Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country

“It was, with no attempt at covering itself, the naked heart of a woman calling out to her man.” ~p34

Snow Country is a literal translation of the Japanese title Yukiguni (雪国, read ゆきぐに). The name comes from where the story takes place, rural Japan that receives a huge amount of snow in the winter. Snow Country tells a love affair between a dilettante and a country geisha in a Japanese hot-springs resort (onsen), as seen through the eyes of the wealthy man. I’m always intrigued by geisha, so this book was no exception when I found out about it.

It is said the Introduction by the translator Edward G. Seidensticker,

The hot springs, one of which is the locale of Snow Country, also have a peculiarly Japanese significance. The Japanese seldom goes to a hot spring for his health, and he never goes for “the season”, as people once went to Bath or Saratoga. Hey may ski or view maple leaves or cherry blossoms, but his wife is usually not with him. The special delights of the hot spring are for the unacompanied gentleman. No properous hot spring is without its geisha and its compliant hotel maids.

If the hot-spring geisha is not a social outcast, she is perilously near being one. The city geisha may become a celebrated musician or dancer, a political intriguer, even a dispenser of patronage. The hot-spring geisha must go on entertaining week-end guests, and the pretense that she is an artist and not a prostitute is often a thin one indeed. It is true that she sometimes marries an old guest, or persuades him to open a restaurant for her; but the possibility that she will drift from one hot spring to another, more unwanted with each change, makes her a particularly poignant symbol of wasted, decaying beauty.

kawabata yasunari

That is a very important information, because more than half the time, I totally felt like an outsider, didn’t understand a lot of the situations these characters were thrown into. Things are never really explained in the story. It is assumed that you already know about the culture of the rural hot-springs, the country geisha, and their relationship with the guests. Things are implied and suggested, but never told. This is where it lost me. The subtlety is too much. I was never sure what was really going on.

The story is about Shimamura the guest and Komako the country geisha, and there’s another country geisha names Yoko. Shimamura somehow likes Komako and therefore visits the resort a few times. Komako really likes Shimamura, so in my opinion, she’s done a lot of things like a crazy person in love. Never letting him out of sight at the resort, stumbling into his room all the time drunk and mumbling non stop, to name a few. On the side, Shimamura is interested in Yoko too, though never goes far beyond distant observation and occassional conversations. I think there’s a bit of (healthy?) rivalry going on between Komako and Yoko. That’s the summary of the story.

There are a lot of details that I’m confused about. For example, is Komako a prostitute? (I know she’s a geisha, but does she also sleep with people as a service?) Do Komako and Shimamura sleep together? (They sure spend a lot of time in Shimamura’s room, but Komako is always worried about people’s perception of her.) How does a country geisha get hired? In the story, Komako is hired by a family of farmers for 4 years. So she sleeps in their house and works at the hot-spring resort. I’m assuming then that Komako must pay a percentage of her earnings to the family in return for accomodation and food. Does a geisha always have to get hired by somebody? Can’t she just stay at the resort or rent a unit to stay by herself?

Calling this book a love story is a bit far-fetched for me. The male character is the most distant male character ever. He just never shows and tells anything about his feelings. And he has small, if any, reaction to everything that happens around him. In the blurb of the book, it’s said that he’s incapable of love. How frustrating! Having said that, it’s really an interesting situation. The narrator tells a situation in which a geisha falls for him, who he doesn’t have any feelings for but is oddly attracted to. At the end, the book feels like a collection of cold observations. It is somewhat informative, but it probably wouldn’t take you high. There are too many things lost in translation.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Pages: 175
Publication year: 1957

Award
1968 Nobel Prize for Literature (for the author, the first Japanese to have won the prize)

First line
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.

Last line
As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar.

Also reviewed by

Incurable Logophilia | Trish’s Reading Nook | My Years of Reading Seriously | A Striped Armchair | In Spring it is the Dawn

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25 thoughts on “Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata”

  1. I love reading books from other cultures, but there is a fine line between being introduced into the culture, almost by osmisis, and being completely mystified by it. Thanks for the review – I had this as a potential for the Nobel challenge, but I’ll probably cross it off and pick another one instead.

    /Eva – fellow OT-er

    1. Suko: Thanks Suko.

      Eva: Oh I feel kinda bad when my reviews deter anybody from reading a book (unless the book is really horrible!). But what to do. If anything, I guess you could read it just for the sake of experiencing it. You can also read other people’s reviews that I included above. Some of them are very positive.

  2. “Tanizaki wrote clear, rational sentences,” Mr. Seidensticker wrote [in his autobiography Tokyo Central]. “I do not, certainly, wish to suggest that I disapprove of such sentences; but translating them is not very interesting. There was little I felt inclined to ask Tanizaki about.”

    Not so with Kawabata. “Do you not, sensei, find this a rather impenetrable passage?” Mr. Seidensticker recalled asking him, ever so gently, during the translation of “Snow Country.”

    “He would dutifully scrutinize the passage, and answer: ‘Yes,’ ” Mr. Seidensticker wrote. “Nothing more.”

    (From Seidensticker’s obit in the NYT 8/31/07)

    1. That makes sense. I read one of Tanizaki books before and yes you could say that it’s more “straightforward” than Kawabata’s, if each of their books is a good representation of their style. I can understand that it could be more interesting to translate one than the other, but at the end as a reader we (at least I) would like to get the whole experience of a book, not just part of it, because that just leads to frustration and dissatisfaction.

  3. LOL – don’t feel bad – you’re really helping!! I’ll just read another of his books and then it’ll be like we read two! :)

  4. Yea okay that sounds good too lol. I might be interested in reading The Thousand Cranes too, but not anytime soon.

  5. Now, now I think it’s tough to start with “Snow Country”, being not one of his easier work to understand. The first time around, I read only its first chapter before moving to his other work, namely “The Sound of the Mountain” But you will spot on when you mention:” Things are implied and suggested, but never told.” – suggestiveness is one of his strength. It will not be “fun” if everything is explicit. Another thing, “The male character is the most distant male…”, I know what you mean – I think he is the most amoral man. Then again, “Snow Country” is more about a woman’s love, I think.

  6. So which one of his work would you recommend? I agree that Snow Country is more about a woman’s love. What’s frustrating about it is that it is told from the perspective of a man who doesn’t love her! Anyway, the whole book just left me wanting more but I couldn’t get.

  7. I think “The Old Capital” will do just fine, or at least my colleague thinks so too – she absolutely hates “Beauty and Sadness”. The ending is suggested too, no surprise here, but more obvious. Come to think of it, most of Kawabata’s work has no proper ending…but “Thousand Cranes” is pretty eerie…like a Noh play – very much like the modern day “The Ring”, I like to think.

  8. Eerie is interesting. Not that I’ve seen a Noh play before. I’ll keep these titles in mind for later when I have the mood again for subtle book. Thanks!

    ps: To be honest, I’ve been put off by the title “The Old Capital”. It just sounds less interesting than his other titles.

  9. I agree with your take on the whole ‘love story’ thing. And this one definitely felt cold…it didn’t stir up any of my emotions, except for the almost-date-rape scene. Personally, I find it much easier to relate to late-twentieth-century Japanese authors than early-twentieth-century.

  10. True, but for me it’s probably more of the language rather than the characters/setting. Or the way it is written to be exact.

  11. I actually think that the ending of the novel – in which Shimamura is disconcerted and upset by Komako’s physical presence, and then knocked on the head by what was initially a symbol of his aesthetic appreciation (the Milky Way) is a validation, not a negation, of human significance. No coincidence that amongst all that ice and snow, the book ends with the heat of a fire!

  12. Don’t you think it’s a bit too late to have that human significance? In any ways I didn’t catch how Shimamura changed at all in the end. It is probably a good book for literature study, because of all the symbols and subtleties, but I don’t think it has enough to be an entertaining read. I guess I just didn’t really get it.

  13. This is pretty late, but personally, I think his anthology of short stories “Palm of The Hand Stories” is his masterpiece. Somehow feel that his style is more suited for short stories than novels. The stories are really short, longest was around 7-8 pages, shortest is 2, i think. Definitely worth a read, if you can still stomach a Kawabata work.

    1. Edmund, thanks for visiting and for the recommendation. I didn’t know Kawabata wrote short stories. Will keep the title in mind!

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