Shimamura, a writer who lives in Tokyo with his wife and children, is on a train headed to a hot-springs spa in a mountainous area of northwest Japan, an area known for its heavy snows. Shimamura speculates about the nature of the relationship between an ill man and a girl seated across the aisle from him and becomes fascinated by the girl’s image reflected in the mirrorlike window of the train. He sees her disembodied face against the background of the mountains and has a vision of her eye floating beautifully and transparently over the passing landscape of the mountains.
The girl and the man get off at the same stop as Shimamura, where a woman in a blue cape is waiting. Shimamura asks the stationmaster whether Komako, the girl who had lived with a music teacher and whom he had met the previous spring, is still in the area. The stationmaster informs him that the woman in the blue cape is the same girl he is trying to find. Shimamura checks in at the inn, a resort popular with visiting tourists. After his nightly bath he is startled to see Komako standing at the end of the corridor. They go to his room.
Shimamura remembers the first time he visited the inn and his first meeting with Komako: After returning to the inn after seven days of hiking in the mountains, he requests a geisha. No geishas are available, however, because of a celebration going on that evening. The maid suggests calling the girl who lives at the music teacher’s house. The girl, Komako, is not a geisha, but she fills in when necessary to help at large parties.
Shimamura is struck by Komako’s youth and purity. They talk at length, and he begins to feel uncomfortable asking for anything other than her friendship. He asks her to suggest the name of another geisha. After much hesitation, Komako sends for another girl, whom Shimamura finds distasteful and sends home. After the geisha leaves, Shimamura takes a short walk to the Shinto shrine near the inn, where he again briefly meets Komako, who has been watching him; he realizes that he is attracted to her. Later that evening, Komako bursts into Shimamura’s room, drunk from a party at the inn. They make love, and she leaves early in the morning to avoid detection. Shimamura returns to Tokyo the same day.
Komako is now a geisha in snow country. She tells Shimamura that she has kept a diary of the events of her life. They again make love, and Komako leaves at daylight.
As Shimamura walks around the village the next day, he comes upon a group of geishas, including Komako. He walks by, but is followed by Komako, who takes him to her home and shows him her room. Yukio, the ill man Shimamura had seen on the train, lives there as well; he is the son of the music teacher and is coming home to die from tuberculosis. Shimamura also sees the girl—Yoko—from the train and is struck by her voice and appearance. Later that day he hires a masseuse, who tells him that Yukio is Komako’s fiancé and that Komako has become a geisha to pay his medical bills. Komako later refutes this. Shimamura and Komako again make love that evening.
The next day, Shimamura asks Komako to play the samisen, a traditional stringed instrument. Shimamura stays at the inn for a number of days, and their affair continues. Shimamura decides to leave, and Komako accompanies him to the station. While they are waiting for the train, Yoko...
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informs Komako that Yukio is dying and has asked for her. Komako refuses to leave until she sees Shimamura off on the train. Shimamura leaves on the train, back home to Tokyo, disconcerted by his experience in the mountains.
Several months later, Shimamura again visits Komako. It is now fall, and the countryside is alive with insects, ripening grass, and fall foliage. Komako chastises Shimamura for not visiting her as promised last February. She informs him that Yukio and the music teacher are both dead, and that she is now living under contract as a geisha with a family in the village. She also tells him about Yoko, who is now working at the inn and who spends much of her time visiting the grave of Yukio. Shimamura continues to be confused and perplexed by Komako and puzzled over the relationship between her and Yoko, who appear to harbor hostile feelings for one another. Komako visits Shimamura at odd hours, often drunk as a result of the parties she attends as a geisha. In a random meeting, Yoko asks Shimamura to be good to Komako, and then asks him to help her move to Tokyo. He asks her about her dislike of Komako, and Yoko tells him that Komako fears that Yoko will go crazy.
Shimamura escapes from the village for a daylong outing to two neighboring villages in an area of the mountains known for its weaving of the prized Chijimi grass-linen. Young, unmarried women spend the entire snowed-in winter season producing the fabric. Shimamura makes a direct analogy between the fabric and Komako.
As Shimamura returns by taxi to the hot spring, he passes a group of geishas standing in the doorway of a restaurant. Among them is Komako, who desperately jumps onto the running board of the taxi as he goes by. She resents his leaving without her. Next, they all hear an alarm, alerting them of a fire in the cocoon warehouse in the village below. This old building, formerly used to store silkworm cocoons, is the site for a film screening for the community. The film has caught fire, and the building is ablaze. Shimamura is obsessed with the engulfing image of the Milky Way above his head. Yoko leaps from the balcony of the warehouse; Komako screams and rushes to carry the body of Yoko away from the fire.
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” Through the opening line of Snow Country, the central character, Shimamura, and the reader are transported back in time. The snow country of the novel has only recently been linked to modern Japan by the railroad. Indeed, as Shimamura notes as he returns to Tokyo after his second visit, “the train . . . was not from the same world as the trains one finds on the main lines.”
Shimamura’s world, represented by Tokyo, is a world being invaded by Western influences in architecture and lifestyles. The world on the other side of the mountains from Tokyo is a world of rice harvests, winter carnivals, houses built in the style of the old regime, and Chijimi linen that can be traced back to antiquity. Clearly, when Shimamura travels to the snow country, he is leaving behind the decadence of modern Japan and returning to a Japan of the past, a Japan that values simplicity and purity. Shimamura himself acknowledges that he must return to the mountains to regain some of the honesty that is lost by living in Tokyo. Despite his professed desire for honesty, however, Shimamura is more concerned with illusion than with reality. In the opening section of the novel, he views Yoko through her reflection in the mirrorlike window of the train car, but what he sees is an image “floating” in the glass, not Yoko herself.
Shimamura’s fascination with occidental ballet is also representative of his desire to maintain a distance between reality and illusion, as if closeness to a dream destroys the dream. In fact, that is exactly what has happened to him with his earlier fascination with the dance-drama of Kabuki theater. As he researched and studied Kabuki dance and became acquainted with individual dancers, he became dissatisfied with the object of his obsession and turned his attentions to ballet. In this new study, he is determined to maintain the distance between illusion and reality by never watching a ballet performance. He will content himself with studying ballet through books and photographs, assuring that the new dream cannot be destroyed.
Shimamura’s relationship with Komako is also built around the pursuit of a dream, a spiritual relationship with a woman. This dream is nearly realized during their first meeting, related through a flashback as Shimamura is traveling toward a second meeting in the mountains. Shimamura and Komako’s first meeting is in the spring, a time of hope and promise. When Shimamura first meets Komako, he is attracted to her physically, but he moves quickly to separate her in his mind from a woman to be used for physical pleasure. He sees a purity in her that creates a feeling of revulsion for his physical desires. Komako also recognizes that they may be on the verge of something pure and magical and points out to him that relationships between men and women last longer if they remain “just friends.” Physical desire (aided by some sake) overpowers the couple’s good intentions, however, and the possibility of a purely spiritual relationship is destroyed. The remaining sections of the novel center around Komako’s “fall from grace” and Shimamura’s interest in the “unspoiled” Yoko.
Shimamura’s second visit to the mountain village begins with an air of optimism, for while he has been away from Komako, he has felt closer to her and hopes to recapture something from their first encounter. Once again, he is attracted more to possibilities than to realities. The openness of that first meeting, however, cannot be recaptured; it has been destroyed by the physical relationship. This meeting takes place in the winter, symbolizing the arrested state of their relationship.
Komako is presented in a different light during the second meeting. She is no longer the young woman whom Shimamura met six months earlier; she is now a geisha in the full sense of the word. Nevertheless, Shimamura still finds a purity in her because she has become a geisha to help pay the medical bills of her former fiancé, who is dying, and to avoid being trapped in a loveless marriage to an old man who has proposed to her. Komako, however, recognizes that there is no longer the possibility for anything but a sexual relationship between Shimamura and herself. Consequently, she drinks heavily when she is engaged to attend parties in her role as a geisha.
When Shimamura returns to the snow country for his third visit, it is autumn, a foreshadowing of the end of the relationship. During the third visit, Komako is drinking even more heavily and strikes out verbally against Yoko, telling Shimamura that the younger girl is insane. Komako is aware of Shimamura’s attraction to Yoko and the possibility of pure love that the younger girl represents.
Yoko, ironically, is the character who comes closest to realizing the dream of a pure, asexual love. Yoko served as a nurse for Komako’s former fiancé and has spent every day since his death tending his grave. Now she tells Shimamura she is ready to go to Tokyo; she knows she will never love another man in the same way. She has captured the purity of love that Shimamura and Komako had been seeking. Her apparent death at the end of the novel ensures that there will be no other men in her life.
The novel ends, characteristically for Kawabata, with nothing resolved for the main characters. It is not even certain that Yoko has died from her leap off the burning warehouse.