Ah, the Yama-uba. Literally, it means “mountain crone”–and that’s exactly what she is.
She’s not a very pleasant looking woman is she? She’s the prototypical “old hag”, who lives far off in the deep forests or high mountains of Japan. She’s normally fairly hideous in appearance with messy long hair, tattered clothes and a large mouth. However, it’s been said that she can alter her appearance in order to capture her victims.
Her prey is the poor lost traveler in the woods (much like that of Yuki-onna). She will sometimes transform into a beautiful woman in order to capture their attention. Other times she maintains her old crone appearance and beg said victim for help. She gains their trust and when they least expect it, she kills them and feeds on their flesh (gotta love canibalism…)
If the traveler is in need of help himself, she will offer her hut for safety. Still in other cases she will lure the victim to his death by having him fall off the side of a mountain, where she can feed on his corpse. Some legends say she can animate her hair, much like that of the Futakuchi-onna; others say her hair turns into snakes. Her diet isn’t limited to lost traveling adults; it’s also said she will prey on children as well.
Yama-uba isn’t invincible though, like the Yuki-onna. Various legends say she’s only nocturnal and she’s frozen in the sunlight. Other legends say her soul is captured in a flower, and if the flower is destroyed so is she. She’s also said to be quite gullible so that her victims will often trick her to find escape. Like any good mountain hag legend, it’s known that she’s quite skilled in sorcery and potions, and sometimes she will barter this information to someone in exchange for a much steeper price.
However, Yama-uba is known to have a benevolent side. A very popular legend centers around the folk hero and superhuman warrior Sakata Kintoki, or otherwise known as Kintaro. Yama-uba took in the orphan Kintaro and raised him as her son. Their relationship is depicted as quite loving; she the doting mother and him the dutiful son. The legend helped influence more modern tales that show her more as a matronly figure rather than the horrible cannibalistic hag.
Other legends simply say she’s a woman of nature, and she represents humanity’s harmony with natural surroundings. So, she can be a multitude of different beings.
Origins of the story are thought to have their roots in a time when famine made it to where villagers had to abandon their elderly in the woods because of lack of food. Stories with the Yama-uba have existed for a thousand years or more, many of them tracing back to the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.).
She’s a quite popular subject still in Japan, ranging from Noh plays that have her as the main player, to books, and even an odd fashion trend that started back in the ’90s called “Yamanba.”
Apparently, the mountain crone still lives on.