In Japan’s hot-spring resorts, the distinction between the geisha and the prostitute is blurred; it depends solely upon the conduct of the particular woman involved. Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country details the love affair between one such hot-spring geisha, a young woman named Komako, and a sophisticated literary man from Tokyo named Shimamura. The novel begins with Shimamura’s early December journey by train from Tokyo to the mountain resort at which he first met Komako the previous spring. It is bitterly cold once the train passes through the tunnel under the Japan Alps connecting the Tokyo side of Honshu with the “snow country” in Niigata Prefecture on the other side. Shimamura amuses himself by watching two of his fellow passengers, a young man obviously suffering some kind of illness and the younger woman who fusses over him during the journey. The girl has the fresh beauty that Shimamura finds attractive. He watches the reflection of her face in the darkened window of the train. “Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.” By contrast, his memory of Komako is not stirred by this kind of visual stimulus. His hand, “and in particular the forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”
This detail recalls the fact that Shimamura and Komako became lovers toward the end of his initial visit to the resort, and it suggests his motive for returning to the same place in December. In conjunction to his attraction to the girl on the train, a young woman named Yoko who is nursing the dying Yukio, Shimamura’s sexual attraction to Komako suggests a fundamental split in his attitude toward women. It also foreshadows the hopelessness of his continuing his relationship with her. Shimamura was attracted to Komako in May because she possessed the innocent freshness he attributes to Yoko. She was not officially a geisha but a music student, and she worked at parties when the inns in the small resort had too many guests. Shimamura tests Komako by asking her to call a real geisha for him—by implication a woman willing to have sexual intercourse with him—and is satisfied by the shy modesty she displays at the request. “With her skin like white porcelain coated over a faint pink, and her throat still girlish, not yet filled out, the impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness, not quite one of real...
(The entire section is 1020 words.)