Snow Country is a stark tale of a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha that takes place in the remote hot spring (onsen) town of Yuzawa. (Kawabata did not mention the name of the town in his novel.)
The hot springs in that region were home to inns, visited by men traveling alone and in groups, where paid female companionship had become a staple of the economy. The geisha of the hot springs enjoyed nothing like the social status of their more artistically trained sisters in Kyoto and Tokyo, and were usually little more than prostitutes whose brief careers inevitably ended in a downward spiral.
The liaison between the geisha, Komako, and the male protagonist, Shimamura, a wealthy loner and self-appointed expert on Western ballet, is thus doomed to failure. The nature of that failure and the parts played by others form the theme of the book.
As his most potent symbol of this "counter-Western modernity", the rural geisha, Komako, embodies Kawabata's conception of traditional Japanese beauty by taking Western influence and subverting it to traditional Japanese forms. Having no teacher available, she hones her technique on the traditional samisen instrument by untraditionally relying on sheet music and radio broadcasts. Her lover, Shimamura, comments that, “the publishing gentleman would be happy if he knew he had a real geisha—not just an ordinary amateur—practicing from his scores way off here in the mountains.”
On his way to the town, Shimamura is fascinated with a girl he sees on the train: Yoko, who is caring for a sick man traveling with her. He wants to see more of her, even though he is with Komako during his stay. Already a married man, it doesn't faze him that he is thinking about Yoko while being public with Komako.