If you could travel back in time, would you want to? Who would you want to see? What would you want to say? Four people at a Tokyo cafe find out in Before The Coffee Gets Cold (コーヒーが冷めないうちに, or Kohi ga Samenai Uchi ni), a 2015 novel by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold - Toshikazu Kawaguchi - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Kawaguchi is a celebrated playwright in Japan. Before The Coffee Gets Cold was actually a play before he turned it into a novel. The text was translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot and went on to become a best-seller around the anglophone world. (Plus Kawaguchi’s follow-ups – Tales From The Cafe in 2017, and Before Your Memory Fades in 2022, sold gangbusters as well.) Even if the play-writing game isn’t paying like it used to, Kawaguchi is surely in the black!

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is made up of four interrelated but separate stories: The Lovers, Husband And Wife, The Sisters, and Mother And Child. Most of the characters appear across all of the stories, and I found it kind of hard to keep track of who was who.

Kazu is the barista at Funiculi Funicula, the Tokyo cafe rumoured to let customers travel back in time. The customers featured in Before The Coffee Gets Cold include Fumiko (a woman whose boyfriend is chasing his career dreams in America), Kohtake (a nurse whose husband has Alzheimers), and Hirai (who runs a nearby bar, and has a complicated relationship with her family). There’s also the cafe co-owners, Nagare and Kei (upbeat but in poor health, and recently pregnant).

I won’t spoil their stories, but most of them travel in time. It turns out, in Kawaguchi’s version, there are a lot of finnicky rules for time travel. They’re unlike the others usually found in time travel novels. First off, you can’t change the present – it’s not just that you’re “not allowed”, you quite literally can’t. No matter what you do or say when you travel back in time, the present will remain the same when you return. Then, there’s the time limit: you can only stay as long as the coffee in your cup is warm. If you hang around after it cools, you risk becoming a ghost that haunts the cafe. When you do go back, you can only meet people who have visited the cafe in the past, and you can’t leave the Special Chair in which you sit. On and on the rules go…

Before The Coffee Gets Cold is a bit trite and earnest, more like a fable or a fairytale than a novel with a plot. It’s written in a surprisingly simple style, given the complexity of the subject matter. Some people really respond to that though (people who love The Alchemist, for instance) and I don’t begrudge them that. I’m not sure it really worked for me, though. I wasn’t swept away by it, or really moved much at all. I was mostly just annoyed at all the Rules the characters went over, time and time again.

There’s already been a Japanese film adaptation of Before The Coffee Gets Cold (Cafe Funiculi Funicula, starring Kasumi Arimura). It looks like a couple of American companies have teamed up to develop and produce a television series for English-speaking audiences, too. I’d be mildly curious to check that out, but I wouldn’t wait in any queues.

All told, I’m not sure Before The Coffee Gets Cold lives up to the hype, but it’s a short and sweet novel that wouldn’t be the worst thing you could choose from a Little Free Library.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Before The Coffee Gets Cold:

  • “The episodes of time traveling are few and far between. Mostly it consists of boring details about the sound of flip-flops and shop door bells and other uninteresting things.” – Ron Johnson
  • “Absolutely dire. Reads like a book written by someone who was guessing what a book should sound like but has never actually read one.” – Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged
  • “Not my cup of coffee I guess.” – Elissa W
  • “Average book.true review” – Vishnu reddy