"The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country."
This is how Snow Country begins. The first line and the novel itself are famous in the circle of Japanese literature. I’ve always wondered why. The beginning is so simple. “Lyrical,” “subtly-shaded,” and “abrupt” scholars say. A matter-of-fact way of establishing time and place.
We, America, are in a long, dark tunnel. It could open into light, but it could also go on for a very long time. The length and darkness are why I haven’t found the right story to tell. But if you’re here, you’re probably expecting to read about love or travel. So I will take you, for a few minutes, to snow country.
I spent my junior year of college studying at Waseda University in Tokyo. But for a month of the program (it must have been March or April?) my cohort went to Shimane Prefecture for what the program called a “country experience.” Shimane is a long stretch of country on the main island of Honshu bordered by the Sea of Japan on the north. It is the second least populous prefecture in Japan.
I couldn't tell you exactly where in Shimane I lived or the structure of my days. I only recall slices of the experience. Walking across snow-covered rice fields to visit neighbors as my host sister carried her baby Kokoro (meaning “Heart”), and I a box of perfect strawberries. Going with my host father to visit a ceramicist who lived on a wooded hill. The ceramicist painted my likeness (which more resembled Mary Pickford than my chubby cheeks) on a pair of tiny, gray teacups. I remember my friends from the cohort and I borrowing bikes from our host families to meet in parks as winter turned to spring. The boys drank beers while the girls huddled in our pea-coats. How did we find the parks or know when to meet? We didn’t have Google, printed maps, or cell phones.
Once I did get lost. The week after I arrived I’d borrowed my host family’s bicycle to explore. Led by an Alice-like curiosity, I rode across the rice fields into town. I remember stopping outside a huge grocery store, so different from the landscape where the family lived. I may have even bought a bag of western snacks, not knowing when my next chance for pre-packaged, salty goodies would be. I remember standing outside the grocery store as the snow fell hard, realizing I had a feat ahead of me. I tried to bike home the way I’d come but by then the snow was falling so heavily I couldn’t even see. I came upon a mechanic’s shop, grateful that my Japanese was good enough to express exactly what I wanted to say, “Sumimasen. Maigo ni narimashita.” (Excuse me. I’m lost.”) I told the mechanic my host family’s last name and he drove me in his tiny white truck through the snow back to their house.
My host family was a couple in their 50s, the host-father’s mother, the couple’s daughter, her husband, and baby Kokoro. Each day after sitting in my room writing letters and listening to Abbey Road (I’d just bought it in Tokyo), I descended the steep, pine stairs--the nonsense rhymes of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" still clanging in my ears--to sit with the family. Most traditional Japanese homes don’t have central heating, so we gathered around the kotatsu, a low table with a heater underneath. We drifted in and out of meals and conversation. I wrote in my journal while grandmother and Kokoro napped. I remember thinking that grandmother, Kokoro, and I were all sort of the same. We all needed care and were on similar levels of communication: nods and smiles, cries or confused expressions, giggles and crinkly eyes. That may have been the best my Japanese ever was, but because the grandmother spoke the local dialect, it was hard for me to understand her. And I assume, hard for her to understand me.
Since my host mother was busy keeping house and their daughter and son-in-law busy with baby Kokoro, I talked to my host father the most. On the first night he must have asked me if I preferred beer, red wine, or white wine. Wanting to be accommodating, I probably answered, “anything is fine.” So every night he lined up three tiny juice glasses of each. I didn’t want to be impolite or know a tactful way to say I didn’t need all three, so I just accepted the lineup and alternated between sips of syrupy wine and light beer for hours.
When I wasn’t trying to communicate, I wrote in my journal. My host father observed this and one day presented me with a beautiful black and red lacquered box to keep my pens. He often commented that I was like Lafcadio Hearn. He kept repeating the strange name, “Lafcadio Hearn” as if this were a famous writer I should know about. Without the internet to find out, I blamed my ignorance and assumed he was.
One day my host parents took me to the nearby Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum. There I must have learned that he came to Japan in 1890 as a newspaper correspondent. I must have read plaques in English (finally nodding and smiling to my host father with understanding) that Lafcadio taught at the local middle school, married a Japanese woman, wrote about Japanese culture, became a Buddhist, and finally taught English at the same university I was studying at in Tokyo. Even relearning his life story now is an eerie precursor to the things Lafcadio and I would have in common.
Why write about snow country now? I don’t have my journals from that time with me. There is so much I’ve forgotten. It’s only moments--around the kotatsu, across the rice fields--that I remember. Flickers of future events predestined in snow country: bikes and beers in parks with friends and my host father who called me a writer before I was one. How I listened to Abbey Road for hours, the strange guitars and sweeping strings of “Something” the soundtrack to falling in love with a country, both snow country and the country of Japan. What I remember most is a great kindness. A pervasive, pure and bright blanket of goodwill spread over frozen fields.
“Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight a long time…
and in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”