Yama-uba (山姥?, mountain crone) is a yōkai (“spirit” or “monster”) found in Japanese folklore. The name may also be spelled Yamamba or Yamanba. She is sometimes confused with the Yuki-onna (“snow woman”), but the two figures are not the same.
Yama-uba looks like an old woman, usually a hideous one. Her unkempt hair is long and golden white, and her kimono (usually red) is filthy and tattered. Her mouth is sometimes said to stretch the entire width of her face, and some depictions give her a second mouth at the top of her head. She is able to change her appearance, though, and she uses this tactic to great success in capturing her victims.
Yama-uba inhabits the deep forests of the mountains of Japan. Various regions claim her as a native, including Sabana (where she is supposed to have once lived in a cave at the base of Mt. Nabekura), the Tōhoku Region (northern Honshū), and the Ashigara Mountains. Most stories say that she lives in a hut.
Yama-uba preys on travelers who have become lost in her wooded lair. Her exact tactics vary from story to story. Sometimes, she changes her appearance to that of a beautiful woman or possibly one of her victim’s loved ones. Other times, she retains her hag-like form and plays the part of a helpless old woman. Once she has gained her quarry’s trust, she often closes and eats them then and there. She is able to animate her hair (or turn it to snakes in some legends) and use it to pull the prey into the maw atop her head. She may also offer to “help” the lost soul and then lead him to a dangerous area of the mountain where he falls to his death and allows her to feed. Alternately, she may offer to lodge the victim in her hut. Once the luckless traveler is sufficiently fattened up, she pounces. In addition to killing adults, Yama-uba is often blamed for missing children, and parents use her as a sort of bogeyman.
Because her behavior is similar to that of female oni, some scholars suggest that Yama-uba is simply a named member of that class of creature. Others suggest that several Yama-uba live all throughout Japan. Unlike the invincible oni, however, Yama-uba is fallible. A few tales make her a nocturnal creature unable to move about in sunlight. At least one tradition holds that her only weakness is a flower that holds her spirit, so that if the flower is destroyed, the mountain crone is as well. She is often depicted as quite gullible, and tales of her would-be prey fooling her to make their escape are common.
Yama-uba is skilled in the arts of sorcery, potions and poisons. She sometimes trades this knowledge to human beings if they bring her a substitute victim to eat or satisfy some similarly wicked bargain.
Despite her predatory nature, Yama-uba has a benevolent side. For example, she raised the orphan hero Kintarō, who became the famous warrior Sakata no Kintoki, a relationship that forms the basis for the noh drama Yama-uba. In this story, Yama-uba is portrayed as a loving mother, which has influenced some more modern tales to depict her as a matronly figure. Some even make her a representation of love. Other storytellers hold that she is simply a solitary wanderer who represents harmony with nature. In the folklore of Atsumi peninsula in Aichi region of Japan, it is told that Yuma-uba has a brother, Shuba-uba, (also Kojya-uba) whose depiction often resembles to those of Oni. It is therefore suggested that Oni and Yama-uba are of similar origins. The same suggestion is also made in the tale of Ken-san, in which the leading character, Ozawa-Matsumoto (Koji), finds both Shuba-uba and Yama-uba living in the same household upon his visit to the Mount Sumi.
Some scholars place Yama-uba’s origin in stories about times when great famine caused Japanese villagers to cast their elderly out into the woods for lack of food. Yama-uba would thus be born out of the psychological undercurrent from such actions.
Legends of Yama-uba have existed since at least the Heian period. At this time, a village named Sabane built the Nenbutsu Toge bypass around a cave that was thought to house the witch.
She is the subject of several Noh plays, including one entitled simply Yamanba.
Yama-uba’s legend is still very much alive in Japan. A late 1990s fashion trend called “Yamanba” took its name from Yama-uba, since those who followed it were said to look like a staple Noh mask, based on the mountain crone.