The Significance of the Setting in ‘Snow Country’

In Yasunari Kawabata’s novella Snow Country, a husband and father named Shimamura vacations at a hot spring to search for an affair. He meets Komako, a geisha at the hot spring, and they begin a romance together. Shimamura visits all of three times in various seasons to rendezvous with Komako, but eventually, their love runs out. Kawabata uses setting to reflect Komako and Shimamura’s relationship, starting with the blossoming of their love in spring, the peak of their romance in winter, and ending with its death in autumn.

When Shimamura first meets Komako in May by calling for a geisha, he has no immediate attraction to her. He describes her as clean – his version of calling her plain. He begins to talk to her, and he sees their relationship as “friendship more than anything else that he felt for the woman” (19). This is the beginning of their relationship. Shimamura begins by wanting to be friends with Komako, but not long after this, he sleeps with her for the first time. Before then, though, he asks her to call for a geisha for him, and she is offended. He defends himself by basically saying that he just wants female companionship, and that it is meaningless. She tells him how rude it is of him to ask her to call him a different geisha, and Kawabata describes this interaction as “scorn in her voice, and yet an affection of quite a new sort flowed between them” (31-32). Their relationship is beginning to blossom, like that of the cherry blossoms in a Japanese spring. They are beginning to care for each other, but like nature, it will not last for very long. They talk for a while, and then by nightfall, they are sleeping together, thus the blossom of their relationship. Spring is known as fresh beginning, like Shimamura and Komako’s romance. It grows even further during the winter.

Winter is known as a time for romance. Holidays for love and family are almost all in winter. Christmas and New Year’s is in winter, but so is Valentine’s Day, the day of romance. It only makes sense that Shimamura and Komako fall deeper in love during Shimamura’s second visit in the winter. The morning after their first night spent together that visit, Shimamura studies Komako’s beauty, stating that “[t]he white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and floating in the middle of it were the woman’s bright red cheeks. There was an indescribably fresh beauty in the contrast” (48). The imagery of snow and Komako’s cheeks show their romance growing. It is in the winter that he finds Komako most beautiful. Later, Komako invites him to her home, and she plays music for him. Shimamura is enchanted, and there “was nothing for him to do but give himself up to the current, to the pleasure of being swept off wherever Komako would take him” (71). He truly is falling in love with her, at least for that moment. While he is at the hot springs, his time is consumed by her. By the end of the song, he decides that he loves her, and that she loves him too. He states that “he was annoyed with himself for the thought” (72). They both know that their relationship will not last, and Shimamura is annoyed because he knows he has a wife and children to return to soon. Like snow, his love for her will soon melt away.

Shimamura’s third visit in August of the following year is where their relationship dies out like leaves on trees. Komako tells him a story of another geisha from the hot springs named Kikuyu. Kikuyu fell in love with a man, only to be left by him. Their conversation, although about Kikuyu, mirrors their own relationship: “‘Kikuyu was weak. A weakling.’ ‘Maybe there was nothing else she could do.’ ‘But isn’t it so? You can’t go losing your head over every man that likes you” (98). On the outside, they are talking about a different woman, but on the inside, it is their relationship they are reflecting on. This is the beginning of the death of their romance. Throughout the rest of the novel, Komako’s visits become less and less important to read, so Kawabata only mentions her brief visits to Shimamura: “She of course stopped by too on her way to the bath. When she was to go to a party, she came an hour or so early and waiting in his room for the maid to call her. Often she would slip away from the party for a few minutes. After retouching her face in the mirror, she would stand up to leave” (128). Their affair is practically over. Komako comes often, but her visits are no longer special. By the end of the novel, they know that their relationship is doomed, and Shimamura looks up at the stars as an indication of his giving up. Their relationship is dead, just like the trees in autumn.

Setting, specifically the changing of seasons, is used to show the short lifespan of Komako and Shimamura’s relationship, beginning at the rebirth of nature in spring and ending with its death in autumn. When reading the novel from a basic standpoint, the changing of seasons can be seen as merely just a passing of time, but it is evident in the way their relationship progresses and falls during the changing of seasons that it is so much more than that.

Kawabata and Culture in ‘Thousand Cranes,’ ‘Snow Country,’ and ‘Beauty and Sadness’

Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese author who ties his culture in with his novel, though not necessarily to add to the story. In Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata uses the tea ceremony as an undertone for the theme of going against tradition when it comes to the main character, Kikuji. Kawabata uses the setting of a Japanese hot spring as well as geishas as a part of Snow Country to show the doomed love between Shimamura and Komako. In Beauty and Sadness, Kawabata uses Japanese literature and arts as a part of the long lost love between Otoko and Oki. All three of these novels use the culture he grew up in to either support a theme or add a traditional background to a non-traditional story.

In Thousand Cranes, Kawabata has the common tea ceremony tradition in the background of this novel. Tea ceremony is an activity many Japanese people take part in, dating back to ancient times. There are many steps to participating and many pieces to a tea ceremony, all needing to be meticulously used. Kawabata used the tea ceremony to contrast the breaking of tradition in the novel. The main character, Kikuji, falls in love with his deceased father’s former lover, Mrs Ota. They first meet at a tea ceremony where he is meant to be set up with another woman appropriate for his age, but he finds himself intrigued by Mrs Ota’s relationship with his father: “Kikuji remembered the tea bowl Chikako had placed before the girl. It had indeed belonged to his father, and his father had received it from Mrs. Ota” (Thousand Cranes 18). His father collected items for tea ceremonies, and since Mrs. Ota was his lover, it was not surprising that she had gifted him items to add to his collection. They would later be given to tea master Chikako following Kikuji’s father’s death. Later, he falls in love with Mrs Ota. Riddled with guilt, she kills herself, and Kikuji quickly falls in love his Mrs Ota’s daughter, Fumiko. Close to the end of the novel, Fumiko goes to visit Kikuji at his home, and together they search for his father’s favorite tea bowl. Fumiko places her mother’s favorite tea bowl next to Kikuji’s father’s, and they discovered that they were matching — husband and wife tea bowls. This reminds them both of their parents: “Seeing his father and Fumiko’s mother in the bowls, Kikuji felt that they had raised two beautiful ghosts and placed them side by side” (Thousand Cranes 140). Fumiko and Kikuji’s love story ended very similar to their parents’. Doomed from the start, their parents have an affair, knowing that it is as far as they can go in a relationship. The same can be said for Fumiko and Kikuji, where Fumiko kills herself over guilt and grief before they could even truly start a relationship. Like tradition, the tea bowls still last, unlike the love between Kikuji and Fumiko, or Kikuji and Mrs Ota.

Snow Country also ties Japanese culture in with the plot. The story is set in a hot spring town, where the main character Shimamura, a married man, meets a geisha named Komako. During Kawabata’s time, hot spring geishas were considered prostitutes. Geisha are typically hostesses who are meant to provide entertainment, but in hot springs (called onsens by the Japanese), they were meant to provide sexual pleasure. Geisha are easily noticeable for their appearance, plastering their face and neck in white, and accenting their cheeks and lips with a stark red. Kawabata uses this imagery in Snow Country when Shimamura describes Komako, saying that “[t]he white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and floating in the middle of it were the woman’s bright red cheeks. There was an indescribably fresh beauty in the contrast” (Snow Country 48). Shimamura compares Komako to the snow in the hot spring town, the white symbolizing the purity of a woman, and adds the accented red to show that she is, in fact, a hot spring geisha, tainted with the love of other men who pay for her company. Nevertheless, Shimamura and Komako fall in love, but they are well aware that their love will not last. Shimamura calls it “‘An affair of the moment, no more. Nothing beautiful about it. You know that – it couldn’t last’” (Snow Country 22). Shimamura is married, and Komako does not live a respectable lifestyle, so they would never be able to last. The setting of the hot spring and the circumstance of Komako being a geisha support Kawabata’s constant theme of doomed love.

Beauty and Sadness is about a man named Otoko who reconciles with his young lover Oki. Both of them use their art forms as an expression of the love they had over a decade ago. Otoko is an author that was likely apart of the World War II era of writing, similar to Kawabata. Otoko wrote a novel called A Girl of Sixteen, which is about the love affair he had with Oki. It was his best-selling novel, and during the time period he likely wrote in, it made sense: “[o]f all his novels, the one that had had the longest life, and was still widely read, was the one that told the story of his love affair with her” (Beauty and Sadness 350). Like Kawabata, Otoko pushes the bounds of Japanese tradition by writing about an affair a thirty year old man had with a sixteen year old girl. Meanwhile, Oki, his former lover, became a very well known painter, and along with the assumption that Otoko was an author of the World War II era, it can be assumed that Oki is a painter of the same era. She paints in both Japanese and western style, dating her art to around the Pre-War era. From Oki and Otoko’s affair years ago, Oki had fallen pregnant, but the pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage that sent Oki into a frantic depression. During the time Beauty and Sadness is set, Oki is now trying to capture the feelings of her lost baby in a painting, with Kawabata explaining that “[s]he searched through albums of Western art for pictures of cherubs and of the Christ child…[t]here were several famous old Japanese paintings of Saint Kobo a a boy” (Beauty and Sadness 732). Otoko used his writing skill to compose his best novel about his darkest secret and deepest feeling, and Oki used her art to capture the feeling of love she had for Otoko and the baby she was supposed to have as well as the tragedy of her miscarriage and their affair not lasting.

All three novels — Thousand Cranes, Snow Country, and Beauty and Sadness — tie in the culture that Yasunari Kawabata grew up learning and living. He used his experience as a Japanese man to write fiction novels about tragic love. He wrote about themes that were risque at his time, like going against Japanese tradition, affairs, and prostitution. In the mid-1940s, his pieces were revolutionary to Japanese literature.