Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

We had snow last week and the low mountains surrounding the village were a lovely white. Across the lake, the Alps are now boasting their beautiful winter plumage. The temperature has been hovering around zero for the past few weeks and it seemed like the perfect time to settle down with Yasunari Kawabata’s 1950s classic, Snow Country 

Snow Country is set in a mountainous region of Japan, a place of long winters and deep snows, of cold and dark living. A place of tunnels and buried buildings. This setting works to underline the novel’s emotional preoccupation – the bewildering coldness of the human heart, the inevitable decay of beauty and purity. 

The novel takes place at an onsen (hot springs) resort and tells the story of an affair between a wealthy Tokyo man, Shimamura, and a geisha, Komako. Shimamura is incapable of love but drawn again and again to leave his family and visit Komako in the mountains. His rare visits and the life she must lead during his absences drain Komako of her innocence and ultimately her beauty.   

Kawabata’s feel for the lonely aesthetic of the snow country is just tremendous: 

The color of evening had already fallen on the mountain valley, early buried in shadows. Out of the dusk the distant mountains, still reflecting the light of the evening sun, seemed to have come much nearer. 

Presently, as the mountain chasms were far and near, high and low, the shadows in them began to deepen, and the sky was red over the snowy mountains, bathed now in but a wan light. 

Cedar groves stood out darkly by the river bank, at the ski ground, around the shrine. 

Like a warm light, Komako poured in on the empty wretchedness that had assailed Shimamura. 

I have written before about Tanizaki Junichiro’s essay, In Praise of Shadows. In it, Tanizaki lays out some of the principles of Japanese aesthetics – mainly, this idea of beauty in shadows. That art is rendered more beautiful through the darkness created at the borders of light.

Kawabata echoes this theory in Snow Country. The ultimate and inevitable failure of Shimamura and Komako’s affair is that unsettling but beautiful darkness hovering at the edge of what Kawabata chooses to illuminate: the warmth and steam from the hot springs, the crimson stain of hand-made Chijimi linen laid out on the snow and bleaching in the sun, the shimmery radiance of the Milky Way over the buried town.

12 Responses to “Yasunari Kawabata – Snow Country”

  1. Ann Darnton

    Following my ignominious failure with French literature a number of people have suggested that I look at some Japanese writing and this does sound interesting. I also think the Junichiro essay would be a useful adjunct. Where is it to be found? I have a Japanese PhD student at the moment, so I must ask her advice about other writers.

  2. Amateur Reader

    Very intersting. I know some people are intimidated by Kawabata because his stories have so little incident. Your description should help a reader focus on what’s really there.

  3. Stefanie

    Oh this sounds wonderful! I always think that reading about snow and cold in the winter would make me cold, but it sounds like it adds to the feeling of the book. I don’t think I will get to this book this winter, but maybe next winter.

  4. Dew

    I once had a Japanese exchange student stay with me, and I was so surprised when he said it snowed where he was from. I hadn’t realized any parts of Japan were snowy!

  5. verbivore

    Ann – The Tanizaki essay should be pretty easy to find. It was published in a book format translation in 1977 so most libraries should have it. I know that Amazon has it as well. You might enjoy his collection Seven Japanese Tales. It is one of my favorites, very dark and sensual.

    Amateur Reader – That is interesting, I hadn’t thought of his work like that. As I mentioned in my comment to Ann, his Seven Japanese Tales is one of my favorite collections…I hadn’t thought about there not being much ‘story’ to them per se, as they tend to be overflowing with mood or style.

    Stefanie – It was lovely reading this book when outside the house was very similar and it definitely added to the feel of the book.

    Dewey – That’s funny. Yes, Japan gets snow almost everywhere…even in the south in the winter they get snow. Less obviously than in Hokkaido but enough to feel like a real winter!

  6. Dorothy W.

    I read this book a while ago and remember it being very beautiful, although I didn’t remember the details — so thanks for reminding me! I read the In Praise of Shadows essay too and found it fascinating. I should read more in Japanese literature!

  7. Logophile

    This sounds so good. I think I’m going to add Seven Japanese Tales to my reading list, as dark and sensual stories are right up my street. I’ve really only read contemporary Japanese fiction, so would really like to add some depth to my knowledge!

  8. verbivore

    Dorothy – I really love In Praise of Shadows. Some of what he says is a little dated but otherwise it is just so beautiful. I would like to read more Kawabata now.

    Logophile – I’d love to know what you think of Seven Japanese Tales! And I need to do the reverse and up my time spent with contemporary Japanese fiction 🙂

  9. litlove

    You write about this book so beautifully, verbivore! I am definitely being tempted towards reading something Japanese. Your descriptions are every bit as lovely as the quotation you include from the novel!

  10. verbivore

    Litlove – thank you! I think you would enjoy the subtlety and restraint in a lot of Japanese literature – I’d love to hear your thoughts if you ever get your hands on one of these lovely books.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: