Swiss tries to bring foreign tourists back to Japan, a step at a time

Thomas Kohler is walking from northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern end of Kyushu, blogging for an international audience

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

The undulating sea observes the solitary walker. A triangular bamboo farmer’s hat shades his face as the infinite horizon stretches ahead, marking out his path.

While most of us feel lucky to pleasantly pass a few hours in a leisurely trek, Thomas Kohler ambles with a more lofty goal. The 44-year-old former travel agent is striding to help rebuild the tourist industry in Japan, one step at a time.

The Swiss national intends to walk 2,500 km to Cape Sata, the southernmost point in Kyushu, by the end of 2011. His first step on Aug. 1 from Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Hokkaido, steered him along the shores of the Sea of Japan, through tiny inlets and villages as he carefully considered local residents’ advice about bears and beer.

Kohler’s “Walk through Japan” tour will follow the coast down the mainland as he strives to raise awareness of the beauty and safety of Japan. Kohler keeps a regular blog in German, English and Japanese.

Taking a short break in Hakodate, Hokkaido, at the beginning of September after his first month of walking, Kohler explained his mission as he waited for the ferry to Aomori.

“I want to motivate people throughout Switzerland and Germany and all of Europe to reconsider Japan again, so they can understand that not all of Japan is Fukushima or earthquakes.”

Kohler’s connection to Japan started long before March 11. “When I was in kindergarten, a Swiss boy moved in next door from Japan. He had lived in Yokohama, since his father had a job there. We walked together to school each day, and he always talked about Japan so much because he had really loved Japan. In elementary school, I began reading about samurai, and later I read more historical pieces, but my interest really started with my conversations in kindergarten.”

Twenty years later, in 1995, Kohler’s interest in Japan guided a life-changing event. Working for a small travel agency, Kohler decided to expand his professional experience to the country he always found so interesting, and he began taking Japanese lessons after work each evening.

“Before going to Japan, I wanted to speak or at least read a little Japanese, hiragana or katakana. I told myself, with just English, I cannot learn enough about Japan, and if I really want to learn about a culture, I should learn the language.”

In 1997, he was accepted by a language school in Fukaya, Saitama Prefecture. Leaving behind the travel agency and his life in Switzerland, Kohler lived in Japan for almost two years, studying intensively for the 18-month language course before traveling the country alone for another four months.

“It was during those travels that I started to truly love Japan,” Kohler says. “I learned so much from the people I met, and I really felt there was something different about people in Japan.”

Kohler returned to Switzerland in 1999, working at various travel agencies and specializing in Japanese tours. Slowly building up his client base and expertise, he visited Japan several times each year. Working for JAL PAK, an in-house travel agency for Japan Airlines, further expanded his personal and professional knowledge of the nation. When JAL PAK downsized a few years ago, Kohler finally settled at a small travel company in Switzerland, responsible for all their clientele headed for Japan.

Kohler thrived at the opportunity to share with others the country he found so interesting, often combining travel with his own appreciation for the stunning natural beauty of Japan and Switzerland.

He is an avid trekker and marathoner who has completed more than 40 marathons and participated twice in the Mount Fuji Mountain Race, a 21-km climb/race to the summit.

After March 11, when Japan-bound tourism crashed in Europe, Kohler created his original mission of Walk through Japan by drawing on his own strengths and interest in the country.

“I could have found another job, no problem, but I thought to myself, now is the time to help somehow, to do something for Japan,” he said.

“Originally, I wanted to simply come over instantly and volunteer, but in the few weeks after the tsunami and the earthquakes, there was no way to help as a volunteer from Europe.”

Once Kohler finalized his walking plan, he set to work preparing. “Three months before I came to Japan, every weekend I went up to the mountains in Switzerland to train and walk. I also tested all my outdoor gear, my tent, backpack, clothes, shoes. I got good advice from my friend who produces outdoor equipment for Exped, an international outdoor gear company, so I feel I came to Japan well-prepared.”

As a final preparation, Kohler flew into Japan in late July and volunteered for four days in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the disaster. He was unable to stay long because it was a volunteer tour organized by a Japanese travel agent and he could not afford to pay much. “But I wanted to go there personally to see the who and the why of my walking. Of course, I knew it, but if you go there, it is much more meaningful as it becomes real and you can really see what happened.”

Although entirely self-financed without sponsors for his ongoing trek, Kohler quickly points out how much he relies on others, every step of the way. “My brother in Switzerland helps with the office work, and my sister and my parents have supported me from the very beginning.” Kohler also acknowledges all the people he has met along the way, from government officials to school kids to a passing driver, happy to share a melon and a smile.

“It is impossible to thank all the individuals I meet, there have already been so many just in Hokkaido.” Kohler’s gratitude traverses to Germany -the Japan National Tourism Office and JAL office in Frankfurt — and back to Japan and Rolf Mueller, owner of Kotobuki, a Swiss company in Niigata Prefecture specializing in Japanese cultural and nature tours. The firm acts as Kohler’s contact and technical support within Japan.

Many other friends within the travel business underpin Kohler’s journey, most notably Tokuko Uneme of Sakura Ryokan in Kyoto, who provides the Japanese translation for his blog.

Kohler’s blog remains simple — walking at least 22 km a day, there is not much time for anything else. Striving to share some elements of each day, Kohler not only relates the places and people he meets, but also the wanderings of his own daydreams. “When I am walking, I spend so much time thinking, so I always try to share a thought.”

Kohler usually wakes before 6:30 a.m., packs up his tent and 12- to 15-kg backpack, depending on how much food he carries at any given time — and resumes his solitary journey by 8:30 a.m. “In Hokkaido sometimes I had to walk quite long distances to find anything, water or any type of store. The most I have walked in one day is 34 km.”

He tries to find either onsen hot springs or communal bathhouses, both to meet people and refresh himself after a hard day walking. Kohler occasionally seeks more substantial shelter, like in Hakodate, where he had anticipated a typhoon, but he relies on his tent “to reduce costs as much as possible.”

This week, he reported on the blog that he had entered Akita Prefecture. With one month complete out of his planned 4½, Kohler is already eyeing the half-way point, which he hopes to reach sometime in mid-October when he will step into Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture. “I will stop in this small city for a few days of rest, and to change my shoes to mark passing the half-way point.”

Itoigawa is also the headquarters for Kotobuki, and Kohler looks forward to thanking in person the many friends and supporters who are with him, in spirit, as he walks.

A favorite memory from his walks keeps him smiling as he moves on: “A group of five kids on bicycles stopped me in Oshamanbe (in southern Hokkaido) asking me about the two flags fluttering from my backpack. One of the kids said, ‘You must be from Switzerland,’ recognizing one of the flags. They asked me so many questions and were so curious and interested in my journey. I can’t imagine kids in Switzerland doing the same thing if a lone Japanese man were walking through a small village.” The other flag Kohler carries is, of course, Japan’s.

Visit Kohler’s blog “Walk through Japan” at www.japanfenster.ch/japantrip/en/