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Fiction, Reflection

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. he takes the train through the snow to the mountains of the west coast of Japan to meet with a geisha he believes he loves. Beautiful and innocent, Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura. Shimamura soon found out that things are not as simple as it seems, as he remembers the stare of Yuko, a girl who tend to an unwell man in the train station, this girl also turns out to be a helper of Komako.

Every review that is said about the book I agree with them. The prose is sparse, haiku like, which is the reason why I could finish the book within 2 hours. A lot left untold, gaps that need to be filled by minds who understand the subtlety and the unsaid about Japanese culture (I think I did quite well in this department, for this book). The beauty of the snow mountains and countryside are describes vividly and beautifully. The romance was doomed to fail from the start and the blurb in certain edition implies that Komako is incapable of love, but I thought his arduous journey into the heart of the snow country was some sort of a testimonial to his faithfulness?

In this snow country, cold, cloudy days succeed one another as the leaves fall and the winds grow chilly. Snow is in the air. The high mountains near and far become white in what the people of the country call ‘the round of the peaks.’ Along the coast the sea roars, and inland the mountain roar – ‘ the roaring at the center,’ like a distant clap of thunder. The round of the peaks and the roaring at the center announce that the snows are bit far away.

Onsen geisha Matsuei, the actual person upon whom Kawabata based the character Komako in the novel.

More related to reading and cataloguing, Kamako recalled a time when she found a diary and she began to keep a journal.

Even more than at the diary, Shimamura was surprised at her statement that she had carefully catalogued every novel and short story she had read since she was 15 or  16. The record already filled ten notebooks.

‘You write down your criticisms, do you?’

‘I could never do anything like that.  I just write down the author and the characters and how they are related to each other. That us about all.’

‘But what good does it do?’

‘None at all.’

‘A waste of effort.’

‘ A complete waste of effort.’ She answered brightly, as though the admission meant little to her.

Rating: 3/5

In short, the book should be read for its literary merits. I am not very good at deciphering the space between the untold and its eventuality. If you expect a neat ending, this is not a book for it but like all short stories, for its brevity, you either get it or you don’t, you either hate it or love it. This is the reason why I am reluctant to read short stories unless it is written by my favourite authors or for passing the phase of reading lows.

In this case, for its lack of high and the Japanese Literature clichés with an introduction of a geisha character, I give it a 3. However this will not stop me from reading other books by Kawabata, such as The Master of Go and Thousand Cranes, whenever I get the chance.

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Classics 2011, originally published in Japan 1956; Length: 121 pages; Setting: Yuzuwa, Japan. Source: Reading Library copy.Finished reading at: 12 March 2011.

About the Author:

Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成 Kawabata Yasunari, 14 June 1899 – 16 April 1972) was a Japanese short story writer and novelist whose spare, lyrical, subtly-shaded prose works won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first Japanese author to receive the award. His works have enjoyed broad international appeal and are still widely read.

Born in Osaka into a well-established doctor’s family, Yasunari was orphaned when he was four, after which he lived with his grandparents. Kawabata apparently committed suicide in 1972 by gassing himself, but a number of close associates, including his widow, consider his death to have been accidental. Some said his death was related to the trauma of Yukio Mishima’s death.

Other reviews, surprisingly many of them:

Bookie Mee : “At the end, the book feels like a collection of cold observations. It is somewhat informative, but it probably wouldn’t take you high. There are too many things lost in translation.”
Tony’s Reading List “While part of the beauty of Japanese literature is this sense of the unstated (and understated),  Snow Country was a little too much of a good thing in this regard.”
Solar Bridge “It is notable for the subtlety and beauty of the language that Kawabata uses to depict the relationships of his characters. A gem.”
Will Ellwood “Overall this short novel is a fine example of the virtues of brevity”.
Trish Books “This is a slow novel with much focus on the characters and their interaction with one another.”
Incurable Logophilia “unsettling but beautiful darkness hovering at the edge of what Kawabata chooses to illuminate.”
See Another Kind of Clay for book review and beautiful traditional Japanese painting of the snow country.

According to Wikipedia, the story takes place in the remote hot spring (onsen) town of Yuzawa (Kawabata himself did not mention the name of the town in his novel).

“Snow country” is a literal translation of the Japanese title “Yukiguni”. The name comes from the place where the story takes place, where Shimamura arrives in a train coming through a long tunnel under the border mountains between Gunma (Kozuke no kuni) and Niigata (Echigo no kuni) Prefectures. Sitting at the foot of mountains, on the north side, this region receives a huge amount of snow in winter because of the northern winds coming across the Sea of Japan. The winds accumulate moisture over the sea and deposit it as snow while running up against the mountains. The snow reaches four to five meters in depths, sometimes isolating the towns and villages in the region from others. The lonely atmosphere suggested by the title is infused throughout the book.

Last Friday, 11 March 2011 more than cold Northern wind came through the Sea of Japan, in fact a 8.9 richter scale earthquake off the North Eastern coast of Japan resulted in Tsunami waves, as high as 10 metres, came crashing into the shore towards the city Fukushima, leaving a trail of terrible destruction. For past days I watched the news footage with horror and sorrow of the loss of human lives and devastation of properties.

This coincidental read of Snow Country, picked up coincidentally last Saturday from the library, is dedicated as a silent prayer to people of Japan, in this difficult time.

Photo credit from BBC


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


14 thoughts on “Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

  1. What a lovely post JoV. We are all so worried about Japan.

    I hope your well with your new job…… Perhaps we could plan to read The Plague by Camus around Halloween? if you are finding enough time.

    Posted by Shellie | March 14, 2011, 5:08 pm
  2. Lately I have been all about books that have ambiguous endings so your review of Snow Country really intrigued me. That said, I do worry about such short books because I always worry I’ll rush through them just so that I can carve another notch in my reading belt without fully savoring them. I think I’d have to force myself to go slow with this one!

    Posted by Steph | March 14, 2011, 5:24 pm
    • Steph, it certainly feels that way with so many good books to devour, carving another notch in the reading belt. I am fine with bad ending, but not sure about ambigious ones!

      Posted by JoV | March 15, 2011, 9:47 am
  3. The situation in Japan is really horrific, I hope they’ll manage to prevent the atomic reactors from exploding!

    As for the book, it sounds quite lovely, especially the prose! Another one for my list, Jo! 🙂

    Posted by Bina | March 14, 2011, 6:48 pm
    • Bina, it is horrific. Double whammy of multiple disasters.. This book won’t take long to read, I am surprised there were so many reviews written about it, given the high contextual nature. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | March 15, 2011, 9:49 am
  4. a touching review ,all our thoughts are with Japan at moment such a terrible time ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | March 15, 2011, 11:56 am
  5. I pray for the Japanese. It must have been tough for them.

    I enjoy reading your review. Sounds like a book that I may enjoy reading!

    Posted by Wilfrid | March 15, 2011, 2:49 pm
  6. I have been eyeing this books for long…but my hand never pick it up. Reading your review and everyone’s opinion on it makes me eager to pick it the next time I visit my library.

    The thing that intrest me the most is the haiku-like prose that you’ve mentioned earlier.

    Posted by Novroz | March 16, 2011, 3:13 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! March 2011 « Bibliojunkie - April 4, 2011

  2. Pingback: Two Japanese novels review in one..The Sound of Waves and Thousand Cranes « JoV's Book Pyramid - August 18, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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