by Eliza Chan
‘Yukizuki’ means snow lover.
Before I moved to Japan, I thought I knew what seasons were. In the UK we get a smattering of snow in winter and a glimpse of sun in summer. I never realised the true extremities that seasons can bring until I lived in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan and here winters last from about November to April. Snow falls so thick that the snow ploughs only scrape off the surface layer and pile it up in metre high walls at the sides of the roads. And then when the snow finally melts, Hokkaido becomes the breadbasket of Japan: renowned for its dairy products, seafood, beer and fresh flowers.
These opposing forces are what I love about Hokkaido and about the yuki onna folktale. A yokai who is as cold as winter and yet in the most famous version of the tale by Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, she also loves. She brings beauty and life but also death. Her tale has captured the imaginations of many for this same reason. I loved that she is reminiscent other Asian female spirits: Lady White Snake or the nine-tailed fox. But yuki onna is also the a version of the universal snow queen who exists in nearly every culture across the world that has a snowy season.
When I first moved to Sapporo, I loved the snow. Rather than the chance day or two we have in the UK, we were given guaranteed months and months of powder white. It was the snow you saw in children’s films and on Christmas cards. It made houses look like they should be made of gingerbread. But snow can also lower spirits. Nights were long and walking home after work on the slipping pavements lost its novelty. It became a chore, a hindrance to socialising, to getting places. I nearly started to dislike winter until I took up snowboarding. There were snow and ice festivals across Hokkaido but snowboarding was something I could look forward to at all those other times. The times it would have been very easy to stay at home and mope. I’ve never liked competitive sports or felt the need for speed therefore my friends going off-piste and trying tricks, soon grew bored of my leisurely curves as I would stop and admire the view.
Somewhere, on a gondola perhaps, or admiring the view on a solo ride, the yuki onna came back to me. I wrote a traditional retelling of the tale at first, set in feudal Japan. But it felt wrong. Like most folktales the motivation for what the characters did was sparse. I wanted to fill in those gaps, give them a life before and after the story ended. And for me, yuki onna became more than a woman. The restrictions that had been placed on her were a human conceit. If she was a spirit, it did not matter what form, what body she possessed. She is simply the winter.