As the hot spring enters the popular season of maple leaves, Shimamura reflects on the futility of Komako's love for him, which he is not able to fulfill. The days go by with Komako making frequent visits to Shimamura in between the parties she works at, and soon, in the colder autumn, Shimamura finds the insects in his room dying. One night, Yoko, who had begun working at the inn, comes to Shimamura's room twice with short written messages from a drunk Komako. When she delivers the second, Shimamura talks with her, suggesting that she could come with him to Tokyo. Speaking in an unusual, somewhat cryptic way, she tells him to take good care of Komako, though she says she dislikes Komako, and leaves in tears after mentioning that Komako said she, Yoko, would lose her mind.
Soon after Shimamura meets Komako who takes him to the house she is staying at to show him her room before the two return to the inn and drink some sake together. Komako becomes very happy when Shimamura tells his that she is a "good girl," but the slight change he makes by saying "good woman" makes Komako feel as though she has been used. She goes through a mixture of despondency and anger, but ends up spending the night with him. The next morning Shimamura wakes up to see the mountain landscape outside his room transformed by the first snow.
After an instance in which Shimamura hears the tinkling of a bell in a tea kettle draws a connection between it and the sight of Komako's feet walking, he decides that he must try to return after his long stay at the hot spring and, in order to move himself, takes a trip from to a nearby town where Chijimi cloth is made. Chijimi, a folk art that Shimamura had read about in one of his old books, requires a laborious process of weaving and bleaching that is only done in the snow country, where the snow is used in several steps of the production and the dark, lonely winter months give young women no other way to expend their energies. He finds this culture poignantly sad and sees it as representative of his own situation.
On a return taxi ride, Komako, who had been distressed by his leaving, joins him. As the two talk, they are suddenly alerted to a fire in the village coming from a cocoon warehouse, which was being used as a cinema. Under an usually bright Milky Way in night sky, the pair race towards the site of the fire along with firemen and other townspeople, alternately embracing each other in feeling and fear, and separating to avoid being seen together. At the fire, all are shocked when they see the body of a woman – Yoko – fall through the flames, unconscious but perhaps still alive. Komako, screaming, drags her limp body from burning warehouse, and as the crowd pushes Shimamura back, his head falls back and the sight of the Milky Way overwhelms him.
Since Shimamura's third visit is so long, and especially because it occurs during autumn, the passing of the seasons is a very visible and poignant feature of it. As the hot spring enters its maple leaf season, time in the novel speeds up to a blur, with Komako's visits coming one after another until her visits are merely described as happening often instead of being treated individually. One gets the sense that even while she runs off to party after party bursting with energy and displaying an industriousness which is all the more apparent in contrast to Shimamura's idleness, she is exhausting herself for nothing and wasting her youth and love, wilting and falling like the dying insects from Shimamura's screen:
"Each day, as the autumn grew colder, insects died on the floor of his room. Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again. A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed. It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons. Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers in the struggle to live" (131-2).
There is a powerful but quiet fatalism that underlies the Japanese awareness of the changing of the seasons; Shimamura sees the insects die, understanding that autumn is their time to die and that they shall go on dying every autumn, and he spectates their death throes as something sad but inevitable. Though the dead moth simply falls off like an inanimate object, however, light and airy, the dying bee struggles almost violently with what life it still possesses. The obvious association is with Komako, who loves with all her heart even though she knows that their romance is moribund, and the image of Shimamura watching a small dying insect dwarfed by the large room with a tinge of intellectualized remorse illustrates his attitude towards her death struggles too. Indeed, as the cocoon warehouse burns and Komako's and Yoko's lives are unraveled -- it is not even clear whether Yoko is still alive when Komako pulls her out -- Shimamura is still fascinated with the cosmic, something of his own imagination and something of the world about him (e.g. the Milky Way, the change of seasons), but he almost entirely neglects all that is intensely human around him.
On another occasion, Shimamura reflects on his relationship with Komako: "He was conscious of an emptiness that made him see Komako's life as beautiful but wasted, even though he himself was the object of her love; and yet the woman's existence, her straining to live, came touching him like naked skin. He pitied her, and he pitied himself" (127-8). This seemingly paradoxical situation, in which he bemoans the impossibility of realizing what is precisely within his power to realize, is explained by his "emptiness," for which he "pitied himself." Either the emptiness is a kind of impotence of the spirit, analogous to sexual impotence in that his very being lacks the vigor to match that of another's, which is a romantic problem with regard to Komako but also manifests itself in every other facet of his leisurely, unattached life; or else it is an active desire to witness tragedy and the voiding of things, such as the deaths of insects and the ruin of a lover. As evidence for the former, the reader may recall the numerous occasions when Shimamura, feeling overwhelmed by Komako's rich love and strong spirit, becomes acutely uncomfortable, or conversely when he delights in her docility and willingness to fit herself into his arms.
One of the most subtle yet dramatic moments of the novel is Shimamura's switch from saying to Komako, "You're a good woman," to, "You're a good girl," a change which betrays his mostly unchanged attitude towards the status of their relationship. With the two of them drunk and emotions heightened, Shimamura's first comment sends Komako into a rapture, regardless of Shimamura's inability to answer that fatal question that is always on her lips: do you understand me? She asks him, "Why? Why am I good? What's good about me?" and he only repeats, "You're a good girl" (146). She is at that moment and has always been clear-headed enough to see the emptiness in Shimamura, but, never regretting giving her love as she swore just before the first time she slept with him, she allows her feelings to swell to a high water mark. "The first day I met you I thought I had never seen anyone I disliked more. People just don't say the sort of things you say. I hated you," she says, dispelling any suppositions that her love was a blind infatuation, and continues, "Oh? You understand then why I've not mentioned it before? When a woman has to say these things, she has gone as far as she can, you know" (147). No longer unable to control the rush of her love, it is as though she is repeating her reasons against him in her last attempt to save herself.
But at that moment, with almost comically tragic effect, "the awareness of a woman's being alive came to Shimamura in her warmth," which prompts his fatal "You're a good woman" (147). In other words, at an emotional height Shimamura's mind switches gears to the sexual -- inevitably so, as it has done during many of Komako's emotional late-night visits to his room. Komako does not notice this change at first, but as the realization sweeps upon her (it is as though, one can imagine, she gradually notices a bulge in his kimono) she lashes out against him; and "Shimamura had no idea why," having as little understanding of Komako's feelings as ever (147). He later thinks of the incident as a misunderstanding and exaggeration on her part, but the narrator's description makes it clear that the change of terms (the thought of Komako as a young woman had similarly lead directly to "good girl") was not at all meaningless. Although Komako avowedly forgave him and spent the night with him, the end of the maple leaves and the first snow the following morning indicate that their love has passed once and for all.
The exposition of Chijimi cloth seems a curious insert into the story, but its position as perhaps the most complete and poignant metaphor of Komako's futile love and Shimamura's indifferent intellectualism grants it a great significance. The breaking from the plot to elaborate on such a topic that seems so different at first modulates the pace of the story in such a way that, however inevitable Shimamura' departure may have been, it strikes the reader as being just as tragically abrupt as it struck Komako. This interesting section is analyzed in greater detail in the "Symbols/Allegories/Motifs" section.