As the season of heaviest snows in the region of western Japan known as the "snow country" begins in December, the wealthy Tokyo dilettante Shimamura journeys to a hot spring town to see a woman (who will later be called Komako) he met there half a year ago. While on the train, he becomes fixated on Yoko, a girl of unusual beauty who is nursing a sick man, and he finds himself especially entranced by the reflection of her face on his window. Later when the train stops by a station and Yoko cries out to a stationmaster, Shimamura is also fascinated by the clarity of her voice.
Arriving through the cold night at an inn in the town, Shimamura is startled to find the woman he knew, who has now become a geisha, waiting for him. The two go to his room and begin to talk, whereupon the story returns to their first encounter. At the time, Shimamura had just come down from a week of hiking in the mountains at the border of the village during the first time of spring. Desiring a woman, he asks for a geisha, but since none are available he agrees to see a woman who is an amateur entertainer. He and that woman grow closer as they find a common conversational interest in theater, and Shimamura beings to prize her as a friend rather than a sexual interest.
The next day Shimamura surprises the woman by asking her to find a geisha for him, explaining that he does not want to ruin their friendship by becoming too involved with her; though at first very reluctant, she eventually finds one. However, Shimamura loses his interest in the geisha, goes to climb a mountain, and then runs down it with a great sense of release. At the bottom, he finds the woman waiting for him, and the two feel an increased affection as they talk in a nearby cedar grove.
It is only fitting that this novel set in a land of fantasy and illusion begins with the protagonist's passing through a tunnel into that world, the snow country in Niigata province on the western coast of Japan, which receives exceptionally heavy snows from the cold sea winds. Though Shimamura's three visits to the hot spring town (its actual name, not mentioned by the author, is Yuzawa Onsen) do not all occur during the winter months stretching from December to April, when the roads become blocked by snowfall, the hot spring's remote location at the foot of the Border Mountains lends it the quality of a paradisiacal escape from the everyday world.
In the summer it offers fresh mountains for climbers, and in winter it offers powdered slopes for skiers; but for the many male travelers desirous of brief pleasures, it gives the "mountain" or "hot spring geisha." She is a young woman who can sing, dance, and play the samisen to entertain guests, such that she would seem to be like the respected geisha of the cities, but her position does not rise much further than that of a prostitute, a sex object to be used by the men who come through the hot spring. It is this plight of the hot spring geisha and the hopeless ridiculousness of a romance between her and one of her guests, combined with a man who is unable to see past his own fantasies, that draw the lines for the tragedy and failure of fulfillment in the novel.
We the readers first become aware of Shimamura, the Tokyo dilettante and vicarious expert on occidental ballet, in a very understated way; we glimpse him briefly when Yoko opens the window in front of him on the train to call to the station master with her startling clear voice, and we hear his observing his surroundings in his own head, without quotation marks. It will soon become apparent that this particular way of treating the protagonist's perspective (and our perspective on him) has substantial but easily missed consequences, namely that the entire novel is told quietly through Shimamura's eyes, which constantly aestheticize the world around him.
Thus, his pondering a certain sad natural image does not mean that it has simply presented itself to him but that he has shaped what he receives in a certain way; such an action is nowhere more apparent than in one of the most memorable images of the book in which Shimamura draws a line across his misted train window using his left forefinger -- the one which remembered Komako -- and then sees in the reflection of the cleared surface the piercing eye of a woman -- Yoko. By creating this superposition of Yoko's eye over the landscape, he has made for himself a work of art of the same kind as his dreamed-up writings on ballet. In the image there is nothing to confront him, since he is certain Yoko would not notice him, so he is able to watch it as though in the theater of his own mind.
However, the memory of the finger that created it points to something completely different in kind from the cold, emotionless eye and the masklike face of Yoko; that is, the voluptuous flesh and warm intimacy of Komako. In fact, she is referred to as "the woman" for a significant portion of the first part of the novel until Shimamura learns her geisha name, Komako; so, whether he knew her real name and nevertheless thought of her as "the woman" or didn't have the interest in learning it, the very way that she is named in the book indicates the very specific, limited way that Shimamura thinks of her. This perception will unwittingly surface in one of the climactic scenes of the novel when the difference between "You’re a good girl," and "You're a good woman," will reveal to Komako the futility of expecting love from the man she fell in love with.
The geisha is not supposed to expect anything like a serious, extended romance with her guest, who only desires, as Shimamura puts it when asking Komako for a geisha on his first visit, "An affair of the moment, no more. Nothing beautiful about it. You know that--it couldn't last" (22). Nevertheless, Komako does fall in love with Shimamura, and as a consequence breaks down in tears upon meeting him on his second visit, showing the hurt a humiliation she has borne during the six months since his first, during which "he had not written to her, or come to see her, or sent her the dance instructions he had promised" (15). Using the same phrase that she spoke to him the morning after they slept the first time and then after the incident when he calls her a "good woman," the author writes, "She was no doubt left to think that he had laughed at her" (15). This is the double pain of not only falling into a hopeless love but being derided by the very recipient of her love.