Yama Uba, Japanese Mountain Witch

September 24, 2021 5 min read

yama uba

Have you ever heard about the mountain witch? In the depths of the woods in the Japanese mountains lives an ogress named Yama Uba, let's say a kind of supernatural Japanese creature...

Yama Uba (山姥) is a yokai with the appearance of an old woman in a kimono, living in the forests of the mountains in Japan. This hideous witch, from local folklore and mythology, likes to trick lost travelers and devour them.

Discover the terrifying legend of Yama Uba, and above all, beware of her evil spirit. 😬

What does Yama Uba look like? 👵

Behind her appearance of an old witch, Yama Uba (or Yamamba) is a monstrous woman. Dressed in a ripped red kimono, she has long, shaggy white hair that transforms into a snake, a withered, grimy skin, a mouth that can grow to devour her prey and sometimes even a second mouth on her skull... In some legends, her blood is said to be yellow.

Yama Uba the Japanese witch

Three representations of Yama Uba by the artist Matthew Meyer.

With her two meters high height and her aggressive look, the old woman of the mountains is rather frightening... However, she can metamorphose into a beautiful young woman or into a granny cake to better capture the hikers. Indeed, this particularly cunning witch has more than one trick up her sleeve!

Beware of the Japanese witch 😈

This creature lives in a hut deep in the forests of the Land of the Rising Sun. You might encounter her in the mountains of Ashigara, Sabana or Honshu...

She is a clever woman who has the habit of offering her help to lost travelers (especially men) before luring them into her hut. Only to devour them of course! 😅

To do so, she uses strategies to trick her victims either by charming them or by pretending to be a nice old lady, helping them to find their way back. Once the travelers are confident, she won't hesitate to eat them alive!

In addition to being able to change her appearance to better approach her prey, Yama-Uba also has the power to control her long hair to achieve her goals. So, if you ever get lost, never trust a stranger or you'll regret it! 😩

Yama Uba, Japanese yokai

On the left, representation of Yama Uba by Sawaki Suushi (1737). On the right, Noh theater scene "Yamauba" by Tsukioka Kogyo (1898).

The legend of Kintaro and Yama Uba

The witch of the mountain is not always evil, since she would have welcomed Kintaro, the famous golden boy of Japanese folklore. You know, this child endowed with a legendary strength which is reminiscent of the character of Hercules.

The story of Kintaro, the "golden boy" 👦

The story goes that Kintaro was a boy abandoned by his mother (or an orphan depending on the version)and got lost in the forest. As he met Yama Uba, the latter instead of devouring him, took him under her wing and raised him as her own child. 👶

Some versions claim that kintaro was the biological son of Yama-Uba. This boy with exceptional powers would be the fruit of the witch and the red dragon. However, the stories agree that the kid had an incredible strength and robust health. 💪 Thus, from an early age, the child was able to crush stones or tear down trees without the slightest effort.

Not having any playmates, he became friends with all the animals in the forest and communicated with them. The boy practiced sumo with bears 🐻, and became friends with a giant carp after confronting it. During his childhood, Kintaro learned a lot from his wild companions and would fight fearsome demons. He was also able to help the woodcutters.

Kintaro and Yama Uba

Three artworks by Kitagawa Utamaro depicting Kintaro and Yama Uba (prints from the 1800s).

The mountain woman and her beloved son are depicted in many prints by Utamaro and Hokusai. The legend of Yamamba is also a reference in Japanese theater as it is frequently performed in Noh theater.

The warrior Sakata no Kintoki

One day, Kintaro crossed the path of Yorimitsu, a famous samurai of the Minamoto Clan. Yorimitsu immediately recognized the child's supernatural strength and took him to the city to teach him martial arts. Yorimitsu made the young boy his disciple. Thus, Kintaro joined the 4 shitenno, a group of very famous invincible warriors in Japan. He then became the hero Sakata no Kintoki, a man who really existed during the Heian period.

Later when Yorimitsu was trapped by a giant spider, Kintaro destroyed a tree to crush the monster and thus saved the samurai's life.

Meeting between Yorimitsu and Kintaro

Artwork by Utagawa Kunisada (1811).  From the left to the right, the witch Yama Uba, Kintaro and a samurai of the Minamoto clan.

Kintaro, a great example of courage in Japan!

The reason that Kintaro became a legendary hero in Japan probably has something to do with the witch Yama Uba. Indeed, children raised by a Yamanba would develop extraordinary abilities and become heroes. So it is not by chance that Kintaro is a celebrity in Japan. ⭐

Yama Uba, a popular figure in Japan

As a common figure in Japanese stories, the Yamamba (or Yamanba) scares many children. In Japanese culture, parents use witches to dissuade little ones from straying. Yama Uba can also be found in Lafcadio Hearn's book named Kwaïdain (ghost stories).

The old woman of the mountains is very well known in the Land of the Rising Sun and occupies an important place in Japanese literature and arts, but not only... this yokai also inspires video games, the world of manga, anime and even cosplay.

Yubaba, The Journey of Chihiro

The character of Yubaba in the Japanese anime, Spirited Away.

Yamamba in anime movies and video games 🎮

The creature regularly appears in video games. For example, in the Pokemon game, she is represented by the character named Jynx. Lastly, in Spirited Away, Yubaba, the aged lady who runs the public baths, is very attached to her child which is directly inspired by the witch and the legend of Kintaro.

 

Now you know who is behind this famous yokai as well as how Yama Uba preys on her victims... So if you ever get lost in the deep forests of Japan and a charming person comes to your aid, beware, it might be a trick of the Japanese witch. 😉

 

Are you fascinated by Japanese monster stories? These articles might interest you! 👇


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