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Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata – highly recommended

February 5, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1948) French title: Pays de neige. Translated by Bunkichi Fujimori.

Sometimes people ask whether you’d buy a book for its cover. My answer is always yes and Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata is the perfect example of it. I was drawn to the cover, a part of a 1858 painting by Hiroshige entitled Yugasan in Bizan Province. (see below: isn’t it beautiful?)

Snow Country is the improbable love story between Shimamura, a dilletante from Tokyo and Komako, a young geisha from a small watering town in the mountains. (Kawabata doesn’t mention the town’s name in the novel but it’s Yuzawa, in the Niigata prefecture.)

Shimamura is married, has children and comes from old money. He writes articles about ballet and he became obsessed with Western dancing after he got tired of Japanese traditional dances. He’s a dilletante without an actual profession. Shimamura enjoys hiking retreats in the mountains to refuel. This is how he landed in this town, tired but happy and re-energized after a week-long hike.

He’s staying at an inn and asks for a geisha. This will be his first encounter with Komako, who’s not a geisha at the time. Something moves him in her beauty and her attitude.

The second time he comes back is actually the opening scene of the novel. He’s looking forward to seeing Komako again. He’s on the train on his way to the watering town and he observes a young woman taking care of her sick companion in their train carriage. He watches their reflection on the train’s window and it allows him to stare at them without being impolite. They hop off the train at the same station as him and he’ll see them later.

Yugasan in Bizan Province by Hiroshige

He reconnects with Komako, who is now a geisha. She attaches herself to him, and they will spend a lot of time together. Her attitude is not in accordance with the codes of her profession and they try to stay under the town’s radars.

The third time he comes will be the last. Komako is now too attached to him for her own good and their relationship can go nowhere. Shimamura likes her but he’s not in love with her and anyway, he’s married. It’s time to end it.

The story is a traditional love story doomed from the start and details from Komako’s life are revealed in the course of the story. The baseline is not new but the novel is a masterpiece nonetheless, all due to the writing.

The first chapter when Shimamura looks at the young people in the train’s window is truly beautiful. It’s cinematographic and very Proust-like. I can’t help thinking about the scenes on the train in Normandy during the Narrator’s stays in Balbec. Shimamura is entranced by the young girl’s beauty.

The descriptions of the landscapes are poetic and the interaction between the surrounding nature and Shimamura’s moods reminded me of Nature Writing. He comes to this mountain town once in May and spring is in full swing, once in December and it snows and once in the Fall. These three different moments of the year bring a different atmosphere to the town and play on Shimamura’s state of mind.

So, the beauty of the painting on the book cover reflects the beauty of Kawabata’s descriptions. Snow Country also captures a side of a disappearing Japan, as the country turns to Western modernity.

Shimamura lives in Tokyo and is interested in Western culture. After all, he writes about ballet and translates Alain and Paul Valéry. His trips to the mountains are a way to reconnect with himself and with traditional Japan. The old world, before the country opened to the West, still lingers in this remote village. It’s disappearing fast and Komako herself has spent time in Tokyo for her apprenticeship. She’s not a country pumpkin who has never left her hometown. Shimamura and Komako have a connection because he’s eager to go back to traditional Japan and she knows his world too. They meet halfway.

I really don’t know much about Japanese customs and sometimes I think I should read a book like Japanese customs for dummies before diving deeper into Japanese literature. So, curious as I am, I truly enjoyed reading about the geisha world and its organization, the villagers’ life and other customs like traditional dances, the making of Ojiya-chijimi fabric, the way women dress, bath and do their hair. It’s part of Shimamura’s attraction to the place and it’s part of my attraction to Kawabata’s book.

Snow Country is my second Kawabata after Kyôto and I’m afraid I’ve no recollection of Kyôto except that I liked it alright. I should reread it now that I’m older. Snow Country is a classic of Japanese literature and it is understandable as the story is universal and the style stunning.

This is my participation to Doce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge.

  1. Peg
    February 5, 2023 at 4:05 pm

    I will look for Snow Country! I just finished watching a Japanese series on Netflix, set in a geisha house in Kyoto, The Makanai. I was total,y captivated and charmed.


    • February 5, 2023 at 10:01 pm

      Welcome to Book Around the Corner!
      Thanks for the Netflix recommendation. I hope you’ll enjoy Snow Country.


  2. February 5, 2023 at 5:06 pm

    Ooooh, lovely post Emma, and the book sounds quite brilliant. I do have a copy, so I’ll have to see if I can get to it before next January… Alas, my cover image is not so lovely as yours…


    • February 5, 2023 at 10:03 pm

      The Japanese Lit challenge lasts until the end of Februray but you must be busy with the Indie publishers challenge.
      I hope you’ll like Snow Country as much as I did!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. February 5, 2023 at 6:15 pm

    This and The Dancing Girl of Izu are my favourites by Kawabata, his later works get a bit too voyeuristic for my taste.


    • February 5, 2023 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks for the Dancing Girl of Izu recommendation.


  4. February 6, 2023 at 12:16 am

    Lovely review! This was one of the first Japanese novels I read, a few years ago, also for Dolce Bellaza’s challenge; I liked it so much I became hooked on Japanese lit. As you point out, the novel is lovely & poetic and so very atmospheric — I could almost feel the cold, as Shimamura’s train pulled into that station in the snow country.
    I, too, sometimes buy books for their covers! While I like my edition, its cover isn’t a striking as yours.


    • February 6, 2023 at 6:52 am

      Thanks for your message.
      The beginning of the book is beautiful: I was with them on this train, watching the young couple in the window and arriving in this town. The cold is very well described and yes, you can feel the snow, the crisp air and the mountain atmosphere.


  5. February 6, 2023 at 4:37 am

    I read this about 5 years ago and remember it being very melancholy because the man and the geisha were stuck by circumstances: they would never be happy because of that.


    • February 6, 2023 at 6:54 am

      I agree about the melancholic tone.


  6. February 6, 2023 at 10:19 am

    Very nice review. It’s one of the few non-CEE books to have made it on my blog (my cover was less attractive). At the time I wrote that “il ne me reste du roman qu’une impression diffuse et des images parcellaires” but, reading your post, I find that I remember a lot of what you write! Especially the train journey.


    • February 6, 2023 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks. I really liked the pace of this novel, the landscapes and the atmosphere of the village.
      The train journey is a gorgeous moment of the book.

      I was very surprised by the number of geishas for such a small town. Something like 12 or 13.


  7. February 6, 2023 at 4:16 pm

    The premise doesn’t sound very appealing, to be honest, but it does sound beautifully written and told. And I agree, it’s a very beautiful painting, and the cover would have drawn me in too! I enjoyed the Kawabata book I read a couple of years ago, The Sound of the Mountain.


    • February 6, 2023 at 8:51 pm

      I think you’d like it, Andrew.
      Thanks for the recommendation.


  8. February 6, 2023 at 5:01 pm

    Yes, I will buy a book for the beauty of the cover! Your Snow Country is a much better looking cover than mine, which I read some years ago also for Bellezza’s JLC. In case you’re interested, here’s my post on it. Will you be reading The Sound of the Mountain? Kawabata is my favorite Japanese writer. I admit I’m not keen on the contemporary ones, maybe except the mystery novels of Keigo Higashino’s. 🙂


    • February 6, 2023 at 8:56 pm

      According to all the comments, we all tend to buy books for a cover.

      I’ll go and read your review, thanks for the link.
      Thanks for recommending The Sound of the Mountain, Andrew recommends it too. I’ll put it on the virtual TBR.

      I loved the two books by Higashino that I read. (billets on the blog)
      What about Haruki Murakami? On my side, it’s hit or miss. some I loved, some I couldn’t finish.

      I really recommend Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata.


      • February 6, 2023 at 10:06 pm

        I’m afraid against popular opinion, I’m not a fan of HM. Now I just thought of another, although he might not be regarded as a ‘Japanese’ author, but still has Japanese roots and I appreciate his writing: Kazuo Ishiguro, albeit his newest Clara and the Sun is a disappointment for me. I love Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. February 7, 2023 at 6:30 pm

    Your edition of Snow Country is much more lovely than mine! You definitely brought this back to me – it’s the descriptions that I mostly remember and as you say your cover definitely reflects those.


    • February 9, 2023 at 9:19 pm

      It is a beautiful cover, peaceful and lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. February 27, 2023 at 11:19 pm

    This was one I read when I was dipping my toes into the waters of Japanese literature. I didn’t know enough then to understand that Japanese fiction is often enigmatic, so I felt I didn’t fully understand this book. Yet I still found it mesmerising because of the way he creates the atmosphere.


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