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

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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