A few years back we somehow got signed up for a Boksu subscription – a monthly box of seasonal Japanese snacks – that just kept going month after month for years. The boxes are lovely and crafted in way that seems utterly unique to the Japanese as are many of the snacks, and everyone in the family looked forward to unpacking the box as much or more than eating the treats. Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s 2015 novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold and it’s more recent 2021 follow-on Tales from the Café form a quirky, endearing, and very Japanese duet that very much reminded me of Boksu. Each book is a collection of little treats that are beautifully packaged together and fit like little puzzle pieces into a whole.

Of the two, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the deeper more resonant work, though each can be read with pleasure. And while aspects of these novels may feel as light and sweet as confectioners’ sugar, they embody a profoundly humanistic understanding of the role of change and experience in human life. It’s an understanding common among good to great novelists, but almost unknown in philosophical circles. 

In both books, patrons of a quirky, underground Tokyo café can travel back in time. This isn’t genre fiction, though. Kawaguchi has less interest in time-travel than Bernard Malamud had in baseball. Indeed, the remarkable time traveling properties of the Café are no secret in Kawaguchi’s Tokyo (though often treated as urban legend), but nobody cares very much because the time travel being offered is extremely restricted. Patrons must use a specific chair, one that is only available, randomly, once a day (when the ghost that occupies it gets up to go to the bathroom). They must remain in that chair during their entire time in the past. They can only see people who were in the Café at the time to which they return. And nothing they do or say will or can change the future. If you go back to visit your sister who died in a car crash, she’s going to die no matter what you say. Oh, and just add a little bit of drama to each encounter, you can only stay in the past until the coffee you are poured (which, like all great coffee, transports you elsewhere) gets cold.

None of this, of course, makes any sense. Nor does Kawaguchi have the slightest intention of making it plausible, rational, or scientific. His characters don’t much care how or why any of it works. No one tries to get around the rules. Nobody is trying to game the market; nobody is even trying to keep the coffee warm for longer. Nor is Kawaguchi ever going to cheat and break any of the rules. Time travel is just the mechanism that Kawaguchi uses to explore the nature of transformation. And the rules are the rules because Kawaguchi doesn’t want anyone distracted by the idea that the important changes in the world are outside of who we are.

In each of Before the Coffee Gets Cold’s stories, the only thing that changes is the person who travels in time. And that’s really all that matters.

In the first story, Fumiko is a young woman who realizes she let her lover go (to America for a job) without ever really expressing how much she cared. She goes back in time to redo their prating conversation. He’s leaving her for America no matter what (them’s the rules), but she desperately needs to say what she felt and the conversation they redo changes who she is.

Returning to the counter, Kazu asked casually, “How was it?” On hearing these words, Fumiko finally felt sure she had traveled in time. She had returned to that day – one week ago. But if she had…

“So I’m just thinking…”


“It doesn’t change the present, right?”

“That’s right.

“But what about things that happen later?”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying.”

“From now on…” Fumiko chose her words. “From now on—what about the future?”

Kazu looked straight at Fumiko. “Well, as the future hasn’t happened yet, I guess that’s up to you…” she said, revealing a smile for the first time.

Fumiko’s eyes lit up.

What’s essential and important is that it isn’t regret that changes Fumiko. She has regret. It’s the experience when she goes back in time that does the work. One of the truly profound differences between philosophers and novels is that philosophers always overrate the extent to which we can simply change what we think. But that isn’t really the way our minds work. Having the right parting conversation with her lover changes Fumiko in a way that regretting the wrong conversation didn’t. It’s experience, not reflection, that does most of the heavy lifting and Kawaguchi’s Time-Traveling Café is very much an experience machine.

If Fumiko’s story is all sweetness, the second story is stronger stuff, with the bitter and the sad all mixed in with the sweetness. A woman (Kohtake) goes back in time to retrieve what she thinks is an undelivered love letter from her husband, Fusagi. Fusagi’s mind is being eaten away by Alzheimer’s and that very day, for the first time, he does not know who she is.

The letter is not at all what she thought. Fusagi already knows about his illness. He knows she will take care of him. But he desperately wants her to remain, always, his wife not his nurse. He wants her, always, to remind him of what he has lost.

When Kazu finished reading, Kohtake and Kei looked up at the ceiling and began crying loudly. Kohtake understood why Fusagi had handed this letter to her, his wife from the future. From the letter, it was clear that he had guessed what she would do after she found out about his illness. And then, when she came from the future, it became clear to him that, just as he predicted, in the future she was caring for him like a nurse.

Amid the anxiety and fear of losing his memory, he was hoping that she would continue to be his wife. She was always in his heart.

In his third story, things are even worse. The main character, Hirai, is actively avoiding a sister who she thinks has come to resent her. When her sister Kumi shows up at the Café, Hirai literally hides under the counter rather than talk to her. When her sister dies in a traffic accident returning home, she is stricken with guilt and with grief.

Naturally, she goes back just a few days in time to have that last conversation. Her sister will die. But she can at least face her. In the course of their conversation, she makes her sister a promise and though she knows her sister is going to die, she carries that promise back to the future with the determination to see it through.

“Don’t worry! Your sister said she would keep her promise,” Kei said, winking in the direction of where Hirai, reduced to steam, was watching….

Kumi was silent for a moment. “Really?” she asked, as a broad smile spread over her face. “Okay, great! Well I’ll be on my way home then.” She bowed politely then rose and walked out of the café with a spring in her step…

Hirai saw everything through shimmering stream. Kumi had smiled when she heard that Hirai would keep her promise.

Everything around Hirai wound from start to finish like a film on fast-forward. She continued to cry. She cried and cried and cried…

So much hinges on the act of the promise. Hirai changes the very nature of her life (and it’s a good life) to honor that promise. She could, of course, have made that promise silently to her sister’s memory. We do make promises like that and sometimes we can even stick to them. But though she knew her sister was going to die, and though the promise could have been given merely to make her sister briefly happy, for Hirai the experience of the promise is real.

So obviously, when I said Kawaguchi doesn’t cheat his time travel rules, I lied. Because in Kawaguchi’s time travel, one thing about the present always does change. And that’s the person who went back in time. Yes, Kawaguchi manufactures extraordinary scenes and life inflection points. But the essence of what he’s saying holds true in every life and at every time.

What we experience changes us. If we go back in time and experience something different, it will change us. The time travel rules Kawaguchi describes are impossible not because of any science, but because they are a logical contradiction. If time travel has changed who we are, how we think and what we value, then the present has, indeed, been changed.

He is, of course, fully aware of this as the last little treat in this snack-box novel ends with the Café’s waitress reflecting on a quote from a magazine about the special time-traveling chair at their Cafe:

The magazine piece on the urban legend had stated, “At the end of the day, whether one returns to the past or travels to the future, the present does not change. So it raises the question: just what is that point of that chair?”

But Kazu still goes on believing that, no matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.

But with her cool expression, she will just say, “Drink the coffee before it gets cold.”

There is only one chair that can change someone’s heart. It is the chair of experience and it is a chair we never leave. Not even to go to the bathroom.