Takahan Ryokan: White Days in Yuzawa, Niigata
The first opening lines in Japanese Nobel prize literary master Yasunari Kawabata’s much celebrated novel Yukiguni (Snow Country) transport you about 200 kilometers northwest of Tokyo to the heart of the Japan Alps in the quaint, snow-filled town of Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. Here, where abundant patches of white envelope the quiet mountain ranges, and traditional “ryokans” (inns) profusely scatter among flowing onsens (hot springs), Kawabata scribbled “Snow Country,” ardently inspired by the joys and trials of rural life in this sheltered, remote village.
Kawabata’s original writing nook can be viewed at the Takahan Ryokan that has a history of over 800 years. Only about ten minutes by car from Echigo-Yuzawa station, the traditional-styled inn houses a small museum that displays the writer’s literary works, documents, writing desk, and the room where he stayed, with a beautiful inner stone garden opening to the white visions of the snow country. There is a cozy library hall, filled with books on literature, history and culture of the region. Its onsen bath boasts of fresh, unsterilized natural hot spring water that incessantly flows into the pools; a rotemburo (outdoor hot bath) that astoundingly reveals a spectacular view of the rising pine trees and the frolicking snow that sprinkles on the branches like icing. On a snow-blanketed day, stepping out of the inn leads you to a hill that mirrors the vast whiteness of the mountainous landscape. Many travellers have held their breath with wonder, standing before this magical scenery. One clearly understands how Kawabata had chosen this particular niche as a reclusive, inspirational haven to complete his highly acclaimed novel.
In Yuzawa, Kawabata’s Snow Country depicts the ryokan culture when Shimamura, the lead character, a writer and critic heads to this snow region from Tokyo by train in the 1930s to meet the young hot springs geisha, Komako, whom he falls in love with. The stark relation between the novel and the grey surroundings of the local town brings to life the sensitive, brushstroke imagery of the silent nature, poetry of the waters, and surreal dampness of the cold as two characters intertwine in a play of undefined romance and indolence. The hot springs geisha, quite common in hot spas during the olden times, as how Komako is portrayed in Snow Country, was generally intelligent, sensitive, and pure-hearted, and had to persistently entertain the city traveler every weekend with guided song, dance, and the flirtatious serving of saké and deep conversation.
There is, therefore, an unwavering notion of crisp melancholy when walking along the damp streets of Yuzawa, as though the tiny sounds of the geisha’s wooden geta clogs and the swooshing rhythm of her smooth, silk-lined kimono still sway with a lingering calling. Today, there are no longer geishas in such villages, and the rustic sceneries have been transformed into touristic getaways for couples and families to savor short vacations. Still, the nostalgic ambience of the hot springs and the thick snow-covered hills easily lift a traveler’s spirit into a dream bathed in subtle contemplation as one gazes yearningly at the white, cotton-filled trees and misty, immaculate skies.