Japanese Book Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold

How would you react if you heard a rumor about time travel in your town? The Japanese novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold tells of an urban legend involving a coffee shop in Tokyo where people sometimes go back in time. If you heard of this, would you be tempted to try it?

The Situation

The first characters we are introduced to are Fumiko and her boyfriend Goro. Looking for a place to talk, they happen upon a small cafe that is at basement level, down a small side street. Their conversation does not go well, and Fumiko stews about it for a few days, wishing she had said something different. Then she remembers reading about the urban legend. The article had mentioned the cafe she had just visited, but could not confirm any actual time travel.

There is an air of mystery, and the author had me wondering if time travel was real in the story, or if something else was going on. The cafe is run by a married couple, Kei and Nagare, and his cousin, Kazu. They hesitate to talk to Fumiko, but eventually claim that visiting the past is possible but there are rules to follow. First, they say, you cannot change the present. Also, you have to sit in a certain chair, you can’t get out of the chair while you are in the past, and you can only talk to someone who has already been in the cafe. And then the clincher: you have to return to the present before your coffee gets cold.

The Dilemma

At first, Fumiko thinks there is no point in returning to the past if you can’t change the present, and she is discouraged. But thinking it through, she wonders if she could influence Goro enough that he might start reacting differently. Kazu tries to warn Fumiko off, and tells her another rule: if you don’t return to the present on schedule you become a ghost. If that happens, you can’t leave the cafe. Yikes!

Fumiko weighs the chance for change against the danger (supposing that anything happens) and is full of anxiety and anticipation. Kazu explains that most people who come in give up when they hear the rules. But we see vignettes of people who still make the attempt. They are intense and desperate, and have their own reasons. One person wants to understand a situation better, and another just wants one more chance to see someone. The emphasis of the book is on the emotional, somewhat sweet and somewhat sad stories, and not on the science fiction influence.

The Background

The author of this book, Toshikazu Kawaguchi is from Osaka, Japan. He was originally a playwright, and adapted the book from a play he wrote that won the Suginami Drama Festival grand prize. Since then it has been translated into eight languages, and he has written three sequels.

In 2018 a movie was released in Japan that was based on the book. Some of these pictures are from IMDb. The title is Café Funiculi Funicula, which is the name of the cafe. I can’t find it streaming on any of our main legal sites, but Wikipedia says that a couple of companies are working on developing the story into a television series. I’m looking forward to that, but in the meantime, we can read the book. It’s short and well written and I couldn’t put it down!

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Until the next intriguing Japanese novel,


Dramas With a Side of Kimchi

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