A female apparition sometimes encountered on snowy nights, usually described as having white hair or skin, being cold to the touch, or otherwise being similar to the frigid winter landscape.
A early description of the snow woman is found in the Sōgi Shokoku Monogatari (宗祇諸国物語, c. 1690). The author describes an experience in which he caught sight of a strange woman on the edge of a bamboo grove, about twenty years of age, wearing a white unlined kimono and with skin so pale as to be transparent, and a full jō (~10 ft/3.3m) in height.
Although she is often thought to come out during snowstorms or during a full moon, in some regions the snow woman is said to make her appearance on a fixed date. In Iwate Prefecture’s Tōno area she appears on koshōgatsu(January 15th), and in Aomori Prefecture’s Nishitsugaru District she shows up on New Year’s Day and leaves on the first day of February.
The most popularly-known story of yuki-onna is the Lafcadio Hearn tale of the same name. In his folkltale anthology Kwaidan, he writes from memory a story told him by his Japanese wife. In the story, two woodcutters are traveling in the snow, when they take refuge in a ferryman’s hut. While they are sleeping, a beautiful woman dressed all in white enters, and blows upon the older man while he is sleeping. Seeing this, the younger woodcutter prepares for death, only to find that she will spare him because of his good looks. But she warns him to never tell anyone of this encounter. A long time after, the young woodcutter meets a beautiful young woman whom he eventually marries. They have many children together, and one night while it is snowing he relates the tale of the yuki-onna he met that day in the ferryman’s hut. Hearing this, his wife leaves in anger, declaring that she was the very woman who spared his life. She leaves, letting him know that the only reason she is again sparing his life is for the sake of their children. She departs, turning into snow, and is never seen again.
Another written tale of a yuki-onna finds an old man ready to go to sleep one winter’s evening in 1833. A knocking sound is heard at his door, but he ignores it. A voice outside pleads to let it in, but still the man denies entry. He has no food or bedding, he says, but his guest desires only shelter. Still the man will not open the door. As he turned to go to bed, he discovered a beautiful young woman in his house, who is not wearing any geta. The young woman tells him that she has been gliding aroung in the snow, searching for the village where she had been married while she was alive. She is seeking this village, for she wishes to haunt her husband for leaving her father’s after she had died. In the middle of the night, she leaves, and the next morning, curious about her story, the old man goes to the village and meets the husband of the young woman. Her ghost, the husband tells the young man, has been visiting him in his sleep, and he has finally decided to return to his father-in-law, to help him in his old age. This story was written by Richard Gordon Smith, in the book Ancient Tales and Folklore of Japan.
The ghost story of Okiku, an unfortunate servant maid, is one of the best known and was transformed into a Kabuki play and numerous novels.
In the kabuki play Bancho Sarayashiki, Okiku is a maid at the mansion of the Japanese samurai Tessan Aoyama. The samurai wants to seduce the cute girl but she rejects his advances. Aoyama uses a trick. He hides one of ten valuable Dutch plates and threatens Okiku to make public that she had stolen the plate unless she agrees to become his mistress. In her desperation Okiku throws herself into the well and drowns.
Okiku’s ghost comes out every night, counting from one to nine and then breaks out into a terrible howling and sobbing. Finally Aoyama goes insane by the daily apparitions at night.
Different Versions of the Ghost Story of Okiku
There are different versions of the ghost story of Okiku. What they all have in common is the description of her ghost coming out of the well and counting from one to nine and then breaking out into a heart-rendering sobbing.
In another version, Okiku really breaks a plate and is killed by her master and her corpse is thrown into the well.
In yet another version, it is the wife of Aoyama, who breaks the plate. To hide her guilt, she throws the broken plate into the well and accuses Okiku of having it stolen. In this version she is also killed by her master for punishment and thrown into the well.
There is also an alternate version for the end of the story. To stop the nightly sobbing, a friend of the family of Aoyama is hired. He is hiding at the well during the night and after Okiku had counted from one to nine, he is stepping forward shouting loudly “ten”. From then on the ghost of Okiku was never seen again.
The Himeji Castle Version
One of the tourist attractions on Himeji Castle is Okiku’s well (I visited Himeji castle while I spent time in Japan, I had no idea this was here until just now, I really wish I knew this early, although the trip was not planned, I was sent there by a friend while she was at work, I must say out of all the castles I visited in Japan, this was by far the best, not that I am saying there aren’t better, just the best I visited, I would recommend it highly, it is almost untouched unlike Osaka castle, which I wouldn’t bother if I were you, it has been restored, looks ridiculous with marble flooring and an elevator up the centre of it) . In the Himeji version, Okiku was a servant of Aoyama, a retainer who planned a plot against his lord. Okiku overheard the plot and reported it to her lover, a loyal warrior. The plot was averted.
When Aoyama found out that Okiku had been the cause for his failure, he decided to kill her. So he accused her of having stolen one of ten valuable dishes. She was tortured to death and thrown into the well.
Okiku’s well on Himeji Castle is in competition with another location of the well, the garden of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo - established on land bought from the Aoyama family. Looks like there are at least as many locations of the well of the poor girl as there are different versions of her story.
All the variations of the ghost story of Okiku have an extremely wrongful and cruel treatment of a poor girl of the lower classes in common. But different from the ghost story of Yotsuya, revenge towards the tormenter is not the big Leitmotiv (apart from one variation of the story).
I haven’t just yet! But it will be done within my next 2-3 posts! Sorry the posts are coming slow at the moment but I have a bunch of drawing to do right now! I will get onto it as soon as I can for you!
By far the most famous ghost story of Japan, and the most famous ghost in Japan, this is a scene of Oiwa from the kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. Oiwa was a woman cursed from birth with being ugly. Despairing of any happiness, she was finally married and had a baby with a poor ronin named Iemon, who eked out a living as an umbrella maker. Iemon somehow won the heart of the beautiful daughter of a well-off neighbor, and realized that the only thing standing in his way was his wife and child. He secured a vial of poison that he gave to Oiwa, which didn’t kill her but only caused her eye to droop and her hair to fall out. Disturbed, Iemon finally outright killed Oiwa and her baby. Oiwa returned to haunt Iemon and his new bride and family until she got her revenge.
Oiwa is an onryō, a ghost who seeks vengeance. Her strong passion for revenge allows her to bridge the gap back to Earth. She shares most of the common traits of this style of Japanese ghost, including the white dress representing the burial kimono she would have worn, the long, ragged hair and white/indigo face that marks a ghost in kabuki theater.
There are specific traits to Oiwa that set her apart physically from other onryo. Most famous is her left eye, which droops down her face due to poison given her by Iemon. This feature is exaggerated in kabuki performances to give Oiwa a distinct appearance. She is often shown as partially bald, another effect of the poison. In a spectacular scene in the kabuki play, the living Oiwa sits before a mirror and combs her hair, which comes falling out due to the poison. This scene is a subversion of erotically-charged hair combing scenes in kabuki love plays. The hair piles up to tremendous heights, achieved by a stage hand who sits under the stage and pushes more and more hair up through the floor while Oiwa is combing.
Oiwa is supposedly buried at a temple, Myogyo-ji, in Sugamo, a neighborhood of Tokyo. The date of her death is listed as February 22, 1636. Several productions of Yotsuya Kaidan, including television and movie adaptations, have reported mysterious accidents, injuries and even deaths. Prior to staging an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan it is now a tradition for the principal actors and the director to make a pilgrimage to Oiwa’s grave and ask her permission and blessing for their production. This is considered especially important of the actor assuming the role of Oiwa.
Many of Oiwa’s traits are standard to the onryō, including her costume of white burial kimono, white and indigo face, and long, disheveled hair.
As a side note, I have once drawn Oiwa, and was told by someone it is not a good idea to draw her without first praying at her shrine, like asking for permission as it is deemed very bad luck, apparently after the film was produced a number of the film crew mysteriously died as they didn’t seek her permission. (Just edited with the wiki info about that) I think this could be why she is only rarely tattooed, and to be honest I am too busy to seek out more actual tattoo images of her.
I also want to mention, which I don’t think is here, it is not uncommon to see oiwa emerging from a burning lantern, this was made famous by Hokusai, I think the significance of it is purely down to Iemon being so haunted by her ghost he was seeing her everywhere.
The Kabuki21 site here