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Culture

5 Japanese Yokai that Embody the Spirit of Winter

This collection of scary snow spooks will send you diving under the kotatsu.

By 4 min read

Every summer, Japan is bombarded with films and stories about ghosts and yokai (goblins). After all, summer is the time of Obon, a festival when the world of the dead is closer to that of the living. However, it’s not the only haunted season.

We first told you about yuki-onna, a snow demon who steals the breath of travelers lost in the snow. In A Survival Guide to Japan’s Winter Monsters, there are plenty more yokai and yurei (ghosts) that embody the spirit of winter. Here are five of them.

1. The avalanche rider

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Wrong neighborhood, pal.

Niigata Prefecture is on the Sea of Japan coast and gets covered in snow yearly. When it starts to warm in March, the snow comes barreling down the mountains in avalanches, a natural danger for anyone caught in its path. According to yokai manga author Mizuki Shigeru, in the Niigata village of Hishiyama these avalanches are accompanied by a wild rider, the Yuki Jiji (old man of the snow).

Yuki Jiji appears dressed all in white with white skin and hair, riding on nighttime avalanches like a supernatural snowboarder.

Other legends paint him as the male version of Yuki-Onna, a dangerous specter of snowy forests who causes travelers to become disoriented and die.

2. The futon monster

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Don’t hide under the covers.

Moving from one yukiguni (snow country) to another, this next story takes place in Tottori Prefecture, also on the side of Japan facing Russia. It’s the story of an inn in a small village and some rather unsettling bedding.

When the inn opened, the new owner, unable to afford fancy new furnishings, outfitted the place entirely with items from a local pawnbroker. After the first guest, a traveling merchant, had gone to bed, he was awakened by the sound of children’s voices: “Are you cold, big brother?” “No, but you are, right?”

Annoyed by what he thought were the innkeeper’s noisy kids, the merchant covered his head with the bedding, but the voices grew louder and were coming from the futon itself! The guest fled, as did the next and the next after that.

It turns out that the futon had initially come from a pair of orphans who were kicked out into the street when their parents died, and they couldn’t afford rent. All they had to cover themselves from the cold was one measly futon.

3. The one-eyed, one-legged snow yokai

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Yuki Nyudo in the manga GeGeGe no Kitaro (Kitaro of the Graveyard).

If you’re ever walking in a snow-covered forest in Gifu, don’t be surprised if footprints suddenly appear in the snow. On closer inspection, you’ll realize that only a single foot is making the prints. You may decide to follow them, but they will soon disappear. This is likely the work of Yuki Nyudo, a one-eyed, one-legged winter yokai.

Not much is known about Yukinyudo, besides his basic appearance—that of a monopedal, single-eyed monster—and that it lives in the mountains of Gifu. He’s reported to be able to command icicles as well.

4. The Japanese Krampus

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You better not pout. You better not cry.

In Bavaria, the legend of the Krampus is a demonic Christmas figure who torments children who misbehave. Japan has a version known locally as Namahage. Based on a legend about a group of oni (Japanese demons) terrifying a village, it has evolved into a folkloric tradition.

In rural villages in the Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture, the Namahage appears unannounced at homes with young children during New Year’s. While their faces look like those of oni, with scary, colored faces and horns, they’re clad in the straw coats of farmers. They barge into the houses, terrifying the children into behaving better

. Although they seem scary, their appearance is a blessing, ensuring the children’s continued health in the New Year.

5. Japan’s real snow monsters

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Board the Zao Ropeway in Yamagata for a bird’s eye view of their terrifying parade.

The monsters and ghosts we’ve looked at so far may or may not be accurate, but our final ones are the Snow Monsters of Mount Zao.

Located on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi Prefectures, the trees that cover Mount Zao get frosted with fluffy white snow every winter. Juhyo (ice trees) look like amorphous monsters marching across the hillside. They’re particularly freaky when lit up at night.

These five ghosts and monsters from Japanese folklore are just a taste of the kinds of spooks that wander quiet winter nights. While they’re all different, they all embody the winter season: cold, dark and often dangerous. 

What yokai or yurei do you love, winter or not? Let us know in the comments!

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