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Snow Country

by Andrew Lee

Winter, when mornings are crisp, puddles frozen and the promise of snow floats in the air; it’s the perfect season to crack open “Snow Country” and let its well-known opening line — “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country” — transport you into Yasunari Kawabata’s poetic tale of romance in Japan’s remote wintry mountains.

Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata.
Penguin Modern Classics, Fiction.

Though, be warned, while “Snow Country” is often called a love story — between an onsen (hot spring) geisha and a rich Tokyoite — for Western readers the “love” involved may, at times, seem as frosty as the novel’s setting.

Shimamura visits an onsen resort to reacquaint himself with Komako, a geisha he had fallen for on an earlier trip. On the train he becomes entranced by another girl, Yoko, and in time learns that the lives of the two women are irrecoverably intertwined in tragedy.

Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, uses short haikulike descriptions of life in the onsen town, punctuated with the lively dialog between Shimamura and the feisty Komako, to create a beautiful, emotionally rich atmosphere that draws readers into the mysterious relationships that existed between geisha and client in Japan-gone-by. Komako’s drunken visits to Shimamura’s room, especially, reveal Kawabata’s delicate understanding of just how heartbreaking it must have been for women such as her — to know that any love affair they have with a customer is doomed.

Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.