A Reflection on "Before the Coffee Gets Cold"

Art by Amanda Lim

Recently, I read the book Before the Coffee Gets Cold, the first in a four-book series. Before the Coffee Gets Cold was written by Toshikazu Kawaguchi in 2015. The latest instalment, Before We Say Goodbye, was published in 2021. I can’t shed any light on the last three books (I am a slow reader, after all), but I will share my thoughts on the first book.

Before The Coffee Gets Cold, in brief, explores the lives of four different people and their reasons for wanting to temporarily travel back in time, whether to amend a wrong, find closure or address a regret. Doing so will have no impact on the present time. To travel back in time, one must visit a particular cafe and abide by a set of rules that make it seemingly pointless to travel back in time, turning many away.

For example, one’s actions in the past won’t be able to change the future — this turns away many prospective time travellers. What is the point of travelling back in time if not to change the present time? However, as the book explores, the purpose of time travel in these cases is to become more at peace with one’s actions. Perhaps to gain some clarity on a situation they handled poorly in the first instance. For example, an older sister, Hirai, makes amends with her late younger sister (Kumi), guiding Hirai down a path to be part of her previously estranged parents’ lives. A woman (Fumiko) gains clarity on her boyfriend’s (Goro’s) hurried exit from her life, providing her with hope that they will reconcile in the future.

Maybe the present time isn’t directly changed (say by Kumi’s life being saved) but indirectly, through one’s new choices and actions shaped by their experiences in the past (i.e. Hirai choosing to make amends with her parents, which she likely would not have done without travelling back to speak to Kumi one last time). In the heat of the moment, we tend to lose sight of what’s important, of what’s actually going on. Our judgement is so easily clouded. As a consequence, we can often walk away from interactions, situations and relationships without closure. We walk away without understanding what might have been, closing off future possibilities. Such as in the case of Fumiko and Goro. Had Fumiko not travelled back in time, she would have been unaware that Goro planned to come back in three years, that there’s hope for the two of them. The opportunity to go back in time to gain clarity, change one’s actions, and see what could’ve been appears to be life-changing in the case of these four characters in Before the Coffee Gets Cold.

The cafe also dictates that an individual who wishes to travel back in time must sit in one particular seat and, when they have travelled back in time, cannot leave that seat. As such, the person you wish to meet with in the past must also know of and have attended the cafe when you travel back in time. This rule has allowed the author to truly focus on the human relationships within the story, the conversations within the cafe’s context, and how the cafe’s staff care for each character. In this way, it almost feels like these characters are linked across time, making the novel particularly unique in its use of time travel. 

How time travel is explored in this book suggests that perhaps one cannot rewrite their entire history, but perhaps their history with one particular person… or at least understand it more than they did previously. Like putting on a different pair of sunglasses and seeing the world in a slightly different tint. A new perspective. Sitting in the same seat (or similar) as the first time one experienced the conversation allows them to have that new perspective. As opposed to time travelling to a time or place that they’ve never been to.

All in all, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a short and introspective novel that explores the depth of human relationships and raises questions of regret, closure and missed opportunity. I look forward to reading the rest of this series by Toshikazu Kawaguchi.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.