The novel began as a single short story published in a literary journal in January 1935, with its next section appearing in another journal the same month. Kawabata continued writing about the characters afterward, with parts of the novel ultimately appearing in five different journals before he published the first iteration of the book. An integration of the initial seven pieces with a newly conceived ending appeared in 1937. Kawabata restarted work on the novel after a three-year break, again adding new chapters and again publishing in two separate journals, in 1940 and 1941. He re-wrote the last two sections, merging them into a single piece, published in a journal in 1946. Another additional piece arrived in 1947. Finally, in 1948, the novel reached its final form, an integration of nine separately published works.
Kawabata himself visited Yuzawa Onsen and worked on the novel there. The room in the hotel where he was staying is preserved as a museum.
"Snow country" is a literal translation of the Japanese title "Yukiguni". The name comes from the place where the story takes place, where Shimamura arrives in a train coming through a long tunnel under the border mountains between the Gunma (Kozuke no kuni) and Niigata (Echigo no kuni) Prefectures. Sitting at the foot of mountains, on the north side, this region receives a huge amount of snow in winter because of the northern winds coming across the Sea of Japan. The winds accumulate moisture over the sea and deposit it as snow while running up against the mountains. The snow reaches four to five meters in depth, sometimes isolating the region's towns and villages from others. The lonely atmosphere suggested by the title is infused throughout the book.
Kawabata again returned to Snow Country near the end of his life. A few months before his death in 1972, he wrote an abbreviated version of the work, which he titled "Gleanings from Snow Country", that shortened the novel to a few spare pages, a length that placed it among his Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, a form to which Kawabata devoted particular attention for more than 50 years. An English translation of "Gleanings from Snow Country" was published in 1988 by J. Martin Holman, in the collection Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.