This 1956 novel takes place at a hot spring in the western part of Japan's main island, where winds from Siberia dump up to fifteen feet of snow in the winter. The long snowbound months create a sense of isolation, even a time outside of time. As the story opens, Shimamura is traveling by train to a certain hot-spring inn to see a woman he'd met in the spring when he'd come to climb the mountains. During this time in Japan, the hot springs were not like spas in Europe or the U.S., but rather places where men enjoyed the attention of geishas, leaving their wives at home.
When he arrives, the wealthy dilettante is surprised to see from her clothing that Komako has become a geisha. On his previous visit, she had an uncertain status, a woman who would sometimes help out at parties if all the geishas were busy, but was not a geisha herself. In the Introduction, the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, says that unlike geishas in the city, for hot-spring geishas “the pretense that she is an artist and not a prostitute is often a thin one.”
Shimamura and Komako have connected on another level, though, and he cannot stop thinking about her. He promises to return in February, but does not return until the autumn when he finds that her situation has changed once again. This is a peculiar love story. The two seem to talk past each other a lot of the time and behave abruptly and unexpectedly. They obviously care for each other, despite the difference in their stations, but seem incapable of love. It is as though in each there is an empty space that keeps them from coming closer.
Seeing how Komako has aged (though she is only 24), Shimamura speaks of wasted beauty. Once a dancer, she now studies music and plays the samisen, wasted effort in this isolated place to Shimamura. He himself has devoted much of his time to studying western ballet, though he has never seen one performed and has no wish to.
Seidensticker calls this a haiku novel, like The Tale of Genji. Although written as prose, this style is austere and somewhat fragmented, as poetry gives you space to think and reflect. It is up to the reader to be present in the novel and find the connections.
I also love the beautiful prose and sometimes startling imagery. For instance, in that first train ride, as night falls Shimamura watches the reflection in the window of a girl—Yoko—seated opposite him caring for a sick man. Yet behind her reflected face, “the monotonous mountain landscape” continues to flow by, as though showing a world outside time. “Shimamura had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face, and the flow did not stop to let him be sure it was not.” What a remarkable image of time's passage!
Much as I enjoyed this book, I never quite understood these two people who love or try to love each other. Perhaps I could not come close the them because they cannot come close to each other. Wasted love, wasted opportunities.
I have been thinking a lot about the influence of place—not just your geography but your family and your cultural context. This novel eloquently conveys people struggling to become themselves within the environment of the hot spring, the restrictions of the seasons, and the boundaries of the classes into which they have been born. It is a love story, yes, but an unusual and complex one.
What love story have you read that surprised and intrigued you?