Once upon a time, in the remote Ezo country, a rich house and a poor shack stood side by side by the outskirts of a small village surrounded by snow.
The rich mansion was but a big farmhouse, of sturdy wood blackened by sharp winter air. Yet, compared to its wretched neighbor, all of cob and hay, the estate looked quite opulent.
One evening, an unexpected snowstorm hurtled from the West. As howling winds mercilessly bit and cut faces and hands, all inhabitants boarded up their windows and doors in a hurry.
And as snowflakes big as quails eggs fluttered erratically, all waited for the raging blizzard to end.
By the hour of the ox, the world had turned quiet. The storm was gone, leaving behind a clear night, glittering icicles, and a thick mantle of snow gleaming under a distant moon.
A sound shattered the silence draping the mansion grounds. Someone was knocking on the wooden shutters barring the house.
A young, trembling voice pleaded:
– Is somebody here? Please help me! I’ve got caught in that storm and lost my way.
The rich farmer, awoken by the ruckus, harshly snarled:
– We’ve had enough trouble boarding up and heating our home. No way I’ll let a stranger come in. For all I know you might be a thief or even a murderer! Go whine at someone else’s door!
The vagrant let out a shocked, heartbreaking wail. And then chilling silence blanketed the farmhouse once again.
In the humble shack, a boy and his father were huddled up, searching comfort in each other warmth. Their moth-eaten covers and the meagre hearth were not much against icy drafts.
A knock started them.
Then a hesitant voice called shyly:
– Is somebody here? I lost my way in the blizzard, would you let me in for the night?
The man quickly rose up to his feet. He opened his door and quickly discarded the thin planks barring the way.
A girl stood by the entrance, her silvery white kimono blending into the snowdrifts, dishevelled hair dark as the unstirring sky above.
– By the gods, you are lucky to have made it out alive! Quick, quick, come inside before freezing to death!
The father lead her inside as the son did his best to rekindle the dying fire. The man blanketed the girl with his own cover, and handed her a chipped bowl:
– I am so sorry love, we don’t have much to offer. But here, have a bite, it will perk you up!
The girl happily gulped down the runny rice porridge. Thankful tears shone in her deep purplish eyes as she smiled at the boy, revealing small pearly teeth.
But the father furrowed his brows. Despite the gleaming embers and that warm diner, her skin yet showed a disturbing blue sheen, her lips and fingertips worryingly bloodless.
– Poor thing you are still frozen to the bones…
The man and the boy quickly piled their beddings and tightly tucked the pale girl. Despite her stone-cold skin, she beamed under their watchful care:
– You definitely are the kindest people I’ve met in a long time!
A few moments later, she had fallen into a peaceful unmoving slumber, soon followed by the man and his son protectively cuddled around her like puppies.
When morning came, the boy was waken up by a displeasing wet feeling. His mind still half asleep, he muttered:
– Oh no… I am far too old to wet my bed…Wait a minute!
Alerted, he opened his eyes. The wetness was not only under his bum, but had spread on the whole bedding. Covers and futon were totally soaked by icy water.
And gone was the cold girl.
– Dad! Dad!
Father and son jumped to their feet and hurried to the door. But outside, no footprints marred the virgin snow.
– How can it be…
As they put away the drenched beddings, they found between the covers what remained of a white kimono.
Father and son never spoke to anyone about the strange visitor brought in by the blizzard and gone like snow melted by the sun.
Even when, a few days later, people found their rich uncharitable neighbors stiff beneath their luxurious feather bedding, icebound and cold, cold dead.
Ezo was an ancient way of calling the northern areas of Japan, uncharted territories in the eyes of the old empire. While mostly referring to what is now Hokkaido, the term was also used to designate Yamagata prefecture, from where this story is from. The western area of Honshu, between Japanese Alps and the sea of Japan, is prone to deep winters with heavy snowfalls – and fittingly nicknamed snow country (Yukiguni)
The mysterious visitor of this tale is a ghostly being named yuki-musume (snow girl), a variation of the famous yuki-onna (snow woman). Sometimes pure monsters luring travellers into chilling snowstorms, sometimes sad ghosts longing for warmth and love (like today’s one), yuki-onna blur the lines between the spirit world and ours.
Minka (folk house) are getting rarer and rarer nowadays, as Japanese don’t hesitate to demolish old building to build new ones. Those houses have a peculiar charm, but are very prone to drafts coming from underneath floors or from the somehow thin sliding doors. To shield interior from elements and cold, people used wood shutters named amado (sometimes stored in special boxes, the tobukuro, when disposed). Yet, Japanese of old have also developed a wide range of features meant to admire the passing seasons, like beautiful yukimi shoji, sliding windows especially designed for snow-viewing.