Japan has rich and diverse mythology, with stories ranging from the islands’ creation to the adventures of gods, heroes, and monsters. One of the most famous and intriguing figures in Japanese folklore is the Yuki-Onna, or snow woman, who haunts the snowy mountains and preys on unsuspecting travelers.
She is one of Japanese folklore’s most famous yōkai or supernatural creatures. She is said to appear on snowy nights, looking like a beautiful woman with pale skin, black hair and white clothes. But don’t be fooled by her appearance, for she is a deadly spirit who can freeze you to death with her icy breath or lure you into a trap with her enchanting voice.
The Legend of the Yuki-Onna
The legend of the Yuki-Onna has many variations across different regions of Japan. But one of the most well-known versions was recorded by Koizumi Yakumo, a writer who introduced Japanese culture to the West in the late 19th century. In his book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, he tells the story of a woodcutter named Minokichi and his encounter with the snowwoman.
One winter night, Minokichi and his master Mosaku were returning from the forest when they were caught in a blizzard. They took shelter in a hut, but in the middle of the night, Minokichi woke up and saw a woman standing over Mosaku. She was breathing on him, and he was frozen solid. The woman then turned to Minokichi and said:
“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, too… I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody – even your mother – about what you have seen this night, I shall know it, and then I will kill you… Remember what I say!”
With that, she vanished. The following day, Minokichi found his master dead and barely managed to get back to his village. He kept his promise and never told anyone about the snowwoman.
A year later, he met a beautiful girl named Yuki (which means “snow” in Japanese) and fell in love with her. They married and had several children. Yuki was a good wife and mother but never aged or got sick. One night, as they were sitting by the fire, Minokichi looked at his wife and said:
“Yuki, you remind me of someone I saw long ago. She was very beautiful, just like you. But she was not human. She was a Yuki-Onna…”
As soon as he said those words, Yuki’s face changed. She looked at him with a cold glare and said:
“It was I – I – I! Yuki-Onna – that was! And I told you then that I would kill you if you ever said one word about it! … But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment! And now you must die – or I must die! For I will not let them become motherless. I cannot die unless you kill me! You must break your promise – take your axe and cut off my head!”
Minokichi was terrified and could not move. He begged his wife to spare him, saying he loved her and their children. Yuki looked at him for a while, then softened her expression and said:
“I loved you also… And because of that love, I have spared your life… But now you have seen my true form; and there can be no more love between us… Farewell!”
She then melted into a puddle of water and disappeared forever.
This is one of the many stories about Yuki-Onna, the snowwoman who can be cruel and compassionate. She symbolises the beauty and danger of winter, as well as the mystery and power of women. She is part of Japanese mythology’s rich and fascinating world, which has inspired many artists and writers throughout history.
Other Tales from Japanese Mythology and Folklore
Yuki-Onna is not the only one who dwells in the supernatural realm. Here are some other tales from Japanese mythology that will captivate and enchant you.
The Creation of Japan
According to the oldest surviving source of Japanese myths, the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), there was only chaos, a shapeless mass of swirling energy in the beginning. Out of this chaos emerged two gods, Izanagi and Izanami, tasked with creating the world. They stood on a floating bridge in the sky and used a jeweled spear to stir the primordial waters below. When they lifted the spear, drops of water fell from it and formed the first island, Onogoro.
The two gods descended to the island and built a palace and a pillar. They decided to marry and circled the pillar in opposite directions. When they met on the other side, Izanami spoke first and said: “How delightful it is to meet such a handsome youth!” Izanagi replied: “How delightful it is to meet such a lovely maiden!”
They consummated their marriage, but their first child was deformed, and they cast him away on a boat. They realized their marriage was flawed because Izanami spoke first, which was against the natural order.
They repeated their ritual, but Izanagi spoke first this time and said: “How delightful it is to meet such a lovely maiden!” Izanami replied: “How delightful it is to meet such a handsome youth!” Their marriage was then corrected, and they gave birth to many gods and goddesses, who became the ancestors of various aspects of nature and culture. They also created more islands to form the Japanese archipelago.
However, their last act of creation proved fatal for Izanami. She gave birth to Kagutsuchi, the god of fire, and was burned by his flames. She died and went to Yomi, the land of the dead.
Izanagi was heartbroken and pursued her to bring her back. He entered the dark realm and found her lying on a couch. He asked her to return with him, but she said she had already eaten the food of Yomi and could not leave. She agreed to ask the gods of Yomi for permission but told him not to look at her until then.
Izanagi could not wait and lit a torch to see his wife’s face. To his horror, he saw that she had become a rotting corpse infested with maggots and foul creatures. She was enraged by his betrayal and chased him with an army of demons. He ran back to the entrance of Yomi and blocked it with a huge boulder.
He then performed a purification ritual to cleanse himself from the impurities of Yomi. As he washed himself, more gods and goddesses were born from his body parts. The most important one was Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun, who emerged from his left eye.
Izanami cursed Izanagi and said she would kill 1,000 people every day. Izanagi retorted that he would create 1,500 people every day. Thus, they broke up for good, and life and death became part of the world.
The Sun Goddess and Her Brother
Amaterasu was one of the most revered deities in Japanese mythology. She ruled over the High Plain of Heaven and brought light and warmth to the world. Her brother was Susanoo, the god of storms and seas. He was reckless and violent and often caused trouble for his sister and other gods.
One day, Susanoo threw a flayed horse into Amaterasu’s weaving hall, where she and her maidens made clothes for the gods. The sight of the bloody animal terrified them, and one of them accidentally killed herself with a loom shuttle.
Amaterasu was so angry and disgusted by Susanoo’s prank that she shut herself in a cave called Ama-no-Iwato (the Heavenly Rock Cave) and refused to come out.
Without her light, the world became dark and cold. The crops withered, and the people suffered. The other gods tried to persuade her to return, but she ignored them. They decided to lure her out with a clever plan. They gathered outside the cave and made a lot of noise. They also brought a mirror and hung it on a nearby tree. Then, they asked Uzume, the goddess of mirth, to dance.
Uzume took off her clothes and danced on an upturned tub, making lewd gestures and jokes. The gods laughed so hard that the sound reached Amaterasu’s ears. She became curious and peeked out of the cave. She saw the mirror and was dazzled by her reflection. She thought it was another goddess and asked who she was.
The gods told her that she was the one who brought light to the world and that they missed her dearly. They pulled her out of the cave and sealed it with a rope. Amaterasu was moved by their words and agreed to return to the sky. The world was bright again, and the people rejoiced.
The First Emperor of Japan
The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), another source of Japanese myths and history, trace the origin of the imperial family to Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi. His grandmother sent him to rule over Japan and bring peace and prosperity to the land. He descended from heaven to a Takachiho mountain in Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands.
There, he met Konohana-Sakuya-Hime, the blossom princess, the daughter of Oyamatsumi, the god of mountains. He fell in love with her and asked her father for permission to marry her. Oyamatsumi agreed but also offered him another daughter, Iwanaga-Hime, the rock princess. He said that if Ninigi married both, he would have descendants who would live as long as rocks and rule over Japan forever.
Ninigi refused Iwanaga-Hime, saying he only wanted Konohana-Sakuya-Hime, who was more beautiful and charming. He married her and took her to his palace. However, this decision angered Amaterasu, who said that because he rejected Iwanaga-Hime, his descendants would be mortal and short-lived.
Konohana-Sakuya-Hime soon became pregnant, but Ninigi doubted that he was the father. He suspected that she had been unfaithful to him before their marriage. He asked her to prove her innocence by giving birth in a hut that he had set on fire. If she and the children survived, he would believe her.
Konohana-Sakuya-Hime agreed to the ordeal. She entered the burning hut and prayed to the gods to protect her and her children. She then gave birth to three sons, who were unharmed by the flames. Ninigi realized that he had wronged his wife and apologized to her. He accepted the sons as his heirs.
The youngest son was named Hikohohodemi, or Yamasachihiko, the prince of mountains. He married Toyotama-Hime, the daughter of Watatsumi, the god of the sea. They had a son named Ugayafukiaezu, who married Tamayori-Hime, his aunt. They had four sons, one of whom was Kamuyamato-Iwarebiko, or Jimmu, who became the first emperor of Japan.
Jimmu decided to leave Kyushu and conquer the rest of Japan. He gathered an army of warriors and set sail along the coast. He fought many battles against the native tribes who resisted his invasion. He also encountered a giant crow sent by Amaterasu to guide him. The crow led him to Yamato, a fertile plain in central Honshu, where he established his capital.
Jimmu claimed to be a descendant of Amaterasu and declared himself as the ruler of Japan. He performed rituals to honor his ancestors and the gods of heaven and earth. He also gave his brothers and cousins domains to govern as his vassals. He died at the age of 126 after reigning for 75 years.
According to legend, Jimmu ascended the throne on February 11th, 660 BC. This date is celebrated as National Foundation Day in Japan, a public holiday commemorating the nation’s mythic origins and imperial family.
These are just some of the many stories that make up Japanese mythology, a rich and diverse body of literature that reflects the culture and history of Japan. Through these stories, we can learn about the Japanese people’s beliefs, values, and worldviews, as well as their imagination and creativity. We can also appreciate their artistry and skill in storytelling, which has influenced many other forms of expression in Japan and beyond.