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.