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 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,...
(The entire section is 1,930 words.)