Before the Coffee Gets Cold – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translator – Geoffrey Trousselot

It takes courage to say what has to be said.

I recently ventured into a bookstore for the first time since COVID and proceeded to go into what can only be described as a book frenzy. I was only looking for one particular book but wound up adopting six. Half were this series. When I picked up this book I didn’t think it would be coming home with me. Then I learned it contained two of my very favourite things: coffee and time travel.

‘Please send me back to the past!’

Cafe Funiculi Funicula opened in 1874. It’s small, there’s no air conditioning and, at Nagare’s insistence, only serves mocha. If you sit in one specific seat, though, and follow a very specific set of rules, you can travel to the past.

The Rules

🪑 You can only meet people who have visited the cafe.
🪑 Nothing you do when you’re in the past will change the present.
🪑 You have to sit in a specific seat to time travel and you must remain seated when you’re in the past.
🪑 You have to drink the entire cup of coffee before it gets cold.

After my initial excitement at finding a time travel book I’d never heard of before, I settled in to read the first of the four stories contained in this book.

The Lovers had me questioning all of my life choices, primarily my rashness in buying three books in a series I knew nothing about other than their blurbs. Had I only read this story, I probably never would have wanted to read the other books. It made me so mad!

A week ago, Fumiko’s long term boyfriend, Goro, told her over coffee he was moving to America for work. When he was on his way to the airport! If he was my boyfriend I’d be incensed! No way would I want him back. Fumiko clearly sees this situation differently than I do because she’s our first time traveller. I questioned more than one of Fumiko’s life choices; she has a limited time in the past but decided to add milk to her coffee, making it cool even quicker and shortening her time there. Ugh!

In the first page it’s said that Fumiko is Goro’s “girlfriend of three years” but later it’s said (twice) that Fumiko met Goro two years ago. I wondered if three years was a typo. Then, because time was so important in this book, I questioned if the discrepancy was simply two people with different perceptions of time in their relationship. Maybe the relationship felt to Goro like it dragged on a year longer than it actually did?

Despite my early frustration, I persevered. I enjoyed the second and third stories more than the first and by the time I finished the fourth story, I wanted to continue with the series and reread this book to see what details I may have missed the first time around.

In Husband and Wife, Fusagi has a letter in the present that Kohtake hopes to receive in the past. I wondered if Kohtake received the letter in the past and brought it back with her to the present, would that result in there being two letters in the present? Kohtake tiptoes around her conversation with Fusagi in the past, which disappointed me.

In The Sisters, one sister goes back in time to speak to her sister one last time. I loved how the mystery visitor to the cafe in this story helps complete another story.

Mother and Child made me cry and is the main reason I’m remembering this book with fondness rather than my initial disappointment.

My favourite character was Hirai, who fascinated me. She seemed to openly delight in Fumiko’s misery and has a backstory I learned more about throughout the book. I most want to learn the full story of the woman reading the book.

I had some time travel question marks.

Some travellers returned to a time when their past self was at the cafe. Encountering yourself in the past is generally a time travel no no. None of our travellers meet their past selves so I wondered whether the future self replaced the past self in this world.

Why doesn’t everyone get the stick that sounds the alarm just before the coffee gets cold? That would be so helpful.

One of my big takeaways from this book isn’t the details of any one story but the concept of emotional gravity, which was explained in a beautiful way and holds such truth.

Water flows from high places to low places. That is the nature of gravity. Emotions also seem to act according to gravity. When in the presence of someone with whom you have a bond, and to whom you have entrusted your feelings, it is hard to lie and get away with it. The truth just wants to come flowing out. This is especially the case when you are trying to hide your sadness or vulnerability. It is much easier to conceal sadness from a stranger, or from someone you don’t trust.

I haven’t read many books that have been translated from Japanese but the ones I’ve encountered have a gentle quality to them. They don’t seem to be in a hurry to get where they’re going and I don’t feel any urgency when I’m reading them. It’s like I’ve been invited to witness a snippet of someone’s life and I leave with a sense of calm, regardless of how emotionally charged the content is. I’m not sure how that works but I’ve started seeking it out.

About the cover image: The seat that transports you through time is upholstered in moss-green fabric on the seat and back. I wish that had matched one of the seats on the cover.

Handy hint: Pay attention to the background characters and the details of what’s happening outside of the main storyline. They may be relevant later in the book.

But Kazu still goes on believing that, no matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

What would you change if you could go back in time? 

In a small back alley in Tokyo, there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers its customers a unique experience: the chance to travel back in time.

In Before the Coffee Gets Cold, we meet four visitors, each of whom is hoping to make use of the café’s time-travelling offer, in order to: confront the man who left them, receive a letter from their husband whose memory has been taken by early onset Alzheimer’s, to see their sister one last time, and to meet the daughter they never got the chance to know.

But the journey into the past does not come without risks: customers must sit in a particular seat, they cannot leave the café, and finally, they must return to the present before the coffee gets cold …

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s beautiful, moving story explores the age-old question: what would you change if you could travel back in time? More importantly, who would you want to meet, maybe for one last time?

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