Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country

Amusing the lotus pond
A child’s delight.

Butterflies dab my tears and lotuses kiss my heart. As a child, I used to spend hours gazing the dainty beauties as they flirted with the boisterous flowers. Amid my hearty giggles, the soft buttery wings browsed my cheeks for a pink watermark. I sought to embrace these coquettish insects as I sat on the wet grass. As I lifted one from its flowering sojourn and laid it on my palms, my eyes lit like the time my mother cuddled me after a bad school day. The rosiness of the wings spread on to my palm as it lay there silently in all its glory. It did not fly as I wanted it to. I coaxed it, even twisted my palm, all it did was spiral down on the ground as a rocket descending to its earthly grave. That was the very first and the last day, I had ever caught a butterfly. I still cherish their fragile beauty but from afar; I do not touch their wings for I’m afraid that I might bring an everlasting emptiness in their lives. “Their beauty shines through death”, said the temple priest, as he immaculately entwined the bowed lotuses into a stiff pink garland. The lotus bud that braved the rambunctious dragonflies and thunderstorms only to bloom for a day and the butterfly after months of seclusion burst through the rigid cocoon only to be left as a crimson dust on a child’s palm , was it all a wasted effort? A wasted beauty? If only, the plucked lotuses could whimper and the butterfly could squeal. Does a heart shine brighter with the demise of love?

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky”.

As the maple leaves bid adieu to the red carp in the lotus pond, the snow comes alive. The earth pristinely glistens underneath a vermillion sky. The snow-laden cedar fiercely guards the persimmon trees near the old moldering house. The chimney smoke twirls in a sensuous way with the steam from the nearby hot-springs. Chimerical decorated beauties parade on the floating world of nightfall. The days are filled with lonely beds and nights with lonely hearts. The melodious strings of a samisen appreciated among icy fingers. The clean air cluttered with translucent worthlessness. The insects wordlessly moan as a heart is cut into two. The secluded cocoon weaves its silken thread artistically, only to emerge in the spring metamorphosing into the finest Chijimi. The snow country is “a place where the maidens live”.


Red lips, porcelain face,
Songs of crimson snow,
Lonely love.

It is when the snow touches the earth, can she sense love, her lover’s warm breath, his arms around her trembling waist and his kiss on her blood-stained lips. When the world sleeps, the heart rouses. The footsteps that had been lost underneath the white expanse had resurfaced; the iciness of the winter had renewed the tenderness of love. In the intimacy of love, her heart was beating like couple moths on a lamp, once again fumbling into emptiness. After all, it was a lonely heart drowning in remote emotionalism.

A heart is never lonely; a person is, when he stands at the crossroads where the perfect fantasy is blemished with candid realism. Akin to the glass window that bestows a lonesome traveler with the precious company of the moon, only to realize at the end of the journey, it was only solitude that alighted at the station. Shimamura found lonesomeness seductive. The “indefinable air of loneliness” that surrounded Komako, the loneliness that lingered in Yoko’s voice and her piercing eyes and the emptiness that came from Shimamura’s life itself; he stood on the edge of fantasy and reality. Shimamura was always fascinated with untainted mirror images or the illusions that were constructed within his thoughts. The phantasms of an impeccably choreographed ballet were lyrics from heaven, liberated from human errors and where imaginations were without boundaries.

“It was like being in love with some he had never seen”.

Shimamura treated his women in similar way as the chimerical ballet. He desired the romance of fiery red strokes on a geisha’s lips softening onto a snowy visage, but he sensed emptiness as the face was wiped cleaned. He sought after the call of the naked heart without having to shelter it from the frosty afflictions.

“Was it sorrow at finding herself about to sink into deep a relationship with a traveler?”

Komako as they call was a splendor of the floating world. Komako was as multifarious as her heart. She observed the bereavement of her heart, though she could never see a dying person. She loved Shimamura even though the latter being skeptical about having to build a liaison with a woman of an “ambiguous position”. Shimamura calls her a “clean beauty” and not a “real beauty”. Kawabata rightly asserts the position of a wholesome beauty. A woman looks utmost beautiful when her face is a melancholic riddle. The snow attains it grandeur when its smooth velvety carpet is tainted by footprints of skiing children. It is in sadness that a beauty luxuriously shines. The priest was right after all, the beauty of the lotuses was magnified in the garland. Kawabata further pushes this symbolic position solidifying its stance when Shimamura later, addresses Komako as “a good woman” correcting his former statement of her being “a good girl”. It is here that the reader views the metamorphosis of Komako’s ‘clean beauty’ into a ‘real one’.

Nagauta on a samisen
Hearts still asleep
Wasted effort.

The fair maidens who as children learn to weave the silken mesh of the exquisite Chijimi cloth, live in months of seclusion and monotony and labor their love into the product that needed months of washing in hot water, hours of massaging by feet and bleaching and when spring finally arrived the Chijimi was proudly displayed as a sweltering body’s ideal companion. The women immersed themselves in hard work at the risk of their fading beauty in the strenuous survival of the secluded snow bound months. Kawabata signifies the production of Chijimi cloth to rationalize the query of ‘a wasted effort’. The said terminology becomes the definite antagonist to the foundation of love and beauty.

“A good piece of Chijimi, if it has been taken care of, can be worn quite unfaded a half- century and more after….”

Unlike, the weavers whose undying love for the art of weaving leaves a gift of a Chijimi to be cherished for years, Shimamura ponders how his relationship with Komako would leave nothing as definite as Chijimi. Was then the love that harbored in the room where silkworms once bred, a wasted effort of two lonely hearts? Like peonies on a frosty river bank searching for happy puns, Kawabata equates the beauty of human intimacies as the ephemeral weave that do not even have half the shelf-life of an airy Chijimi cloth.

“The labor into which a heart has poured its whole love…where will it have it say, to excite and inspire, and when?

Only if one could have read Komako’s diary, the one that she had been writing since she was 16, it would have been known whether her loyal love to Shimamura, her skeptical emotions for Yoko, her collection of non-smoked cigarettes and her stance in Yukio’s life were a bunch of wasted efforts. If, Shimamura could have gained a little of his lost honesty in the snow country, only if one could read Yoko’s piercing moist eyes and if someone could have asked the Milky Way , if being outshined by the blazing fire made its brightening splendor a wasted effort. Only if one could? Kawabata in his usual sinister flair speaks about the idea of an exhausted beauty that would not have an unambiguous ending. Komako, going back to the hot-springs , dowsing her heart in sake , Shimamura once again losing his candor in an illusionary other world and the chrysanthemum withering on the snow-caped eaves.

White peonies in moonlight
Echoes of distilled love
Snow falls.

Kawabata symbolizes the snow as the ultimate pictogram of a wasted beauty. The fragile beauty of a snowflake deteriorates at the slightest touch melting into the heat of the fingers. And as the snow accumulates on the ground its opulence is trampled by footprints, shoveled paths and at times the decay of bleeding hearts. Similar to the beauty of love, the exquisiteness of the pristine snow perishes in its own excessiveness.

Snow on bald cedars
Letters to obscured leaves
Melancholy writes….

I have an aversion to happy endings. To me, happy endings are similar to feeding rainbows to Thomas More’s utopian unicorn. Label me weird or even call me absolute idiot, nevertheless it is in sadness, that I feel alive. It is in sadness that I think about the little girl that still resides within me. It is in sadness that I appreciate the rarity of a smile and it is sadness that helps me to value the true essence of happiness. One may never desire it, let alone embrace it, but sadness comes knocking back when one starts to dread happiness. And, when it does penetrate into our lives it brings along infinite silence; the most powerful resource of the mind. At this very moment, I earnestly realized that Kawabata has always been communicating about the silence that overwhelms human sentimentalities and life as we know it. And, I like an ignorant fool was unaware of the very institution that was assisting me not only to read Kawabata’s thoughts but script my own. A silence that can make or break a prosperous soul.

The Milky Way, brightest star
Whistles the mountain ghost
Departed soul.

In his Nobel Prize winning speech, Kawabata emphasized on the works of Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831) and the subsequent source of inspiration for his works. Commenting on the premise of his nominated book, ‘Snow Country’ he said, “Ryokan was born in the province of Echigo, the present Niigata Prefecture and the setting of my novel Snow Country, a northerly region on what is known as the reverse side of Japan, where cold winds come down across the Japan Sea from Siberia. He lived his whole life in the snow country and to his “eyes in their last extremity…”

It is not surprising to find an ideal ode to Kawabata’s prose from one of Ryokan’s inscribed poems:-

Where beauty is, then there is ugliness;
where right is, also there is wrong.
Knowledge and ignorance are interdependent;
delusion and enlightenment condition each other.
Since olden times it has been so.
How could it be otherwise now?
Wanting to get rid of one and grab the other
is merely realizing a scene of stupidity.
Even if you speak of the wonder of it all,
how do you deal with each thing changing?

(Japanese actors essaying Shimamura and Komako in Shirō Toyoda’s ‘Snow Country'(1957))



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