In the pantheon of Japanese mythology there is a particularly nasty mountain yokai named Yama-uba. She's an ugly, cannibalistic old crone known for disguising herself as a beautiful young woman in order to seduce her victims. Let's learn more about her.
Depending on the story, and depending on who's translating it, Yama-uba can be perceived in many ways. At the darker end of the spectrum Yama-uba once helped a young woman give birth, pretending all the while to be a kind caregiver but actually intending to eat the baby as soon as it was born. On the other end of the spectrum, Yama-uba is said to have raised Kintaro; a boy who grew up to be the famous warrior Sakata no Kintoki (Golden Boy). Of course there's quite a bit more of the dark stuff than the caring mother stuff, but hey, give her a chance!
Yama-uba, Dame of the Mountain
Yamauba is the fairy of the mountains, which have been under her care since the world began. She decks them with snow in winter, with blossoms in spring ... She has grown very old. Wild white hair hangs down her shoulders; her face is very thin.
This is an interpretation of Yama-uba from a famous Noh drama titled "Yama-uba, Dame of the Mountain", and this discription was given by the actor Komparu Zenchiku. In this light Yama-uba appears to be a sort of seasons goddess; bringing the snow and then the flowers.
In the second part of this play, Yama-uba takes her true form and tells the story of her wanderings
"Round and round, on and on, from hill to hill, from valley to valley. In spring decking the twigs with blossom, in autumn clothing the hills with moonlight, in winter shaking snow from the heavy clouds. On and on, round and round, caught in the Wheel of Fate. Striding to the hill-tops, sweeping through the valleys."
Off the beaten Wikipedia path
Finding references to Yama-uba being a baby-eating cannibal is as simple as a Google search, but it feels lacking. What got me thinking that perhaps something is being missed in this story was the presence of two drastically different versions of Yama-uba. Further piquing my curiosity was the mention of this yokai raising Kintaro. So I decided to go off-road... by which I mean push my chair away from my desk and wheel over to my bookshelf.
In Frederick Hadland Davis's "Myths & Legends of Japan" (a book much regaled for its authentic telling of the many legends of Japan) there's a section on the Golden Boy:
Davis tells us that Kintaro was the son of disgraced imperial bodyguard Sakata Kurando. Kurando fell in love with a woman name Yaegiri who became pregnant during the course of their courtship. Kurando, before Kintaro was born, took his own life out of a deep self-loathing related to his meager living and disgraced status. When Yaegiri found his body she hurriedly buried him and then ran away to Ashigara Mountain to give birth to Kintaro.
At no point during the account that follows does Davis mention Kintaro being brought up by anyone other than his mother, Yaegiri. Kintaro is a wild child, makes friends of the animals on Ahsigara, and becomes quite strong and skilled. Eventually the boy catches the eye of Yorimitsu (a famous Japanese hero) who recruits him as a retainer and gives him the name Sakata Kintoki.
Here's what I think
Yaegiri, living in the wild and sleeping in a cave or makeshift mountain hut, quickly lost her beauty and begins to take on the appearance of an aged and wild mountain woman - an old crone. Locals of nearby villages spot these two characters (Yaegiri and Kintaro), either together or separately or both, and begin to tell tales.
Yaegiri becomes Yama-uba and the boy becomes the stolen offspring of a murdered woman; taken in and raised by the ugly, cannibalistic Yama-uba. In other words: Yama-uba was a character made up to explain the two mountain dwellers Kintaro and Yaegiri.
Below are some of the many paintings produced by 19th century artist Kitagawa Utamaro, they all feature Yama-uba (the artist was specifically portraying Yama-uba) but always in a motherly capacity.
So what do you think? Is Yama-uba a mountain yokai? Or is she an attempt to explain the odd living conditions of Yaegiri and Kintaro?