There are multiple stories of Yamanba: “Old Mountain Ladies.” Some of these hermit ladies, like the kindly old Yamanba of Nishinoshima in the Oki Islands, are welcome visitors. Nishinoshima’s Yamanba would supposedly come down from the mountain around the start of winter, and teach the villagers how to weave fabrics and fish, before disappearing again towards the end of winter.

Then there were the feared Yamanba, like the one from this story from the Izumo region.

A long time ago, there was an Ushigata–that is, a merchant would would take goods from village to village on an ox. On this particular day, he bought some fish at the coast to sell inland. As he reached a mountain pass on Sanbe (the highest mountain in Shimane Prefecture), he was approached by a hideous Yamanba–her hair like silver, her gleaming eyes bulging, her mouth wide as if torn ear to ear, and her ghastly teeth large and sharp. “Hey, you,” she addressed him. “Gimme one of those fish. But should ya’ refuse…”

The Ushigata screamed and turned to run. As he picked up speed, the ox tripped, so he left it behind as he ran faster and faster as if falling. Soon he found himself with no place left to run, and he panted heavily as he looked for some place to hide. He spotted a little hut, and rushed in. “I’m sorry, but please help me!” he shouted. “I’m being chased by the Yamanba!”

He found, however, that the house was empty. Though he felt a little awkward entering someone else’s home, he had no other choice, so he hid himself in the rafters. Soon, he heard a growling voice outside. “Drat, he got away. I ate the fish an’ the ox, but I really wanted t’ eat that man!”

Oh no, I’m in her house. I’m done for! Kami-sama, tasukete kudasai–Gods, save me! he thought and held his breath.

As the Yamanba entered, she sat down next to the stove and wondered aloud, “Now should I sleep ‘er should I grill some rice cakes and then sleep?” Deciding on the later, she stuck some rice cakes on sticks by the fire. “Hmm. Does these smell like rice cakes, ‘er do they smell like human?” With a terribly sucking sound, she sniffed the air, then dozed off.

When he smelled the roasting rice cakes, the Ushigata realized he was terribly hungry. Feeling sure that the Yamanba was asleep, he used a long pole he found in the rafters to stab the rice cakes and pull them up so he could devour them. Soon after, the Yamanba woke up and noticed they were missing. “Where’s my rice cakes? Somebody stole my rice cakes! Who done it? Who’s there?” She then started to rummage around the hut looking for the thief.

Then, the Ushigata held his nose and quietly spoke like a Kami. “It was I who ate your rice cakes. Hi-no-Kami–the Fire God!”

“Ohhh, Hi-no-kami. Well, if a Kami ate it, there’s no helpin’ it. I’ll just go t’ bed. Letse, should I sleep in the rafters, or should I sleep in my cauldron?”

The Ushigata was hiding in the rafters, so of course he could not let her sleep up there. Using the Kami voice again, he said, “The cauldron is best.”

Thinking that it was a Kami who told her to do so, she climbed in the cauldron to curl up and sleep. The Ushigata took this chance to quietly climb down from the rafters. As he heard her terrible snoring, it occured to him that he should take that chance to rid the world of such a foe. He found a large rock outside, rolled it inside, and then put it on top of the lid of the cauldron.

The noise woke up the Yamanba momentarily. “I hear rumble-rumble birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” So saying, she went back to sleep.

The Ushigata then proceeded to add firewood underneath the cauldron. Hearing the noise, the Yamanba woke up again, this time saying, “I hear rustle-rustle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!”

Now, the Ushigata light the firewood, and as it started to grow, the Yamanba said, “I hear crackle-crackle birds singin’ out there, but it’s still night time!” Just as she said this, the fire roared, and the Yamanba tried to jump out of the cauldron. She was trapped by the rock on top, and screamed and thrashed around, but soon she grew quiet.

Once there was no sound coming from inside the cauldron, the Ushigata opened the cauldron and peered inside. There, he saw a giant old wolf with a mouth so wide that it looked like it was torn ear to ear, and it was burned to a crisp. Since then, no one ever spoke of running into the Yamanba.

Photo credit to my colleague for this photo taken near Sanbe this weekend! This is on the west side of the mountain (note the cows!). The “feminine” side, he explained, as opposed to the “masucline” east side where all the skiing spots are.