Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Komako is the main character in the book Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, first published in 1947 and translated by Eward Seidensticker. We see her only through the point of view of Shimamura, who has come from Tokyo to spend time at a hot springs resort in Komako’s village. Shimamura, a critic of the Western ballet though he has never seen one, is surprised by Komako’s freshness. “It seemed to Shimamura that she must be clean to the hollows under her toes.” She is not a geisha at this time, though she has trained as one. She is just 19.

Nozawa Mountain Shrine, Japan
Shimamura makes several visits to the hot spring resort at different seasons, drawn to Komako. She keeps a diary and studies the samisen, a guitar-like musical instrument having a long neck and three strings, from sheet music as there is no one to teach her. When Komako first plays for him, Shimamura is transported. “The notes went out crystalline into the clean winter morning, to sound on the far, snowy peaks.” He cannot believe she is as good as she sounds, that practicing alone has led her to take on this special power. He feels that her playing, indeed her life, is wasted in this remote mountain village.

Komako falls in love with Shimamura. He is someone who can see who she is. By his second visit, she has become a mountain geisha, making money by spending time with resort guests, serving and entertaining them. But she leaves her parties and comes to his room at the hotel again and again at odd hours of the night, often drunk. At first she tries to hide her attraction to this guest, but later gives up. She has her clothes, her samisen brought to the hotel. She and Shimamura bathe together, intimate and domesticated.

Shimamura is entranced by the “strange magical wildness” of this young woman. A sensualist, none of the beauty of the seasons is lost on him. But other than being a connoisseur, he has little life of his own. Komako takes him to her rooms, first a room in which silkworms have been kept, later a room over a candy shop. She explains her geisha contracts, tells him everything. She is connected to the village, to the music teacher and her son, who both die, and to Yoko, whom she feels is her burden. Shimamura falls into the habit of waiting for Komako’s frequent visits, but in the end it becomes clear to Shimamura that he must leave, that Komako belongs to her village, that she will go, as she says, “pleasantly to seed in the mountains.”

The utter strangeness of the world I first encountered in Snow Country has become for me now familiar. Having read it many times, I am always moved by the intimacy of these two very different people, as well as by the startling drama of the natural world Kawabata describes. “High up the mountain, the kaya grass spread out silver in the sun, like the autumn sunlight itself pouring over the face of the mountain. Ah, I am here, something in Shimamura called out as he looked up at it.”

Komako’s passion for Shimamura is expressed very delicately, but clearly. She is delighted to find someone with whom she can share the details of her life, which she has only been able to share with her diary. Komako is a gifted young woman who works for her living in a beautiful village along the west coast of Japan. “Her cheeks still carried the ruddiness of her north-country childhood. In the moonlight the fine geisha-like skin took on the luster of a sea shell.” Because he comes from the city, Shimamura sees Komako as entirely of her place, her home. It is how I see her too. I feel the utter honesty of Snow Country and love what I am able to see of Komako. It has enlarged my concept of who I can be, a woman for whom nature is enough.

Note to Readers: Before I was thirty I had set up a canon of “five books” which were to be my education. The women in each of the books excited me as much as the intellectual adventures detailed in them. One of the five books was Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. After meditating on these books for almost fifteen years, I wrote an essay called “Stone Books: An Education,” 1990. In it, it is easy to see the preoccupations of the five books reflecting off one another. Since it is too long to post in a blog (nine pages), I offer it to anyone who would like to see it in a .pdf format. Email me at lightlyheldbooks at gmail dot com to request it.

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