Japanese short novel translation “Memoirs of a Traveller” (ある旅人の手記): Ch.1 “Coffee and Camera”

By | August 14, 2016

This is the first chapter of the story “Memoirs of a Traveller” which I am translating from Japanese to English. As you might guess from the name, this is a fictional story about someone’s travels throughout various cities and places. You can see my review of this story here, and the translation of the prologue (which should be read before this chapter) here.

I really enjoyed both reading and translating this chapter. It has a certain unique mood to it, and ends in a very touching way. I think it’s amazing how the author created this atmosphere in such a relatively short chapter, and I tried my best to convey that in English.

I hope you enjoy it! You can see the original chapter in Japanese here if you are interested.

Chapter 1: Coffee and Camera

This city was full of hills.

While the roads were clean and well maintained, they also seemed quite narrow and intricately connected.
Visibility wasn’t too great either, probably due to the changes in elevation.

Having just arrived here, I felt a little uneasy.
Above all, I wanted to avoid focusing too much on the act of driving and too little on my surroundings.
At least that’s what I told myself, deciding to park my car in a random parking lot and walk.

There is something I really like about walking.

No, that’s not quite what I mean.
This city was like a labyrinth you’d expect to see on some late night TV show,
and I guess you could say I felt a faint yearning for wandering around it on foot.
Roads appeared as I turned corner after corner, climbing steps and descending hills,
U-turning and changing streets when I hit a dead end.
In the process, I got completely lost.
But since wandering itself was my objective, I guess this was satisfying in its own way.

I had memorized the name of the street where I parked, so I won’t end up collapsing on the road somewhere.
But I was starting to get tired.
Come to think of it, since arriving in this city I’ve spent a long time walking without ever stopping to rest.

As I looked around for somewhere to take a break, I spotted a cafe nearby.
It was an attractive little building, not too big, with a triangular-shaped roof.

I think I’ll try this place.
A tiny bell rang when the door opened, and then once more as it closed.
The inside of the cafe had a more antiquated, relaxed atmosphere than I had expected from seeing it from outside.
I could say the same thing for the shop owner behind the counter,
although the old man was more scary than attractive.
And so I went to sit at the counter, being very careful not to let my fear show at all.

“You a tourist?”

The owner’s voice was (if it’s not rude of me to say) surprisingly soothing.

“Yes, I just arrived in the area a little while ago.”

I found myself calmed by his voice, and ordered a coffee as I complimented him on what a nice place he had.
Feeling a little more comfortable now, I turned my attention to my surroundings.
Besides me, there was only other customer.
On the far right end of the counter sat a young woman.
She seemed engrossed in reading,
so completely focused on her book that she hadn’t even glanced at me when I entered.

There was classical music playing, sounding like something from a record,
either by coincidence, or the owner’s preference.
The song was a concerto dominated by low-pitched string instruments.
On the walls, several framed photographs hung.
These were photographs of things like scenery and people.
Oh, and behind the owner was a shelf lined with glasses, cups, and a single camera.

Just perfect.
I’ll talk about that camera.

I felt somehow relieved to have found a suitable conversation topic.
Let’s see… maybe I should address him as “barista”?
But that name doesn’t really seem right for such a down-to-earth place.
I guess I’ll just play it safe.

“Sir, are you into photography?”

The man glanced over his shoulder at me.

“I was, long ago,” he answered briefly.

“I like photography too, and carry a camera around with me.”

I removed my camera from my backpack, and held it where he could see it.
After asking politely for permission, he carefully took possession of the camera with a practiced hand, and then returned it to me gently.

“It’s pretty old.”

“Yes, it does seem to be.”

“Was it a gift?”


“That’s quite some camera.”

“Yes, it is.”

During our short conversation he brought out my coffee.
Now he seemed to be sitting on a low chair inside the counter, because the only thing I could see was the tip of his head.
I decided to simply enjoy my coffee in silence for a little while.
While I wouldn’t consider myself a coffee connoisseur, I do enjoy a good cup of coffee.
I try to have a cup each day, even when I’m out camping.

“A long time ago, I used to travel quite often.”

His voice came from the other side of my coffee’s fragrant steam.
I was startled by its suddenness, but decided to be polite and listen to his story.

“Together with that camera you see on the shelf,
I went to many places
and took many pictures.
When I was done, I sent all the pictures home.
I had wanted to preserve the memories
of the things I saw, the times I enjoyed.
But, one day,
I came home and looked at the photos I took.
The thing is, I couldn’t remember all of them.
Of course, there were many I felt deeply about.
But there were also many that I didn’t.
So then, in each place I stayed,
I decided to take a single picture
only when I found something I really wanted to remember.”

The owner went on to tell a story about each of the photographs on the walls.
Happy stories, sad stories.
Enjoyable stories, unpleasant stories.
But I thought it was nice how he could talk about every one of these memories.

“Sir, it looks like you’ve went on many wonderful trips.”

The owner smiled slightly.

“Actually, I’d much appreciate if you’d call me ‘barista’.”

Upon hearing this, I realized there was something surprisingly refined about this gentleman.

Just then, the young women sitting at the counter finally looked up from her book and called out to the owner.

“Grandpa, another milk tea please.”

This place seemed to have such an at-home atmosphere.

“She’s my granddaughter and is helping out here.”

So this cafe was family-managed.
The granddaughter really was so involved in her book that she didn’t realize my presence.
Apparently she was attending a college in this city, and was studying to become a school teacher.

With everything that happened, I ended up staying there for quite a while.
I said my goodbyes to the owner and his granddaughter, and left the cafe.

Sometimes I think about how the flow of time within a nice cafe seems to be different.
Time seems to really fly faster than you’d expect.
As I was considering what to do next, I heard a voice from behind.
It was the granddaughter from the cafe.

“My grandfather said to give this to you.”

It was small bag filled with several rolls of film.
How kind of the old man.
I decided to accept the gift,
and politely thanked her.

“It’s really too bad though.”

There was a hint of mischief in her smile.

“This is just a regular city with nothing special in it.
I’m not sure if you’ll find anything memorable here.”

As she spoke, the young woman was framed by a beautiful cityscape painted in the hues of a dazzling sunset.

“Sometimes it takes an outsider to realize a city’s true beauty.”

I said this and took out my camera.
Just like the old man had said: one photo for each place visited.
This was a bit of a challenge for me, being as greedy as I am.
Holding the camera, I framed the cafe with its triangular-shaped roof.
I carefully focused the scene.
I clicked the shutter a single time.
Only once for each memory to remember.
Regardless of whether the photo got out of focus or blurry.
Because that was my own memory of that time.
One was all that I needed.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget about the day I took this picture.


(next chapter)

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One thought on “Japanese short novel translation “Memoirs of a Traveller” (ある旅人の手記): Ch.1 “Coffee and Camera”

  1. Bumi

    I wonder if he’ll ever see that Grandfather and granddaughter pair.
    Again thank you for the translation.


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