“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.”
Few opening lines in the canon of domestic literature match that of Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country” in terms of fame. Pretty much every Japanese person knows it by heart having memorized it in high school, despite not being able to recount the plot.
“Snow Country” is set in the mountains of Niigata, near Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen, today an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo but a much longer journey in 1935, when the novel was written. In it we follow married ballet critic Shimamura, torn in a love triangle between a geisha (Komako) and a shamisen teacher (Yoko). At that time Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen was just a hot-spring resort, but today it also houses the biggest ski resort accessible for daytrips from the capital.
As I gaze out the window of the bullet train, overlooking the green fields of Gunma Prefecture in late December, my expectations are surprisingly low. Not just because it isn’t snowing, but also as I imagine the place a mere shadow of what it looked like in Kawabata’s days. The ryokan (traditional inn) where he wrote his masterpiece still stands, and that is where I’ve arranged my lodging for the night. If nothing else, I will at least be able to spiritually share a pillow with the old Nobel Prize laureate.
The train enters a tunnel that doesn’t seem to end and I imagine this must be the very tunnel Kawabata was writing about. Finally there is light and … everything is white. I’m not making this up, but I have to look all around the shinkansen car to assure myself I haven’t been slung through some kind of time portal. Everything seems in order, and on the other side of the mountains lies, indeed, snow country.
There is a meteorological explanation to what I’m seeing: the wind from the Sea of Japan, carries moisture that precipitates just north of the mountains, where the wind stops. Snow levels of about 5 meters are not uncommon, causing villages to often become isolated from each other, with snowfall rates in the prefecture among the highest in the world. This, of course, was problematic in Kawabata’s days, but also helped create a unique, almost dreamlike landscape.
The train finally stops and several skiers get off in full gear. Gala Yuzawa, located in the town of Echigo Yuzawa, offers 17 slopes and 11 lifts, of which one — a gondola — carries skiers directly from the train station to the top of the slopes.
But I’m not here to ski, and instead set off along the main street past a myriad of souvenir and ski-gear shops, searching for the Takahan ryokan. It’s located on top of a hill on the edge of town, and as I accidentally pass the road leading up to it, a car stops in front of me and an elderly man pops his head out the window. “Asenlund-san?” I answer in the affirmative and as the door opens climb inside and ride along to the top of hill where Takahan overlooks the town below. The man apologizes for not having spotted me earlier, although I neither ordered a ride nor told them what I look like. I’m starting to understand already why Kawabata loved this inn.
That realization is enhanced as I stroll through the spectacular interiors, which are not too luxurious but have the cozy atmosphere of a Swiss alpine house — with a very strong Japanese touch, of course. Kawabata’s room is untouched, now functioning as a museum, and in another room a movie screen constantly projects the 1957 movie adaptation of “Snow Country.”
After checking in at my own room I enjoy the sunset over a cup of matcha (fine powder green tea) before it’s time to step into the bath — not the snow-sprinkled rotenburo (open-air bath) I had dreamed of but a cushy arrangement nevertheless. Soaking in the hot water, I look at the town through the panoramic windows. I squint, trying to visualize what it looked like in 1935. I soon spot a woman in kimono, moving swiftly in the snow but she disappears just as fast. Komako?
Now dressed in a cotton robe myself, I consume a wonderful dinner of sashimi, tempura, nimono (simmered vegetables) and pretty much everything else you can expect from a respectable ryokan, before stopping at the Kawabata Museum on the way back to my room. Besides a plethora of “Snow Country” editions in different languages filling up the bookshelves, a couple of interesting photographs decorate the wall. One is of Kawabata himself by the entrance of Takahan, next to eminent American translator Edward Seidensticker, who translated “Snow Country” and accompanied Kawabata to Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize. Another one, perhaps more interesting, depicts the real-life local geisha Kawabata befriended and based Komako upon. I find myself unable to let go of it, her eyes captivating me the way they probably captivated Kawabata.
While I was having dinner a maid has prepared my futon, but I am not yet ready to sleep. What if it actually was Komako out there, plowing in the snow? I get changed, put on a warm jacket and slowly walk down the hill toward town.
My first stop is a Western-style bar near the train station. The owner is friendly and asks if I work here as a ski teacher. Apparently there are many Europeans that do. When I tell him I’m here to walk in Kawabata’s footsteps he bursts out in a jolly laughter. I ask if there are still geishas around from the old days and he suggests asking at some of the more traditional drinking establishments in town (there are plenty). I thank him and scurry out in the winter night, now decorated with a heavy snowfall.
But the hour is late and the watering holes seem to close earlier here than in the capital. I discover a “snack” (small hostess bar) just about to close for the night and approach the hostess who has just locked it up, ready to leave. I tell her about my quest and she says that there is actually one geisha left in town, and that I can interview her if I want. She is old now, past 80, but Kazumi (the hostess) promises to call her tomorrow and check. I give her my number before she steps into a car, tires wrapped in heavy chains, and drives home.
The next morning starts with another delicious meal at Takahan and continues with a phone call. It’s Kazumi, informing me that the geisha is available for an interview but sadly not today. What’s more, she will be charging a fee. Having expected something like this I am not disappointed, but Kazumi seems genuinely sorry and offers to take me on a different kind of nostalgia hunt — a visit to the town’s Showa Museum. “I’ll pick you up outside Takahan in 10,” she says and hangs up the phone.
Twenty minutes later, we step inside Yuzawa Natsukashii Takarakan (Yuzawa’s Nostalgic Treasure Chamber), which really lives up to its name. Despite being born in 1981 — or perhaps just because of it — my eyes widen like a child’s at Christmas by tons of shelves and walls filled with 1950s, ’60s and ’70s retro: candy, toys, records, electronics and, of course, hundreds of posters of the hottest idols in Japanese showbiz at the time. Among them a photograph of Austrian ski ace cum actor Toni Sailer on the slopes during his visit in 1959. I study it carefully before assuming a seiza (sitting in a kneeling position) stance in front of a black-and-white TV in a living room.
I thank Kazumi for the tour, but she isn’t done with me yet. As I had told her, my ryokan didn’t have an open-air bath, she takes me to the nearest onsen that has. And as the skies have yet again opened up, the timing couldn’t be better. Thirty minutes later I’m sweating in the bath, snowflakes in the hundreds touching down and melting on my forehead. Night is approaching and so is my journey back to Tokyo, but I don’t want to leave just yet. So Kazumi takes me to the final stop of her mini-tour — sake museum Ponshukan, which is located inside the train station. For the modest fee of ¥500, you can sample five flavors of sake out of 100 or so to choose from. If you feel so inclined, you can take a sake bath for ¥800. Already feeling clean, I focus on drinking my sake. Ten cups now, as Kazumi has convinced me of testing more flavors. They all taste about the same shade of fantastic.
I thank Kazumi yet again for all her help and step aboard the train — more than a little tipsy. Fifteen minutes later it thunders through the long tunnel and we are back in Gunma. I look at its fields of green and wonder if snow country wasn’t just a dream, after all.
Information: A night at the Takahan ryokan starts at ¥9,000, including dinner and breakfast. Traveling by shinkansen from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa takes 75 minutes and costs ¥6,500 one way. The Gala Yuzawa ski resort opens mid-December and closes early May. A one-day ski pass costs ¥4,500. JR offers a package where ¥12,800 gives you a shinkansen return trip, a one-day ski pass and a 20 percent discount on ski gear rentals.