fantasy · Fiction · International Fiction · Reading · Uncategorized

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Time travel to the past in books and movies often shows what would happen if someone went back to the past and did something that changes things in the future. We all do a bit of “time travel” when we revisit memories of people and places and try to make sense of them in the present. We can return to the past and imagine what we would have done differently if we had a chance for a do-over. But we can’t change the past, and it’s at times a futile effort of desperation for me to continue to mentally tread on that worn neural pathway.

Author and playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi understands that desire we have to travel back to our past. He wrote a play about a café known for time-travel that won the 2013 Suginami Drama Festival prize: “Before the Coffee Gets Cold.” I just finished the novel he wrote that came out in 2020 in English, translated by Geoffrey Trousselot. That first book has turned into a series that centers around an alley café in Tokyo, Japan called “Funiculi, Funicula,” like the Italian song of old. Legend has it you can return to the past but only until “the coffee gets cold.”

Toshikazu Hawaguchi

Doesn’t sound like enough time, does it? Kawaguchi’s time travel scenario does have rather rigid rules that are aggravating to the time-travelers and anxiety producing in this reader. But it is important that they follow these rules. Here are the main ones:

The Rules

  1. You can only meet people in the past who have visited the café.
  2. Nothing you do while visiting the past will change it – no matter what you try to do when you go back.
  3. Only one seat allows you to go back.
  4. You cannot leave the chair while you are visiting the past. And most importantly,
  5. Drink your cup of coffee before it gets cold.

Kawaguchi shares more rules, including what happens if you don’t follow them. He introduces the reader to his characters in sketches of the customers and staff at the café. In “The Lovers,” Fumiko Kiyokawa wants to go back to talk to her ex-boyfriend Goro Katada who left to pursue his dream job in America. Nurse Kohtake’s husband Fusagi has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The day he doesn’t recognize her is the day she learns he wrote her a letter.

“Although set in Japan, the themes I have explored in my work are universal – love, loss, memory, friendship, regret and redemption,” said Kawaguchi said in this interview.

Each story has its own poignancy while also supplying hope, a sense of purpose, a different perspective, or a bittersweet joy. I learned about this book first from Hannah of “A Clockwork Reader” on YouTube who called this “a book that will make your cold, dead heart FEEL something again.” Absolutely true.

Kawaguchi created memorable characters and gives just enough detail to activate the theater of my mind. I remember thinking that this book sounded like a movie before I learned of his 2018 film adaption. I could picture this Café Funiculi Funicula and imagine how customer Yaeko Hirai looked sitting at the counter wearing her brightly colored, mismatched outfits of camisoles, leggings, and hair curlers. I felt the calm poise of university student Kazu Tokita, the waitress at the café, as she poured coffee to people sitting in that seat after making sure they knew the rules. I could sense why everyone loved Kei Tokita, the wife of owner Nagare Tokita and Kazu’s cousin. I loved her, too. She’s inspirational. She had a serious heart condition that’s weakening her body but not affecting her spirit. She chose to have a positive outlook. She’s the strongest person I met in the café so far.

I am reading the October 2021 sequel now called “Tales from the Café,” that introduces new characters to the same café. Kawaguchi added a third novel, Before the Memory Fades (November 2022), and I  just learned he will publish “Before We Say Goodbye,” the fourth book in this series, on Nov. 14, 2023. I saw on IMDB that “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” is now in development for a television series.

Each night I have read these tales and felt like I had walked into the coolness of this café. It’s dark with sepia tones on the wall, and wooden cross beams on the ceiling with no windows. I take a seat at a table and Kazu brings me water. I see the three clocks on the wall with only one showing the correct time. A lady in white reads her novel at one table, while a gentleman reads his travel magazine and takes notes. A “clang-dong” alerts me to a guest. Who has come through that door? It’s simply magical.

I found myself so invested in each person’s time travel experience though that I had to force myself to shut my kindle and go plug it back into the wall to charge! Hopefully I’ve given you just enough information that you will want to read “Before the Coffee Gets Cold.” I don’t sleep well at night, and this book has been a welcome bedtime addition.


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