If you have the ability to go back in time, would you do it? When will you go, and who will you meet? Most importantly, what happened that was so scarring that you feel compelled to return to the past to change it? There are tens of instances, for me, personally. The time when I was too young to process my grandma’s death, the time when I burned bridges I should not have, then time when—well, you get the point. And I often wonder, if I really can go back to the past and do things differently, what would happen to the present? This book offers a glimpse of the answer.
Written by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the Coffee Gets Cold tells us a collection of four intertwining stories taking place in a cafe that can send you back to the past or jump ahead in the future. It’s called Funiculi Funicula. The story begins with a young woman who wants to go back in time to get her boyfriend back, and suddenly we are sucked into the world of a mysterious cafe who only serves regulars and has a ghost sitting on one corner. The stories then follow those regulars trying to make their own amends, meeting someone – or, a version of someone – for the last time.
This novel is adapted from Kawaguchi’s own play and it shows. There is only one main setting and a handful of intertwining characters and a simple premise. Even so, the characters are well-developed and relatable, making up for the lack of world-building.
This book explores common themes such as grief, hope, and love, despite its premise sounding a lot like science fiction, action-adventure novels. This book has successfully pulled me out of a reading slump by presenting light, comforting stories that provide a small peek of Relationship Navigation 101.
There are four rules of time traveling in Funiculi Funicula cafe. One, the only people you can meet while in the past are those who have visited the cafe. Two, the present won’t change. Three, you cannot move from that specific seat or you will be brought back to the present instantly, and four, you have to finish your coffee before it gets cold, or you become a ghost, bound on that chair, until someone else replaces you. There was no written explanation of why these rules exist, and the characters can only answer with “It is what it is,” when asked. One possible reason is to deter those who are merely curious. Those rules exist as a test of the heart, whether one thinks they deserve to time travel and the resolve that they have.
It is, however, a common theme in Japanese literature to resign yourself to things you cannot change. There was no indication that the cafe’s employees ever questioned these rules, or if they did, they received no explanation either. This kind of fatalism is commonly found in Japanese culture, as in the saying, “shikata ga nai” or, “It can’t be helped”.
The strict rules and limitations might make time traveling seem futile. What is, then the use of moving through time if we cannot change anything or travel anywhere?
The point, as the book has also kindly pointed out, is the change of one’s heart.
For each difficulty the characters face, they can overcome it. “It just takes heart,” Kazu, the main benefactor, believed. Each character who traveled to the past had their second chance in grief and goodbye, highlighting the importance of cherishing the present instead of focusing on trying to change the past or trying to control the future. One of the characteristics in modern Japanese literature is self-championship and the celebration of inner strength, dealing with the subconscious. The open-ended and hopeful endings to each story also shows the belief that life is an incomplete, unordered progression.
One example is in the story titled “The Mother and Child”, a story about the wife of the cafe’s owner who decided to carry on her pregnancy despite health risks. She went to the future to meet her unborn daughter due to her worry about failing her child because she will not watch her grow. The story tells us about how the mother found her resolve in carrying out her pregnancy and the forgiving of herself for not being there for her daughter.
While many literature shows death as the end and birth as the beginning, this story did no such thing. It shows us that even after death there can be life, and there is life before birth. Life is incomplete, and this story only shows a snippet of the grand picture.
The end of something doesn’t always have to follow the beginning of it. There are so many beautiful things in between, all accumulated into one big book of fate, intertwined with thousands of other books, telling other people stories and how we have impacted them.
Life consists of both big and small moments. Whether it is a really good cup of matcha latte you have on that one particular coffee shop, or getting married. Each one is a story worth telling, and Kawaguchi knows exactly that. Each moment, big and small, is treated equally as important, because they are. They make up the days we walk the earth and we should cherish every one of it.
The stories are surprisingly relatable, portraying the regrets and pain of people with common backgrounds, with common grievances as well. It shows that everyone has their own story to tell and mistakes are inevitable. There is no grand, poetic veil for the messaging—to make peace with the past and present for the sake of the future—allowing the reader to digest it easily. Thus, they can apply it to their own set of problems. It is very important that the problems and the people are as mundane as it can be because these are stories about people, of me and you, of the person next to you in the train or even your own parents.
The stories are not about time-traveling, and I love that what is usually the main plot point is written as merely a tool for the character’s development. There were no complications or missions to save the world, only to save one’s self from further regrets, guilt, and unanswered questions that will hinder them from moving on with their lives.
This is perfectly showcased by the one titled “The Husband and Wife”, about a nurse whose husband is losing his memory due to Alzhermier’s and wants to give her a letter, but he doesn’t recognize her anymore. At first, this story also shows the devoted wife trope with an emotionally distant husband who struggles to communicate his feelings. Over time, the understanding between the two became apparent, setting new boundaries with each other. The story follows as the wife went back in time to receive the letter, only to read it and see that her husband asked her to leave if he couldn’t be a good husband for her due to his conditions.
In that story, there is no mission to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, or go to the future to get one. There are no worries about changing the timeline or the grandfather paradox. Her husband will still have Alzheimer’s, he will still forget her name and face. The only thing that changed is her heart: from subjecting herself to her role as an emotionally detached nurse taking care of a patient, into resuming her role as the loving wife, and that is enough.
In life, regrets are unavoidable. Maybe it’s something you said, or something you wished you had. Maybe it’s meeting someone you have never met before and also wished you had. No matter how big, or small, there might be some significance to weigh in on an individual.
For me, regret feels like a stone in my chest that shifts wrong every time I am reminded of it. There are times that I regret the things I did, like saying mean things to someone when I was ten and didn’t know any better, but most of the time it’s the things I didn’t do. It’s the “I missed you” left unsaid and “I love you”. It’s the help I wish I have gotten sooner or the adults I wished I had seeked refuge to.
My regrets will surely be different than yours, but they aren’t any less important.
But I can’t go back in time to say those things, or meet those people, so that stone will still lay on my chest and get heavier as time passes by. My wish is to not let the weight weigh me down so heavily that I can’t move forward.
Closure feels like the sea with its wave slowly chipping away at the stone. Each particle washed away is a small piece of me finally making peace with what happened, or what didn’t.
The stone might not be removed completely, and it takes a long time for it to chip away. Though, I know it won’t weigh me down.
And that is the importance of this book. It is about making peace with a regret, be it something you didn’t get a chance to say or someone you meet for the last – or first – time.
So we might not have access to time travel, or a back-alley cafe that serves coffee to transport us through time. All we can do is to reach into ourselves and make peace with whatever it is that keeps us up at night. Might be easier said than done, but I promise it is worth pursuing.
So, if you have one chance to make it right by that one person, will you? Who will you meet, and what would you say?