Yuki-onna is unquestionably the most famous snow yokai in Japan. Like Yamanba, she can be benevolent, but is mostly malevolent. Stories about her are most numerous in the Tohoku region of Japan (where the most snow falls). She also has a variety of names including Yukijoro (雪女郎 in Niigata and Yamagata), Yuki-ne-sa (雪姉サ also in Niigata), Shikkennken (シッケンケン in Nagano), Yuki-musume (雪娘 snow-daughter — but actually, “daughter” in Japanese is often used to mean “young woman”), etc… There are also a number of names for her that relate to icicles such as Tsurara-onna (氷柱女 icicle woman), Kanekori musume (カネコリ娘 northern dialect [Gifu] for icicle woman), Shigama-nyoubou (シガマ女房 shigama is Western Aomori dialect for icicle, nyoubou means “wife”).
The origins of Yuki-onna are relatively old, but probably not as old as Yamanba. In late Muromachi period (1337-1573 CE) the zen monk/renga poet Sogi (1421-1502 CE) wrote about seeing Yuki-onna while staying in Echigo-no-kuni (modern-day Niigata) in a book on his travels around Japan (宗祇諸国物語, scroll #5). In that section, local people talk about older generations seeing Yuki-onna, but that no one had seen her for a long time. So assuming Sogi didn’t pull the whole story out of thin air, Yuki-onna may be placed from the late 1300s at least, but is probably older.
There are a fair number of typical patterns to stories about Yuki-onna:
1) She appears in a snowstorm/on a snowy night/on snowy nights with a full moon.
In some regions her appearance is limited. In some cases, from New Year’s Day (Jan. 1st) or 小正月 (lesser new year) which is now celebrated on January 15th, but was based on the lunisolar calendar, so was closer to February 15th. She had to leave the world of the living on the first “rabbit day” of the year, which is associated with exorcism (Jan. 13th this year, if you happen to be possessed). Unfortunately, with the switch to the Gregorian calendar, the first rabbit day occurs before lesser new year….so Yuki-onna is faced with a paradox…or she gets to stay all year? Some people speculate she shares characteristics with the Toshikami (New Year kami) who visit at the time of the New Year and grant protection for the family and a good harvest (post coming soon).
2) She carries a baby and asks someone to hold it (like 産女 Ubume).
If the person holds her baby, the baby will grow heavier and heavier (or bigger and bigger) until they sink into the snowy ground and freeze to death. They try to put it down, but it’s stuck to them like the golden goose of yore.
In one story of this pattern, a warrior from Hirosaki recognises Yuki-onna and holds a dagger in his mouth close to the baby’s head. Yuki-onna takes the baby back, thanks him for holding it, and gives him a bunch of gold (he probably just terrorised some poor local girl–glorified kidnapper if you ask me). Some stories also say people who hold onto the child and don’t try to put it down when it gets heavy will be blessed with special powers.
3) She becomes a lonely man’s wife (see “Snow Wife” below).
4) She leaves a child with a childless elderly couple (see “Snow Daughter” below).
5) She asks to stay the night during a snowstorm (see “Yuki-onna’s Gratitude” below).
In one telling from Yamagata, Yuki-onna visits an elderly couple on a snowy night and asks if she may sit near the fireplace. Late at night she gets up to go into the snowstorm again. The old man takes her hand to dissuade her, but when he does so it’s freezing cold. Her secret is up and before his eyes she turns into a gust of snow and blows out the chimney.
6) She calls out to travelers for water or ice (if they do not respond, they are pushed into a ravine).
If you throw water on her, she will grow. If you throw hot water, she will disappear. In these stories, she often carries white streamers or drags a large mirror, which has led scholars to believe these are remnants of mountain priestess ceremonies.
7) She comes and abducts children, tearing out their innards while they are still alive.
In a story from Niigata, Yuki-onna (Yuki-joro, more precisely) appeared at the beginning of Greater New Year (Jan 1-7). She was described as a beautiful woman wearing a necklace who moves with a fluidity that reminded those watching of an angel (kind of like Tennyo 天女). When the children and young people followed her out of the village, she turned around and smiled. However, she left no tracks in the snow. It was presumed she would eat the children or feed them to her own children (much like Yamanba). （「サン写真新聞」／今野円輔『妖怪篇』）
8) She often has some kind of fertility/harvest deity associated quality (probably from mountain belief systems).
9) She freezes people to death by blowing on them.
10) She steals men’s life force or sexual virulence by exchanging words or having sex with them (classic “vagina dentate”).
11) Red snow stories
Due to colored particles such as sand and maybe some other stuff…there are allegedly records of red snow falling in Japan. One tale says that Yuki-onna made fun of Yamanba’s sagging breasts and menstrual flow. As punishment from the gods, she was told she would wander the earth as a virgin until the red snow falls, at which time she will give birth. After that, she will melt with the snow in spring.
Another one is that when red snow falls, Yuki-onna fashions dolls out of snow and breathes life into them to fool unwitting travelers into holding them.
There are a few ideas about her true form. In some stories she is the “spirit of the snow,” in others she is the wandering ghost of a woman who died in a snowstorm, and in the Yuki-joro version (Niigata/Yamagata) she was a princess on the moon who got bored one day and decided to fall to earth with the snow. In Edo era, the popular story was she was born out of the snow.
My opinion is she probably was originally just the “spirit of the snow” as told in the oldest written account. Snow can be terrifying and also comforting, so it makes sense that Yuki-onna holds those qualities. And one thing Toshio Ozawa harps on in his radio show is that in Japanese folklore, unlike European folklore, an animal or element that changes shape is not bewitched, magical, or special in any other way. In the old animistic culture, everything was considered to have a spirit and thus a spirit form. So when you read stories such as the “Crane Wife,” or Kitsune and Tanuki stories, or really any number of stories about flowers, monkeys, snakes, rivers and other elements and animals taking human form, the key concept is all animals and inanimate objects have those forms, but they may or may not choose to manifest them. Ergo, it’s important to respect all creatures and objects (read about Tsukumogami 付喪神 for an interesting trip into this worldview).
It is my belief that the qualities of fertility, mountain priestess, Toshigami, Yamanba and Ubume were all mixed into later re-tellings (the spirit of the snow appearing, not saying anything, and walking away is not a riveting tale).
Some brief analysis is offered on the Japanese Wikipedia page for her, which I’ll summarize here:
“From Sogi Shokoku Monogtari (Sogi’s Tales from Many Lands) to Lafcadio Hearn’s “Kwaidan,” Yuki-onna is mostly depicted as a beautiful woman and is associated with the fleeting transience of the snow. Like in Hearn’s version, in which Yuki-onna must disappear when a taboo is broken by her husband (speaking about a certain topic in this case), stories about broken taboos and Yuki-onna are also found in Niigata, Toyama, and Nagano. This may stem from old mountain beliefs that if a taboo was broken, the person would be killed by the mountain spirits.
The majority of the stories about Yuki-onna are tragic in nature. People in unfortunate situations, childless elderly couples, lonely bachelors, etc… hear a knock at the door in a snowstorm. What they have been yearning for is standing at the door, but they find their happiness is as fleeting as the snow when it melts away in the spring. In Tono Monogatari, Yuki-onna brushes her fingers against the paper doors and children have to be put to bed hurriedly. These stories of Yuki-onna’s visit juxtapose the frightening with wish fulfillment. These stories may be saying that getting what you want is also frightening.”
But to get right down to it and let you make your own interpretations and conclusions, here are the stories I gathered as representative of Yuki-onna, but certainly far from comprehensive:
Sogi’s Tales from Many Lands, Scroll 5 (Sogi Shokoku Monogatari 宗祇諸国物語, 巻5)
Yuki-onna’s Gratitude (雪女の恩返し)
Snow Wife (雪女房)
Snow Daughter (雪娘)
Yuki-onna (as told by Lafcadio Hearn–probably the most famous Yuki-onna story inside and outside of Japan)
Yuki-onna Gets Defeated (退治された雪女)
Yuki-onna Leading a Cow (べこを連れた雪女)