Famous Japanese Folktales

Ogres, terrifying women, magical turtles, princesses of the moon and more!

Famous Japanese Folktales

Surely since the beginning of humanity, there have been tales and legends in all civilizations. Stories that are explained orally and passed from generation to generation, until at some point someone write them on paper. Many of these folktales have some kind of message, such as scaring children out of going with strangers. Others are just stories to pass the time.

How could it be otherwise, Japan also has its own myths and legends. Stories that all Japanese know since they are children, and that are sometimes even represented in popular culture, such as manga, anime, video games or books. In this article I bring you 4 of the most famous folktales in Japan!



Once upon a time in Japan there lived an old man and woman. The couple loved each other very much, but they were never able to have children. One day, as many other days did, the man went to the mountains to cut firewood and the woman went to the river to wash their clothes. But that day something unusual happened: while the woman was washing her clothes, she saw a huge peach floating down the river. The peach was completely pink. While she thought with joy that this was her lucky day, the old woman took the peach from the river and took it home, waiting for her husband to arrive home. But when he arrived and they went to open the peach to eat it, to their surprise there was a child inside!

Since the couple had no children, they considered him a gift from heaven and decided to raise him as their son. They called him Momotaro, which in Japanese means “peach boy”. The elders took such good care of Momotaro that he became the bravest and strongest young man in the village. But at the same time he was also sweet and kind and everyone loved and respected him. His parents were very proud of him.

At that time there were some ogres who raided the village frequently, stealing everything they could and scaring its people. The day Momotaro came of age, he told his parents that he would go to the Isle of Ogres and get rid of them forever and keep his treasure. He asked his mother to prepare a good supply of kimi-dango and once they were ready he set off on his adventure. He hadn’t walked much when he found a dog.

– Where are you going, Momotaro?- asked the dog.

– I’m going to the Isle of Ogres to defeat them and stop them robbing people.

– What do you carry in the bag that hangs from your belt?

– You don’t miss one! It’s a bag full with one of the best kimi-dango in all of Japan.

– Give me one and I’ll accompany you.

Momotaro accepted and gave him a kimi dango and the two continued walking together. They had not traveled much distance when they met a monkey.

– Where are you going, Momotaro?- asked the monkey.

– I’m going to the Isle of Ogres to defeat them and stop them robbing people.

– What do you carry in the bag that hangs from your belt?

– You don’t miss one! It’s a bag full with one of the best kimi-dango in all of Japan.

– Give me one and I’ll accompany you.

Momotaro gave the monkey a kimi dango, and the three of them continued walking together. Within minutes, they met a pheasant.

– Where are you going, Momotaro?- asked the pheasant.

– I’m going to the Isle of Ogres to defeat them and stop them robbing people.

– What do you carry in the bag that hangs from your belt?

– You don’t miss one! It’s a bag full with one of the best kimi-dango in all of Japan.

– Give me one and I’ll accompany you.

Finally after a while the four of them reached the Isle of Ogres.

-Listen to my plan – Momotaro said – The pheasant will fly over the castle gate and peck at the ogres. The monkey would climb the castle and pinch them. The dog and I will break the locks and destroy the castle. The dog will also bite the ogres and I will fight with them.

And that was what they did. Momotaro and his brave companions fought the ogres until sunset and finally managed to defeat them. The ogres who were left with visas were taken prisoner and tied up with ropes.


Once with the ogres defeated, the four friends managed to find the ogres’ treasure and everything that they had stolen in the village during these years. They collected the treasures and returned triumphant to the village. They gave back to the people what was stolen and shared what belonged to no one. Momotaro’s parents were very happy to see him come back healthy, and the three of them lived happily ever after.

Yuki-onna, the Snow Woman

Traditionally it appears on cold winter nights when it snows a lot, especially when there is full moon. In some stories it’s completely harmless and only seeks shelter from the cold and snow, but in others she takes people’s lives by making them freeze to death. She’s described as a beautiful woman with long black hair, white skin, and blue or red lips dressed in a white kimono.

Lafcadio Hearn popularized with his book the version of the story told around Tokyo and it’s the one that I’m going to tell you today, although there are other versions.

One winter day two woodcutters, Minokichi (a young boy) and Mosaku (a very old man), were unable to return home due to a snowstorm. They found a shack in which to spend the night and take shelter from the blizzard. In the middle of the night Minokichi woke up to the cold of the snow on his face. Turning around, he saw the figure of a beautiful woman bending over Mosaku, breathing on his face. The woman, seeing Minokichi woke up, went to him.

“This time I spare your life because you’re young and beautiful. However, you shouldn’t tell anyone what happened. If you ever tell someone about me, I will kill you ”

The next morning, Mosaku was found dead.

Years later, Minokichi met a beautiful young woman named Oyuki (Snow in Japanese) and married her. They had several children and lived happily for many years. Although mysteriously, Oyuki didn’t age. One day, the beauty of his wife reminded him of the vision he had had long ago in that shack, and he confessed it to her. In doing so, Oyuki went into a rage and replied

“I told you to never tell anyone about me! That vision was me, and if I don’t kill you now it’s because I feel sorry for the children! ” Then she disappeared and no one ever saw her again.

Here are two versions, as some say that Oyuki responded in anger, and others sadly.

And here ends the story of the Snow Woman. I have summarized it very much, but I hope you liked it.

Urashima Taro

Urashima TaroUrashima Taro is one of the most populat japanese traditional story and probably many of you already know it. But for those who don’t know, today I would like to explain his story.

Urashima Taro was a young fisherman who lived happily in his village with his elderly mother. One day while walking along the seashore, he saw some children hitting a turtle. Urashima immediately went to the children and told them to leave the poor turtle alone which he released at sea so he could return home. A few days later Urashima was fishing as he used to do when the turtle he had saved appeared.

The turtle thanked Urashima for saving him and told him that as a thank you he would take him to the Dragon Palace. The turtle gave Taro the power to breathe in the water invited him up to his shell and took him to the Dragon Palace. Urashima was very happy to have this experience. When they finally arrived at the Dragon Palace, Princess Otohime was waiting for them. The princess invited Urashima to stay in the Palace as long as he wanted.

Urashima spent some very pleasant days in the company of the princess, eating delicious things and having fun every day. But after a few days he began to worry about his elderly mother, and decided that he wanted to return and be with her. Before he left Princess Otohime gave his a beautiful but mysterious box, and told him that he should never open that box. Taro took the box and climbed into the shell of his turtle friend, who took him back to the beach where they had met. However, although the place is was the same, everything seemed to have changed. Taro couldn’t recognise his village and couldn’t even find his house. Frightened and worried, he asked the first person he found if he knew or had heard about the Urashima family or Urashima Taro. The answer froze him.

-Urashima Taro? I’ve heard of him. He was a fisherman from the village who, more than 100 years ago, went fishing one day and never returned. People said he had drowned

It turns out that time passed differently in the Dragon Palace and in the real world. What in the Dragon Palace had been a few days, had actually been more than a hundred years. Shocked, Urashima Taro sat on the seashore, and almost without realising it, opened the box. Gray smoke began to emerge from inside the box and Urashima’s hair turned the same color. He became an old man.
Urashima Taro

Then a voice came from the box:

-“I told you that you shouldn’t open the box. I had saved your age in it ”

Kaguya, the Princess of the Moon

Legend says that there was a poor old bamboo cutter and her wife that lived in a humble way without much money. One day the old man went to the forest as he always did to cut bamboo and saw that one of the trunks was shining strangely. He cut that trunk very delicately and to his surprise there was a small girl less than 10 centimeters height inside. He took the girl home and explained what happened to his wife. As the couple had no children, they agreed to raise him as their daughter. They decided to call her Kaguya.

The next day when the old man went to the forest again to cut bamboo something extraordinary happened again. Every time he cut a bamboo pole, gold would appear from within the cane. This continued to happen every day, so in a short time the marriage became very rich. At the same time, little Kaguya grew to a normal size and then became a beautiful woman.

The rumors about the extraordinary beauty of the daughter of the bamboo cutter didn’t take long to spread, and with it the suitors began to arrive to marry Kaguya. But Kaguya rejected each and every suitor. Over time, rumors of her beauty reached the ears of the Emperor himself. The Emperor invited Kaguya to court to meet her, but to his surprise she refused, claiming that she would die if she stepped on such a splendid palace. So the Emperor decided to go check the rumors himself. It’s said that he only got to see her a second before she covered her face, but that second was enough for him to fall in love with her. Kaguya became very angry, and told the Emperor that if he saw her again or forced her to marry him she would become a shadow and disappear forever. Some versions of the legend say that the Emperor fell in love and began to write letters to her every day and that Kaguya, who was also in love with the Emperor, answered all the letters.

Months passed and Kaguya started acting strange. She spent her nights staring at the moon with a melancholy expression. Her parents began to worry about her, and Kaguya finally confessed through tears that she was not human, but that she came from the Moon and her time on Earth was running out. That was the reason why she couldn’t marry or fall in love, since the people of the Moon would come for her on the next full moon, for which there was not much time left. Also Kaguya wasn’t a simple inhabitant of the satellite, but she was the princess of the Moon, and some versions say that her parents sent her to Earth to protect her, others say it was some kind of punishment for something she did.

Her parents, desperate because they didn’t want to lose their beloved daughter, went to see the Emperor asking for help. The Emperor, upon hearing the terrible news and without wanting to lose his beloved, sent his army to guard the house of the bamboo cutter day and night and prevent the people of the Moon from taking Kaguya, but it was in vain. One night the clouds covered the Moon, and the army came to take Kaguya. With its blazing light the Moon army paralyzed the Emperor’s army, and they took Kaguya away. When returning to the Moon, Kaguya lost all his memories of his life on Earth. But before that happened, Kaguya said goodbye to her loving parents and left them a letter thanking them for everything they had done for her and explaining that she felt a deep sadness for having to part without them. She also left a letter for the Emperor, along with a small bottle. In the letter he expressed his feelings towards the Emperor and explained the reasons for his rejection, and the bottle contained the Elixir of Life, so that the Emperor could live forever.

However, the heartbroken Emperor didn’t want to live forever if not with his beloved Kaguya. So he ordered his men to climb the highest mountain, light a bonfire and burn Kaguya’s letter along with the Elixir of Life in it, thus hoping that his last message would reach the Moon. The elixir penetrated the bottom of the mountain and burned there forever, turning the mountain into a volcano, which today is known as Mount Fuji (originally it comes from the Japanese word fushi-不死-, which means immortality). The Emperor’s love for Kaguya will burn forever on Mount Fuji.

I hope you have enjoyed these folktales! Did you know any before or do you recognize any from an anime or video game?

If you are interested in more Japanese stories and legends, or other aspects of the culture or mythology of the country, I recommend these articles too!

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Written by

From Barcelona to Tokyo. Coffee & Adventure lover🌏☕️ 

I started to like Japan because of the anime, music and doramas, but after my first trip to the country I found what I love the most: traveling around, the culture and history. I have travelled a lot in Japan, but I still have many places to discover that I want to share with you🙋🏼‍♀️ Let’s discover Japan together!


Also, as a foreigner living in Japan for over 6 years I understand what kind of things are difficult when you move here and I want to help other people in the same situation that I have in the past.