Sogi’s Tales from Many Lands, Scroll 5 (宗祇諸国物語, 巻5)

Translated from http://home.att.ne.jp/red/sronin/_koten/0237sougi_yo.htm

I heard deep snow accumulates in Echigo every year and that new snow begins to fall even as the final remains of the previous year’s snow are at last disappearing. The people of that country are used to it and do not find it to be a particular hardship, but I, Sogi, who was born and raised in the southern country of Kishu, found even the mild chill of the winters while living in Kyoto to be nearly unbearable. For that reason, when a close friend living in Echigo said, “Come here at least once.” I hesitated on account of my age. However, after being told, “It is so simple to defend against the cold. You are being a complete coward,” I was unable to refuse and spent two years in Echigo.

The first year, there was a comparatively large amount of snow, even the local people said it was more than average. At the end of the 9th month of the lunar calendar, the first snow fell like the dancing butterfly wings and continued to fall without respite. Halfway through the 10th month, I could no longer see any grass in the fields and the tree trunks in the mountains had snow 2 meters deep at their bases. If this was only winter’s entrance, I feared what it would be like come mid-winter, but the roads were already closed and there was not even a shadow of a single traveler’s sleeves* around anymore. Now there was no way I could return to Kyoto.

At the beginning of the 11th month, the houses were completely buried in snow, to the extent you could enter through the roof. Happily, I was saved by the compassion of others. By dressing in layers and eating hot meals I was able to see through the end of the year. The 1st month was cold as was the 2nd, but it began to feel less and less like true winter, and the snow in the south began to slowly melt.

At dawn one day, I opened the door by my pillow to go out to the bathroom. I looked to the east and saw a mysterious woman standing by the bamboo grove about 10 meters away. She was nearly 3 meters tall (approx. 10 feet). Her face and skin were so white as to be nearly transparent. She wore a single-layered white kimono, but the cloth was of a material I had never seen before. It was very delicate and glossy. The thread glittered and caused the woman to stand out starkly against the snow. She was an impressive sight. It was as though I had met the Queen Mother of the West in a peach grove, or found Princess Kaguya inside the bamboo. Judging from her face, she looked to be just under 20 years old. However, her long hair was completely white and she was a singular sight.
“Who are you? Tell me your name.” I said and approached her. She silently walked away towards the vegetable garden. I wondered how to be sure of what I had seen, but she had already vanished. Her afterglow lingered for a while, but soon darkened and I never saw her again.

That evening, I told a local person what I had seen. I was told, “That is the spirit of the snow, in the valley they call her Yuki-onna. On years with high snowfall, she occasionally appears. But there aren’t any people still living who have actually seen her. You have had a curious experience.” But I was still doubtful, so I asked, “If she really was the spirit of the snow, shouldn’t she have appeared during mid-winter? It seems somehow inappropriate for Yuki-onna to appear here at the advent of spring as the snow is melting.”
He replied, “What you say is understandable, but flowers bloom most beautifully before they wither, and the leaves on the tree change colors before they fall. The lantern burns brightest just before it goes out. Is it not possible she is like those things?”

Hearing that, I believed it may be so.

*Note: This is likely a mistranslation on my part. I asked a Japanese person, but he was also at a loss for what it meant. I assume it’s some poetic way to say “everybody split.” But feel free to have a crack at it: 冬の入り口でこれでは、極寒の時分にはどうなることかと思われたが、もはや街道の往来は絶えて、『袖うち払うかげもなし』と嘆ずる旅人の、そのかげすらないという有様だから、今さら京都に帰ることなどできはしない。

A simpler Japanese retelling of the story can be found here:

http://hukumusume.com/douwa/betu/jap/03/12.htm

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