Kosodate Yūrei – The Child-Raising Yūrei

Kosodate_Yurei_Shigeru_Mizuki

Translated and Sources from Mizuki Shigeru’s Mujara, Nihon no Yūrei, Inga Monogatari, and Other Sources

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

Yūrei require a tether, something to connect them to the physical world, something strong enough to prevent them from moving on to the next world. Depending on the nature of this bond, a different type of yūrei can manifest. The bond of a mother to her child is one of the oldest and strongest of these tethers.

What Does Kosodate Yūrei Mean?

The kanji for the kosodate yūrei is descriptive. Kosodate (子育て) means child-raising. An alternate term substitutes amekai (飴買い) for the amekai yūrei meaning the candy-buying yūrei. Variations of the story can be found all over Japan, but most kosodate yūrei stories follow a consistent pattern.

The Legend of the Kododate Yūrei

Beisai_Kosodate_Yurei

There are multiple versions of the kosodate yūrei told all across Japan. Most of them follow an identical pattern. This version is told in Nihon no Yūrei by Ikeda Yasaburo as a personal recollection of a story that had been told to him:

“The name Tsukiji nowadays brings to mind a bustling fish market in Tokyo, but it was not always so. In the olden days, the area known as Tsukiji was packed with temples, mostly belonging to the Honkan-ji temple complex. The area was also covered in cemeteries.

Along the banks of the Sumida River that flows near Tsukiji, there were also stands selling fresh fish and the sweet sake for children known as amazake. In one story, late every night a woman clutching a child would come to a certain amazake dealer to buy the sweet sake from him, which she would then give to her child to drink. The sake dealer, sensing something mysterious about this woman, followed her from his stall one night and watched her as she made her way towards the main hall of the temple, where she disappeared like a blown-out candle. When she vanished, the sake dealer could hear the cry of a baby coming from somewhere in the cemetery. Tracking the sound to a freshly-dug grave, the sake dealer enlisted the help of some others to dig up the grave, and when opening the coffin discovered a crying baby nestled in the arms of its mother’s corpse.”

The legend has its origins in China, where it can be traced back to the book Yijian zhi (1198; Records of Anomalies), with the story of the mochikae onna, the rice cake-buying woman:

“One time, a woman who was pregnant died, and was buried in the ground. After that, a nearby rice-cake dealer began to have a strange customer come night after night, an odd woman carrying a baby. The woman always bought a rice cake for the baby. The dealer was suspicious, and stealthily tied a red string to the woman the next time she came in. After she left, he followed the red string and found that it led to a grave hidden under some bushes. After telling the bereaved family, they dug up the grave to find that the woman had given posthumous birth in her coffin. The bereaved family happily took the child to raise, and had the mother’s body cremated.”

Rokumonsen – Six Coins to Pay the River Crossing

Kosodate Yurei Painting

Another part of the kosodate yūrei legends are the use of rokumonsen, the six coins placed with dead bodies in order to pay the toll across the underworld River Sanzu. In many versions of this legend, the kosodate yūrei is using these coins. Often the story continues for five nights, until the body is dug up and the final coin is found resting in her dead hand.

Many other merchants receive even less. In several of the tales, the mother uses the tanuki trick of passing off leaves as coins, and the merchant is left with only a wallet of foliage after the true nature of the woman is discovered.

But coins or leaves, the loving mother rarely buys food for her child, no rice or nourishment, but often the small sweet candies or toys that a child would crave, caring more for the baby’s happiness than its welfare.

Kosadate Ame

Kosodate Ame

Kosodate yūrei remain a popular figure in Japanese folklore. To this day, a small shop in Kyoto still sells kosodate ame—child-rearing candy—and claims to be the very shop where the kosodate- yūrei came to buy candy.

Translator’s Note:

The kosodate yūrei is so similar to another type of ghost—the ubume—that they can almost be considered a different name for the same spirit. There are differences, however. The ubume is closely associated with blood, and with the Buddhist hell of Chi no Ike, the Lake of Blood, where women who died while pregnant were said to be consigned. Ubume also try to get someone to hold their baby, which kosodate yūrei never do.

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:

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

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

Tsurara Onna – The Icicle Woman

Mizuki_Shigeru_Tsurara_Onnna

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

Is Japan’s Icicle Woman naughty or nice? Loving or lethal? If the stories are to be believed, Japan’s answer to Pygmalion can swing both ways. So a warning to men—if you fashion a woman out of an icicle, even when you pour your entire heart into it, don’t be surprised if she turns out cold-blooded.

What Does Tsurara Onna Mean?

Another yokai with a straight-forward name, tsurara onna’s name is written asつらら (tsurara; icicle) + 女 (onna; woman). Strangely enough, she almost never uses the kanji for tsurara (氷柱), always using the hiragana instead. The only reason I can think of for this is that kanji was once considered masculine for names, and hiragana feminine. It’s a possibility, but that’s all it is.

There are two regional variations on Tsurara Onna, using local dialect for the word “icicle.” One is Shigama Nyobo (シガマ女房; Icicle Wife) from Western Aomori prefecture, and the other is Kanekori Musume  (カネコリ娘; Icicle Daughter) from Gifu prefecture.

What are Tsurara Onna?

All Tsurara Onna stories start out the same—a lonely man gazes out of his window in winter, and marvels at the beauty of an icicle hanging from his eaves. As he stares deeply into its crystal structure, he wishes he could meet a woman as beautiful as the icicle to ease the pains of his loneliness. Like magic (for it is indeed magic) a woman fitting that description shows up the very next day.

The woman appears at the man’s door, seeking refuge from a massive, sudden snow storm. The man lets the beautiful woman in, and they fall in love. The woman decides never to leave, and the two become husband and wife. (In old Japan, no ceremony was necessary for this; as soon as a couple decided they were married, then they were married).

Life is good—for a while. The man’s new wife is attentive and loving and everything he hoped for. But then things go wrong, because there is rarely a Happily Ever After in Japanese folklore, and never when you are dealing with snow monsters.

Tsurara Onna tales fork at this point, into one of two endings. The ending you get depends largely on the region of Japan you live in.

Story #1 – The Sweet Woman Undone by Her Husband’s Love

The man is overjoyed at his new wife, but worried too. He cannot help but notice that his bride never uses the bath, even on the most chilly of nights. The poor man is worried about his wife’s health—surely she will take sick if she does not warm herself in the bath? Not to mention cleanliness. Time after time, he entreats her to use the bath. They are married now, he assures her, and she shouldn’t feel shy or ashamed.

The woman demurs, but eventually she can no longer refuse her husband. After he prepares a warming bath for her, the man busies himself about the house so she can enjoy her soak. Hours pass, and the man becomes worried about her. Perhaps she has fallen asleep? He goes into the back to check on her, and finds the tub empty, with only frozen shards of shattered icicles laying around the perimeter of the bath. These too slowly melt away …

This version of the tale is most often found in the Tohoku region, including Aomori and Nigata prefectures. There are some further variations:

Yamagata Prefecture – The woman does not go to the bath, but into the kitchen to heat up some hot sake for her husband. After a long wait, he goes to the kitchen to find the shattered icicle shards.

Akita Prefecture – This version has a husband and wife taking care of a young woman traveler instead of a new bride; but the results are the same. Against her wishes, into the bath the young traveler goes.

Story #2 – The Frozen Dagger of Hate

Her, the husband does not coax his wife into the bath, or ask her to retrieve hot sake for him. Instead they pass the winter in bliss. But as spring comes and the temperature warms, the man notices his wife getting anxious. One day he wakes up to find her gone, the door of their house standing open and the last of the winter winds blowing through.

The man is heartbroken, but assumes his wife has left him after using him for shelter though the winter. He moves on with his life, and meets a new woman and falls in love. Come summer, he moves his new wife into his house. They pass the months happily until winter comes again.

When the world again freezes over, the man notices a particularly large icicle forming from the eaves of his house. Fascinated by it, he goes outside for a better look. There he sees his former wife, livid that she has been replaced.

Inside the house, the new wife hears her husband shriek in agony. She rushes outside and finds him dead, a large icicle piercing his head through his eyeball.

This angrier version of the Tsurara Onna tale is found mostly in Nigata prefecture.

Translator’s Note:

The second in a series on snow monsters for December, the Tsurara Onna is a type of story found all over the world. A man bringing a woman to life from an inanimate object is a typical folklore story, the archetype of which is the Greek story of Pygmalion. With the second version of Tsurara Onna, I also can’t help but think of a sexier, angrier version of Frosty the Snowman—especially how she has to leave in the spring and return in the winter.

The Tsurara Onna also falls into the “magical wife” category so often found in Japanese folklore. These come in a myriad of variety, but always with the same simple plot. An unmarried man suddenly meets a wonderful woman, and they are married. They can stay happy forever so long as the husband obeys a single rule (for example, “Don’t look in a box,” or “Don’t tell anyone your story,” or “Don’t make me take a bath.”). The rule is inevitably broken, the wife leaves—with or without vengeance—and the man is left alone again, knowing that he could have had a happy life if he just would have obeyed the stupid rule.

Further Reading:

For more tales of snow monsters and magical wives, check out:

Oshiroi Baba – The White Face Powder Hag

Kitsune no Yomeiri – The Fox Wedding

The Yurei Child

Previous Older Entries

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