Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft.
It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone.
But you feel it alone.
Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.
- from ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald
Where do we go, to connect with those we have lost?
The Japanese Garden Designer Itaru Sasaki, lost his beloved cousin in 2010. While longing for a way to remain connected to him in a time of deep grieving, he bought an old- fashioned, green- roofed, glass- paneled telephone booth and put it in his garden.
As he was unable to figure out how to speak about his feelings, or to whom, he spoke about them through this telephone.
In doing so, Mister Sasaki was hoping for the wind to carry his words to his cousin, and he named it “Kaze no Denwa”- Telephone of the Wind.
Only one year later, Japan was struck with threefold disaster: an earthquake that created a tsunami, which then caused a nuclear meltdown. Approximately 20.000 Japanese people died.
The coastal town of Otsuchi was hit particularly hard, the lives of over 800 residents were lost in the horror of the floods and another 421 people remain missing to this day.
As so many people in the community were bereaved of the ones they loved, Mister Sasaki decided to open his Kaze no Denwa to all, “to offer something for people to connect with those they’ve lost”.
Word began to spread and soon, mourning people from all around the country began arriving at his quiet hilltop…an estimated 25.000 visitors have found solace here since the disasters.
The Telephone of the Wind is situated in Otsuchi, northeastern Japan, on a small and beautiful grassy hilltop, overlooking the Pacific Ocean,
Inside, there is a little shelf with a notebook and pen, several small decorations and a black rotary telephone.
The phone has no electricity and it is connected to nowhere.
It does not receive incoming calls.
And it does not ring.
But just because it does not ring, it doesn’t mean that no one is listening.
In 2016, the Japanese public broadcaster NHK created a deeply moving documentary, called “Phone of the Wind: Whispers to Lost Families”. In this film, we get to see and hear some of the people that visit Mister Sasaki’s garden.
Some of them are looking for answers, others just give a quick update on their lives (“Dad, I’ve really gotten into boybands on TV!”), they share their hopes, regrets, longing, concerns or simply their silence.
Some come alone, others with friends or an entire family.
And while some simply pick up the receiver and begin speaking, others rotate the dial to choose a number.
Anything is possible. Because anything works.
A lady who visits to call her lost son tells us:
“I’m so glad I came. Thanks to my friend..
I was able to talk to him a little
I can’t hear him.
It’s just me talking, but…
He heard me, so I can keep living.”
Mister Sasaki says “No matter how hard it is, hope makes life worth living,” and he visits the phone booth every day, looking after it and keeping it clean like an altar.
He has noticed that, as time has passed, the messages in the notebooks have changed as well.
People have started to accept the passing of their loved ones, now writing notes such as “Please watch over us from heaven.”
As the people of Otsuchi slowly rebuild their city and make it more resilient, this little phone booth helps them to gently heal their hearts too.
The documentary “Phone of the Wind- Whispers to Lost Families” can be watched here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1OVPaGRszU or alternatively, the This American Life podcast did a wonderful segment called “Really long distance” about the booth: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/597/one-last-thing-before-i-go/act-one
Pictures by Alexander McBride Wilson and Kentaro Takahashi