer could fill in the details.

Further Reading:

For more yokai snake tales, check out:

Two Tales From the Konjaku Monogatari

Konjaku Monogatari

Translated and Adapted from Konjaku Monogatari – Tales of Times Now Past

How Tosuke Ki’s Meeting with a Ghost-Woman in Mino Province Ended in His Death

Tosuke Ki was traveling to his estate in Mino province. While crossing the Seta Bridge, he encountered a woman in a kimono, who asked him to deliver a small box to a lady who sat at the bridge in Kara-village.

Tosuke agreed, and was warned not to open the box. On his trip, Tosuke forgot about the box, and instead brought it home to Mino and placed it in his storeroom.

His wife, jealous in nature, thought it was a gift from a lover, and opened the box secretly. The box was full of gouged-out eyes and penises. Tosuke, being alerted by his wife to the nature of the box, immediately went to Kara-village to deliver it.

When he met the Lady on the bridge, she was outraged that the box had been looked into, and Tosuke died as soon as he got home

So they say.

How a Man’s Wife Became a Vengeful Spirit and How Her Malignity was diverted by a Master of Divination

A man had abandoned his wife of many years for no particular reason. Perhaps he had simply gotten bored of her. In any case, he left his house to go adventuring, leaving the poor woman to waste away and die in their former home.

In death, however, the stubborn woman refused to leave, and her bones stayed together, and her long black hair only grew longer. At night, strange lights and sounds would come from the house, prompting neighbors to summon a Master of Divination, to help them. The Master told the villagers that she was waiting for her husband’s return, and that he must come and break her will.

As soon as possible, the husband was brought back to the village, and during the day, the husband entered the house and sits astride his wife’s body like a horse, and held onto her hair like reigns. At nightfall, the body came to life, and tried to buck the man off, but he held on tightly and they flew out the window and roughshod over the entire countryside. When dawn finally came, the husband still clung tightly, and the wife’s will was overthrown, and her bones disintegrated to dust, leaving the husband undamaged.

So they say.

Translator’s Note:

A couple of new stories for everyone. As you noticed, I haven’t posted anything new since my snow yōkai series of December. The reason for that is I have my edited manuscript for my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost back from my publisher, and I have been busy getting those edits made and doing final adjustments to the book. If all goes well, I will be able to announce a publication date soon! And don’t forget, you can still get copies of my limited edition chapbook The Ghost of Oyuki.

I am also busy making final edits to the next volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s  Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan. Drawn and Quarterly posted a preview recently, so take a look!

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

In the meantime, here are a couple of tales from the Konjaku Monogatari to tide you over. I’m especially fond of the first one, as it showed up in an issue of Mike Mignola’s brilliant Hellboy comic, which all lovers of the folklore and weird tales should have in their library!

So they say.

7 Types of Yokai – Japan’s Snow Monsters

Mizuki Shigeru Snow Monsters of Japan

To learn much more about Japanese Ghosts, check out my book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost

In the frozen north of the Japan, the snow piles deep and high and brings monsters. Whether riding on the avalanche, or coming in the guise of a beautiful young woman or a little lost boy, or hoping on one leg, Japan’s snow yokai are as varied and miraculous as any in folklore. Some are dangerous. Some are famous. Some are sad. Some are spectacular.

Japan’s snow monsters are like the snow itself; they bring comfort, solace, and beauty, but only for awhile. For spring comes, and snow melts, and all things must pass—good or bad.

Click Each Title to Read the Full Story of Each Yokai.

7. Yuki Jiji – The Old Man of the Snow

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Jiji

An old man who rides the avalanche, or an ancient God of Snow? The Yuki Jiji is a mysterious, powerful figure in Japanese folklore.

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

Suuhi_Yuki-onna

Anytime a solitary woman approaches you and asks you to hold her baby for a few seconds, you are in trouble. This wintery variation on the Ubume legend delivers its own chills.

5. Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo – The Snow Babies

Mizuki Shigeru Yukinbo

One is cute and sweet—the answer to a childless couples prayers—and the other is a bizarre creature out of your nightmares.

4. Yukinba/Yukifuriba – The Snow Hags

Bakemono_Yuki-baba

Nothing ambiguous here. The Yukinba and Yukifuriba are terrifying creatures out for blood. The most horrifying of Japan’s snow yokai.

3. Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tsurara_Onnna

Does she come to love you, or eat you? The Tsurara Onna goes both ways, and you are never sure just which one is going to come to your door.

2. Oshiroi Baba – The Face Powder Hag

Mizuki_Shigeru_Oshiroibaba

Another oddity of Japanese folklore—is the Oshiroi Baba a dangerous snow hag, or some long-forgotten Goddess of Cosmetics?

1. Yuki Onna – The Snow Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Onna

By far the most famous of Japan’s snow monsters, the Yuki Onna is an enigma. There are thousands of stories about her, with thousands of variations. Which one is true?

Yuki Jiji – The Old Man of the Snow

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Jiji

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

In the village of Hishiyama in Nigata prefecture, there is at least one avalanche every year. The snow always comes tumbling down at night, and with it comes the Yuki Jiji—the Old Man of the Snow.

What Does Yuki Jiji Mean?

No mysteries here. His name uses the kanji 雪 (yuki; snow) + 爺 (jiji; old man).

Yuki Jiji and the Avalanche

This story comes from Hishiyama in Nigata prefecture.

Every year in March, the snow comes tumbling down from the mountains in an avalanche. They only come at night, and they always herald the arrival of the Yuki Jiji. He is said to be an old man as white as the snow; white skin, white hair, dressed in a white kimono and bearing a white hei—a staff with plaited paper streamers used in Shinto ceremonies. The Yuki Jiji rides the avalanche, comfortably seated on it as it tumbles down the mountain slopes. Depending on how far the avalanche travels, the Yuki Jiji brings either a good harvest or a poor one.

Yuki Jiji of the Mountains

Yoshitoshi_The_Skulls

There hints of other stories about the Yuki Jiji, that he is a male component of the Yuki Onna—an old man who haunts the snow-covered forests and attacks travelers, or causes them to be lost. Some of these legends paint the Yuki Jiji as a person who froze to death in the mountains, and was reborn as a yokai. These legends are rare, however.

Translator’s Note:

The last of my snow monster series for December, and my last post of the year as I enjoy the Holidays! The Yuki Jiji is one of those yokai with only a single legend—the opposite of his sister the Yuki Onna!

Yuki no Kami

The Yuki Jiji is thought to be an ancient mountain god, properly termed a kami. The presence of his hei, a magical staff used in Shinto rituals, marks him as sacred—as does his connection to the harvest. But whatever cult worshiped him long, long ago he is now a member of the yokai pantheon.

This was a fun and interesting series to work on. I hit almost all the snow monsters, with the sole exception of the Yuki Nyudo (雪入道), a one-legged hopper that is identical to the Yukinbo except an old man instead of a young boy. Sadly, there isn’t much else to say about the Yuki Nyodo. So there is his entry!

Further Reading:

For more snow yokai, check out:

Yuki Onna – The Snow Woman

Yuki Onba and Yukinko – The Snow Mother and Snow Child

Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo – The Snow Babies

Yukinba / Oyukifuriba – The Snow Hags

Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

Oshiroi Baba – The White Face Powder Hag

Yuki Onna – The Snow Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Yuki_Onna

Translated and Sourced from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujyara, Kaii Yokai Densho Database, Kwaidan, Japanese Wikipedia, and Other Sources

The Yuki Onna is one of Japan’s most well-known and yet unknown yokai. There is no single story of the Yuki Onna. From dread snow vampire of the mountains to a loving bride and mother, she has played many roles over the centuries; worn many costumes. She is ephemeral as a windblown mist of snow, and as impossible to hold.

What Does Yuki Onna Mean?

The only easy thing about the Yuki Onna is her name. It is as straight-forward as her icy companion, the Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman. Yuki Onna uses the kanji 雪 (yuki; snow) + 女 (onna; woman) to mean Snow Woman.

OK, I lied. Her name isn’t easy. Yuki Onna is only one of her names. Anywhere there is ice and snow in Japan you will find legends of the Yuki Onna, often called by some regional variation.

Here are a few of her many names:

  • 雪乳母 – Yuki Onba – Snow Nursing Mother
  • 雪娘 – Yuki Musume – Snow Daughter
  • 雪女子 – Yuki Onago – Snow Young Woman
  • 雪女郎 – Yuki Joro – Snow Hooker
  • 雪姉 – Yuki Anesa – Snow Older Sister
  • 雪女房 – Yuki Nyobo – Snow Wife

Basically, any variation of “Snow” + “Name used for a Woman” can be found in use somewhere. Some of these different names have different stories and characteristics, and it is often difficult to tell what is a unique yokai (Like the Yuki Onba and Yukinko) and what is just a variation of the Yuki Onna. Almost all tales of female snow monsters are also told as Yuki Onna stories.

What Do Yuki Onna Look Like?

Suuhi_Yuki-onna

Whatever you call her, the Yuki Onna changes little in appearance. She resembles a classic yurei, with snow-white skin and a white kimono. The kimono is usually described as a thin, summer kimono that is far too light for the cold weather. In many stories, the kimono is pale enough to be translucent, with the garment exposing her white skin underneath.

The biggest variations in her appearance are her age and her hair. In most tales, the Yuki Onna is a preternaturally beautiful young woman, with dark black hair offsetting the whiteness of her skin and kimono. However in her first known appearance—in Sogi Shokoku Monogatari (宗祇諸国物語; Sogi’s Tales of Many Lands)—she is described as having white hair that matches the rest of her bone white appearance.

Other stories of the Yuki Onna further confuse her with yurei. She is said to leave no footprints when she treads on the snow, and this can lead to stories of a footless Yuki Onna, mimicking the footless yurei.

When and Where Do Yuki Onna Appear?

SekienYukionna

Not surprisingly, most Yuki Onna tales come from Tohoku, and Japan’s frozen north. They hail mostly from Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Yamagata, as well as Nagano and Nigata. However, they are not restricted to those areas. Yuki Onna appear as far south as Ehime, Tottori, Fukui, Gifu, Nara, and Toyama prefectures. There are few prefectures in Japan without at least one Yuki Onna story—except maybe Okinawa (and, strangely enough, Hokkaido).

As to when they appear—there are different stories.

In Aomori and Iwate prefectures, Yuki Onna appear during Koshogatsu (小正月). Meaning “Little New Years,” Koshogatsu takes place on January 15th and was the traditional end of New Year’s festivities. Nishitsugaru District in Aomori prefecture is even more specific—the Yuki Onna arrives on New Year’s Day and leaves on the 1st of February.

The link between these dates and the Yuki Onna is obscure. Some say that in ancient times the Yuki Onna was worshiped as a Toshigami (歳神), a special deity that appeared on specific days and brought either good or bad fortune for the coming year. The link with February is interesting, corresponding with the Gaelic festival of Imbolc. She may have been Aomori’s Punxsutawney Phil, either ending winter or extending it with her presence. Some think she may have been a servant to the Mountain God (山神), playing the role of Miko or Shrine Maiden and bringing blessings of fertility and a good harvest.

Others say that the Yuki Onna appears only during full moons with new-fallen snow. Mothers in Ehime prefecture are warned not to let their children out to play on such nights. Still others say they arrive and disappear with blizzards. And at least one story says the Yuki Onna appears on the cusp of spring, to bid a temporary farewell to winter.

Yuki Onna from Sogi Shokoku Monogatari – The First Yuki Onna

White Yuki Onna

Although she is thought to be an ancient legend, the first known written account of the Yuki Onna comes from the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573). The monk Sogi wrote of his travels in Echigo province (modern day Nigata prefecture) and his encounter with a Yuki Onna.

Sogi writes that he went out of his house one snowy morning and saw a beautiful and unusual woman standing in his frozen garden. She was huge; almost 10 feet tall, with skin whiter than any human being. Although her face was young and beautiful, her hair was stark white and hung loosely about her shoulders. Her kimono was white to the point of being translucent, and was made of some magical gossamer fabric that clung to the woman’s body.

Sogi attempted to speak to her, but she vanished into the snow. Discussing the vision later with a friend native to the region, Sogi was told that she was the Spirit of Snow (雪の精霊; yuki no seirei) who normally appeared during heavy snowfall. It was rare for her to appear at the cusp of spring.

Other Yuki Onna Tales

There are more stories and variations of the Yuki Onna than it would be possible to tell—you could easily fill a book with them. Many are so different from each other it seems they are talking about completely different yokai. Some are different yokai. Tales of the Yuki Nyobo – The Snow Wife are identical to the Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman. The Yuki Onba and her child the Yukinko are different enough that I split them into their own entry. And there are more—thousands more.

Here are a few:

Yuki Onna – The Water Beggar

Yuki Joryo

From Tottori prefecture:

The Yuki Onna travels on the wind, and appears on days with a light snowfall. She walks through the town swinging a white Gohei wand, and shouting “Please give me water—hot or cold!” to anyone she meets. If you give the Yuki Onna cold water, she swells in size. If you give her hot water, she melts and disappears.

Yuki Onna – The Moon Princess

Yuki Onna Small

From Yamagata prefecture:

The Yuki Onna was once a princess of the lunar world, and lived on the Moon. Her life was full of luxury and indulgence—and extremely boring. She became fascinated looking at the world below, and so she snuck out one night and fell down to Earth, traveling on the snow. However, coming down was easier than going back up, and she became stuck on the Earth. On snowy nights of the full moon, she appears, pining for her old home.

Yuki Onna – The Snow Vampire

Yuki Onna Tall

From Aomori, Nigata, and Miyagi prefectures:

The Yuki Onna is a terrible yokai, that haunts the snowy forests looking to feed. She lives by sucking seiki (精気), the vital energy of the human body. She extracts the seiki by first freezing her victims to death, then sucking their souls out through their mouths. This type of Yuki Onna is particularly nasty in Nigata, where it is said she particularly prefers the seiki of children.

Yuki Onna – The Talking Snow Woman

From Ibaraki, Fukushima, Akita, and Fukui prefectures:

This Yuki Onna has a peculiar trait—she needs to engage her victims in conversation in order to attack. When she meets someone on a dark and snowy night, she will call out to them. If the person answers her greeting, she attacks.

Unless you are from Fukushima or Ibaraki prefecture; in those case the Yuki Onna only attacks those who ignore her. And her method of killing is specific. Anyone who ignores her she grabs and throws into a nearby ravine. (A similar yokai in Fukui is called the Koshimusume (越娘), the Cross-Over Daughter.)

The Five Battledores of the Yuki Onna – A Tale of Ghostly Revenge

Bunraku Yuki OnnaPicture found here.

Some accounts say that the Yuki Onna is not a Spirit of Snow, but the ghost of a woman seeking revenge. This mainly comes from Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s bunraku puppet play Yuki Onna Gomai Hakoita (雪女五枚羽子板; The Five Battledores of the Yuki Onna). In Chikamatsu’s play, the Yuki Onna is the ghost of a woman who was deceived, lead into the forest, and murdered. She manifests as the Yuki Onna in order to get her revenge.

Variations of this theme—combining the bewitching beauty of the Yuki Onna with slaughter and revenge—can be found throughout Yuki Onna county, and have been confirmed in Aomori, Yamagata, Akita, Iwate, Fukushima, Nigata, Nagano, Wakayama, and Ehima prefectures.

Lafcadio Hearn’s Yuki Onna (1905)

Kwaidanposterjapanese

But the version of the Yuki Onna that most people know—either in Japan or elsewhere—comes from Lafcadio Hearn’s book Kwaidan. His kindler, gentler—and more romantic—Yuki Onna has become the template for Yuki Onna and superseded all others. Odds are in modern times if someone speaks of the Yuki Onna 99% of the time it will be Hearn’s version.

****

Two woodcutters—a father and son—were trapped in the forest when a sudden blizzard arose. They took shelter in an abandoned cabin, huddling in their clothes to sleep next to a meager fire. In the middle of the night, the son awoke when the door banged open and an ethereally beautiful woman came in from the blizzard. The woman crept over the father and blew her breath on him, then sucked up his living essence. As she turned to do the same to the son, she paused. Captivated by his youth and beauty, the Yuki Onna said she would let him live, but only on the condition that he never speak of this night.

The following winter, the young man was standing in his doorway when a beautiful woman traveler came walking by. The man offered her refuge from the elements, and the woman accepted. They quickly fell in love, and the woman never made it to her destination. She stayed on, married the young man, and they lived happily for years. They even had several children.

One night, when the kids where happily playing, the man looked up at his wife and a memory surfaced that he hadn’t thought about in years. When his wife asked him what was the matter, he told her of his encounter with the snow spirit years ago, wondering if it had all been a dream. The smile fell from his wife’s face, as she revealed herself to be that very same Yuki Onna.

She was livid that her husband had broken her promise, and would have killed him there were it not for the children. As it was she left instantly, leaving the husband behind with regret and sorrow.

****

No one knows exactly where Hearn got this version of the Yuki Onna tale. People have searched for years to find the original, but without success. According the Hearn’s preface, it was taught to him by a local man. Researchers have tracked that down to a potential candidate, a father and daughter who worked as servants in Hearn’s house in Tokyo. The daughters name was Ohana, and the father was Shuya, and they came from the Oume district of Toyko. That area has some similar folktales, which make Ohana and Shuya good candidates.

However, it is almost certain Hearn embellished whatever tale he was told. Hearn almost never faithfully recorded stories, and always worked them into something he thought was better. So there is no way of knowing what portions are original, and what are additions.

It doesn’t really matter though—ever since Hearn published his version, it completely dominated all other versions of the Yuki Onna. No more Moon Princesses or Water Beggars. With Hearn’s story there was a marked shift to a different kind of Yuki Onna story, one that blended romance and loss and melancholy.

Translator’s Note:

Another snow monster for December! This is the big one. I have been wanting to do Yuki Onna for a long time now, but was always intimidated by the sheer amount of information and variations. Even as one of my longest articles I don’t think I did the subject justice. There are many more Yuki Onna stories that can be told; although to be fair, many of them are just variations of existing yokai stories re-cast with the Yuki Onna.

I’m especially fond of the Yuki Onna became my wife’s name is Miyuki, which translates as “Beautiful Snow.” For as long as I have known her I have teased her about being a Yuki Onna in disguise. Which doesn’t really work because she hates the cold and is completely a beach girl, not a snow bunny.

There is at least on attempt to make sense of the ubiquitous nature of the Yuki Onna in Japan. Some researchers have said that the Yuki Onna may have actually existed in the form of mental illness. The intense cold of winter combined with suffocating fever could lead people to stumble outside dressed in only light summer kimonos. People who stumbled upon their hapless wanderers invented stories, and over time these stories became legends.

Further Reading:

For more winter yokai stories, check out:

Tsurara Onna –The Icicle Woman

Yuki Onba and Yukinko – The Snow Mother and Snow Child

Yuki Warashi / Yukinbo – The Snow Babies

Yukinba / Yukifuriba – The Snow Hags

Oshiroi Baba – The White Face Powder Hag

Previous Older Entries

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