the online database of Japanese folkore



Translation: mountain hag, mountain crone
Alternate names: yamanba, onibaba
Habitat: isolated huts or caves, deep in the mountains
Diet: generally eats human food, but will cook anything available

Appearance: Yamauba are the old hags and witches of the Japanese mountains and forests. They were once human but became corrupted and transformed into monsters. Some sport horns or fangs, but most often yamauba look just like ordinary kind old ladies with no sign of their evil nature—until they attack.

Interactions: Yamauba live alone in huts by the road, where they occasionally offer weary travelers shelter, food, and a place to sleep. Late at night when their guests are fast asleep, yamauba transform into their true shape—an ugly, old, demonic witch. Thus revealed, they try to catch and eat their guests, often using powerful magic. Stories of encounters with yamauba have been spread by those few travelers lucky enough to escape. These tales were then passed along for generations until they came to be told as bedtime stories to disobedient children: “Be good or yamauba will come to get you!”

Origin: Sometimes yamauba are created when young women accused of crimes or wicked deeds flee into the wilderness and live in exile. The women transform gradually over many years into mountain witches. In some cases, their origin can be explained by an old custom from times of famine or economic hardship. When it became impossible to feed everyone, families had to make a hard choice: remove one member so that the rest can survive. Often the sacrifice chosen was the newly born or the elderly. Some families led their mothers deep into the woods and left them there to die. These abandoned old women, either out of rage or desperation, transformed into horrible monsters that fed on humans and practiced black magic.

Alphabetical list of yōkai