I don’t know why I put this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did (sorry, DC Public Library, for being late returning it!). A kind of melancholy minimalism and claustrophobic stasis afflicts the characters, of whom there are really only three: Shinamura, an apparently wealthy man (or, at least, a man of sufficient means not to need to work); Komako, the geisha (who begins, rather, as a sort of geisha in training) who becomes his lover; and Yoko, another sort of geisha in training.
It takes place in a sort of middle class vacation spot in the titular snow country, where people ski in winter and enjoy hot springs the rest of the year. Neither wealthy nor sophisticated, the geishas who work here have neither the luxury nor the illusion of their profession’s official distance from sex work.
Shinamura is married back in Tokyo, though only one short scene takes place there. He returns frequently to the hot springs town to see Komako, though the memory of an early sighting of Yoko stays with him and both he and Komako struggle with both love and ambivalence towards her.
Though obviously not needing to work, Shinamura is first seen traveling third class on the train and stays in a resort that is rather obviously not fancy. But his independence still sets him apart from the women, whose lives are precarious, options limited, and who work in a career where their livelihood doesn’t last much longer than their looks.
The ending is notably ambiguous, but it is obvious that Shinamura was never going to give either woman a happy ending. It’s not that he’s indecisive, but rather… I can’t say. If you read it, you’d understand what I mean. Perhaps that his money and gender protect him from having to ever make a truly difficult decision?