The snow was falling in Kyoto as we shared a kiss on the cold roadside

An Irishman on a roast dinner that ends in sadness


Daniel Mulcahy is from Galway and a graduate of NUIG’s BA in English and creative writing. Since 2019, he has been living and working in Kyoto where he is a high school English teacher

In Japan daily cases of Covid flatlined into the low hundreds and we experienced a lull from October to December. With this drop-off coinciding with my scant winter leave, we decided to make something of it.

Christmas is little more than a chance for couples to snap “Insta-bae” photos (that is photos that are good for Instagram as they are backlit by illuminations). Some Japanese families still mark the occasion by sharing a Christmas cake, but with no families to hand, we made merry with friends instead.

One friend takes pride each year in providing a roast dinner, and this time splashed out on two whole chickens. Sitting in his living room playing Backgammon, maskless, decked out in silly sweaters and getting gradually drunker, it felt like we were back in the soft glow of the pre-pandemic. Imagine it.

The apartment is high, looking out over the dark of the river and the lights of Osaka beyond. It was late. Most everyone had left already; Tabia and I had missed last train. Our host asked me out onto the balcony and lit a cigarette.

The words fell out of him. He told me the story of the murder of Junko Furuta in 1982. She is often referred to here as the Girl in the Concrete and was murdered in an utterly evil act. Tears shining, his tone hushed, he read a poem he had hated having to write.

My friend. The man who, earlier that evening, had said that his greatest pleasure is hearing the chime of laughter behind him as he cooks. The poem was beautiful. 

A New Year

The bus to Hakuba picked us up from the cold sidewalk at midnight. Sleep was hard-fought, and by six am the overhead lights kicked on, letting us know we were making our final approach. Through a chink in the curtains, the Japanese Alps slouched past, grey in the pre-dawn light. The snow grew deeper as we climbed.

My girlfriend Tabia’s first morning skiing: a brief synopsis. Three separate locker trips and a gondola up a mountain before breakfast. Trundling for 20 minutes across the summit before proceeding to plough down a too-steep slope. Walking off said slope after losing her ski to a snow drift and spending 15 minutes unsuccessfully attempting to reattach it, the  minor panic attack that ensued.

Our friends arrived on the second day, and the snow grew heavier still. By the third day, it was knee-high on the northern courses.

At the end of that third day, Tabia and I skied off the mountain together. I would race a downslope to look back up and watch as she glided in confident curves, her toes turned resolutely in. She fell only once. I fell at least twice while trying to show off.

The trip was a stumble for all of us. Our friends, so convivial at Christmas, had a harder time getting on as they struggled to escape an icy mountainside. But I promised my mum that I would focus on the positives. The bus home was an hour late in the snowfall and it stank. A man propped his socked feet on the seat in front of him the entire time.

We alighted in time to share a New Year’s kiss, there on the cold roadside we’d left four days before. We were not as cold as before, though the snow was falling even here in Kyoto.

Oshogatsu: Japanese New Year

We slept until noon, rising only to make our annual pilgrimage to Yasaka Jinja and imbibe of the spicy ramen sold nearby. It was Hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the year, and the crowds were subdued, shuffling between taiyaki stalls, tying inauspicious fortunes to lengths of rope that dangled all around the courtyard. As we made our exit, I observed the shrine attendants sweeping the papers into bags.

Japanese New Year’s is a time for family. On January 3rd, after a year of postponements, my co-teacher opened her doors to us. Her daughters are quick and eager to speak. One wrote our names in ornate kanji, each character a poem. We were treated to Osechi ryori , traditional dishes imbued with prayers for health and prosperity.

The next day, we dined with Tabia’s former host parents in their immaculate apartment. Their daughter hardly fits the chair that she sat in over a year ago.

There is always more to tell, but so it goes. Words, like a year, have to break off somewhere, that’s how we can pick them up again.

* On finishing this piece for The Irish Times, I learned of the terrible murder of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore last week. We need to do so much more. My heart goes out to her family.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email with a little information about you and what you do

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