Swiss treks across Japan to boot radiation fears

A Swiss man who walked from Hokkaido to Kagoshima Prefecture on foot in five months to dispel fears of radiation in the country among people overseas is receiving worldwide attention.

Thomas Kohler, 44, worked at a travel agency in Zurich before the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. He was in charge of arranging trips to Japan, but was forced to quit after many customers canceled trips to Japan because they believed the entire nation had become contaminated.

His journey has been reported by national and foreign media, and Japan's Tourism Agency issued a note of appreciation to him in February for his efforts to alleviate deeply rooted radiation fears among people abroad.

His blog, on which he recorded his encounters with local residents in Japanese, English and German, has also gained popularity.

Kohler had previously studied Japanese here. After losing his job, he decided to travel across Japan. He said he was deeply attached to the nation, and was determined to tell the outside world about the real situation in Japan by walking almost the entire length of the country.

He arrived in Japan in July, and first engaged in volunteer activities to remove debris in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. He witnessed local people who had lost family members searching for photos and letters among the debris, and encouraging each other. Kohler said he was impressed by the Japanese character of helping others during emergencies, and decided to report not only about his journey but also about people he encountered.

Kohler began his trek at Cape Soya in Hokkaido on Aug. 1, choosing a route along the Sea of Japan, as many roads along the Pacific coast were closed due to damage caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. He walked an average of about 23 kilometers a day.

He slept in a tent, though sometimes local residents offered him a bed. In Tottori Prefecture, an elderly woman fixed his torn pants and let him stay at her house for a night. Kohler posted daily reports on his interactions with local residents. As of early April, his blog had 132,500 visitors from various countries, including Switzerland, France and Italy.

In November, another Swiss man who saw Kohler's blog joined him for a while. On the last day of 2011, Kohler arrived at Cape Sata in Kagoshima Prefecture, about 2,900 kilometers from Cape Soya where his journey began.

After returning to Switzerland in February, Kohler was interviewed by newspapers, magazines and TV programs of five nations, including Switzerland, China and Germany. In March, he attended a press conference in Berlin held by the Tourism Agency ahead of the ITB Berlin travel trade show. He told reporters that people were living life as normal in Japan.

An official of the agency's International Tourism Promotion Division praised Kohler for promoting the reality of the conditions in Japan to the world.

Many people overseas still see Japan as a dangerous place to visit, Kohler said. However, he will continue spreading the message that Japan is safe based on his five-month travel experience.