A 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.