The Kaze no Denwa

IMG_4934A few days ago, I dropped Yu, the interpreter who made my time in Tōhoku possible, off at the train station in Ichinoseki, punched my destination into Google Maps, and drove a couple of hours up the coast to Ōtsuchi. My destination (or so I thought) was the kaze no denwa, or “wind phone.”

I learned about the kaze no denwa through an amazing episode on This American Life, which you can find here. The episode is called “One Last Thing Before I Go” and the segment, produced by Miki Meek, is titled “Really Long Distance.” It’s the story of a telephone booth in Itaru Sasaki’s backyard, which he put up before 3.11.11 to help him grieve his lost brother. He’d enter the phone booth, which has a rotary phone (unconnected to anything,) dial a number, and talk to his brother. Since 2011, Japanese grieving the loss of loved ones in the tsunami have streamed to Ōtsuchi to use Sasaki’s wind phone.

On the drive, I confess to having little idea of what I’d do once I got to the phone. And once I got to Ōtsuchi, I learned that the Atlas Obscura blurb about the kaze no denwa had an incorrect map of the location. I had a hell of a time trying to find it. Despite the notoriety of it, no one seemed to know where it was. And, being sans interpreter, I had to fall back on rudimentary Japanese and a lot of hand gestures and mouth noises. At one point, I was wandering through what was clearly personal property, cutting myself on thorns and brambles and generally cursing the Atlas Obscura entry in addition to my own incompetence. As the hours passed, my anxiety crept up as I feared that I would have to return to Kesennum empty-handed.

I finally found a very nice lady in her yard, who spoke enough English and knew where it was, to guide me on foot. And just like that, there I was.

It wasn’t a pretty day. The peaceful views of the Pacific from Sasaki-san’s back yard are now blocked by construction of the Sanriku Expressway. It had been raining intermittently from a gray sky. Gloomy, not the picture of resolution or catharsis. And I still didn’t know what I’d say on the phone. I’m not a superstitious person, and I don’t follow the ancestor-worship that survives in today’s odd blend of Shinto and Buddhist tradition that is secular Japan’s take on a national religion. I knew she wouldn’t be on the other end. So, I sat down on the bench and wrote her a letter that I could read over the phone.

A few of you have reached out and expressed your hope that I can find peace from this trip. And I thank you for it, but this aspect of the trip — the search for answers regarding my grandmother’s death — has never been about peace. Life is messy, and death makes it even more so. I didn’t know my grandmother, not really. So maybe I came to Japan to grieve, but maybe I also came to understand who I am and how the tsunami defines some aspect of it.

When I left, the clouds didn’t part and no angels sang. But it felt good to have made it there despite a few hiccups, like it was the right thing to do after all. I guess that’s a kind of peace.

Note: The coordinates for the kaze no denwa are 39 degrees, 23 minutes, 9.98 seconds North by  141 degrees, 55 minutes, 54.92 seconds East. Also, if you enter the kanji for kaze no denwa ( 風の電話  ) into Google Maps, it will take you right there. If you’re headed there and want some tips, shoot me an email. Due to increasing traffic, it’s only open to the public 10a-3p Sunday through Saturday, so factor that into your planning. 

 

A Tsunami’s Stone

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Hanōkizawa-san (left) and myself at the Yoshihama Tsunami-ishi

It seems remarkably privileged to say, but it can be a bit much to immerse yourself in tragedy. Even Japanese tsunami survivors are shrouded in it, because everyone on the Sanriku coast of Tōhoku lost something, someone, or both. I don’t know how real journalists do it. I suppose it helps to have some distance — a lack of a personal connection surely helps. But if I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s a healthy appreciation for people who spend weeks face-to-face with horrible things. After only a few days in Kesennuma, I’d reached a bit of a saturation point. But it just so happened that on Tuesday, we had an appointment in Yoshihama, about an hour north of Kesennuma.

In the years since the tsunami, I have looked for stories that connected me to the landscape from across the Pacific. Stories of loss and recovery abounded. But for the most part, they were all so temporal, so pegged with the timeliness we have come to expect from journalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it is what it is. Turns out, we want to read things laden with meaning in the here and now, and that’s what journalism provides. There’s a reason most articles are just a few hundred words: and it has to do with the desire to consume one moment before moving on to the next.

I discovered a handful of stories about “tsunami stones,” some of which date back millennia, and for the most part, served as warnings regarding past Sanriku tsunamis. The meaning within the frame of a news article is obvious; here’s this old thing that everyone forgot about that warned of exactly the type of event that necessitated the article in the first place. Timely, meaningful: exactly the type of thing we like to read about.

But I began to wonder if the stories written were only telling one side of the narrative, whether there wasn’t something deeper that would require a more in-depth telling, unconstrained by the moment itself.

Enter the Yoshihama tsunami stone.

I can’t give too much of the story I plan to write away just yet, but on 3.11.11, Yoshihama suffered only one fatality while its neighbors to the north and south were hit much harder. In other words, Tuesday was good.

This is Hanōkizawa-san, one of the discoverers of the Yoshihama stone, and myself at the the locals call tsunami-ishi. I’m looking forward to telling its story.

 

What Remains

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Obā-san two and a half years before she died

Everybody dies. But not everyone dies in a natural disaster. Still, this does not make that that life more valuable, or special; nor am I made unique by relation to it. I’ve told myself this, over and over since 3.11.11 in order to resist giving in to the worst kind of narcissistic writing instincts.

But unlike dying at home in bed, in a hospital, or even in war; in a natural disaster the conditions surrounding the death, or fate for that matter, are often unclear. 24-hour media overloads you, by design, floods your mind with information. But never the information you want. That’s what it was like on 3.11.11 for my family. Imagine being halfway across the world, turning on the television, and seeing only a glimpse of a tsunami hitting your home town before the footage switches to something else even more horrifying before it cuts to yet something else before swapping with a talking head in a cool, air-conditioned studio. Do this, and you are now empathizing with my father. There is no information; the phones are down and so is the power. No one is reporting from Tōhoku; rather, they are reporting from above it. It will be days before you learn whether your loved ones survived, before you learn the tsunami took your mother.

We always had a rough idea of what happened to Obā-san, but I felt the need to distill this idea into the fact. Why I felt the need to do so has been the question I’ve struggled to answer on this trip. Because it makes a better, more complete story? If so, then I become the worst kind of profiteer – the kind who makes good on the suffering of others.

You should know that I found what I was looking for. But I’m still trying to answer that question about why I needed to know in the first place.