My latest article has been up for a month now; have a read if you haven’t yet. It describes Yuzawa hot spring, a resort town in the mountains close to Tokyo, where Japan’s Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata was inspired to write his classic, Yukiguni (Snow Country). I read Snow Country just before I came to Japan and was both entranced and mystified. The story focuses on a wealthy Tokyo dilettante and his failed love affair with a mountain geisha. The dilettante cannot love, yet pursues the young woman, who in turn falls in love with him at the peril of her reputation.
Mountain resort geisha were not as fortunate as their city counterparts. While geisha in urban centers were esteemed performers and were often privy to many closed-door deals and secret goings-on, the mountain geisha performed for weekend guests, groups of men without their families looking for a good time. Shortly after they meet, Shimamura, the dilettante, asks Komako, the geisha, to bring him a woman. She refuses, embarrassed and angry, and says that no such women exist in this hot spring. Shimamura insists but Komako refuses; ultimately the young geisha that arrives is brought by his inn’s caretaker, but by then Shimamura has lost his appetite.
When he seduces Komako, the themes of beauty and harshness in Kawabata’s sparse, haiku-like prose really begin to show. Komako slowly falls into disrepute, but like the snow of the mountains, her beauty and purity seem untouched, as she loves Shimamura without restraint. The sparseness of the prose can be bewildering though, and the first time I finished the novel I was entranced but totally confused. Relationships between characters are very vague: much is left to nuance, atmosphere, the reader filling in the blanks with a wealth of shared cultural knowledge (for the Japanese anyway). It was both beauty and confusion, epitomized in my reaction to Kawabata’s book, that brought me to Japan; I can’t say I have made much headway in understanding, but the beauty is still here.