BGeigie Diaries: What Covering 2,000 Kilometer of Japan – On Foot, With A Camera – Can Teach You

A map of Stefan Speidel’s walk and bGeigie measurements.

Covering 2,000 kilometers of Japan on foot with a bGeigie on his back was a journey of rediscovery for Stefan Speidel. As an avid photographer, Stefan documented his journey taking pictures along the entire way. 

Get up; get ready; get going; get lost in thought; get connected to the country and its people; get to the end of the day upload data; go to sleep; wake up; repeat. 

Stefan Speidel’s more than 2,000-kilometer trek across Japan on foot doesn’t fit well into one sentence. Luckily, the idea of a picture saying the same as a thousand words helps. Stefan is an avid photographer and carried a trusty Leica, as well as a Safecast bGeigie, along with him.  

After 30 years at Siemens AG, mostly in Japan, Stefan had a list of things that he wanted to do. It included a journey of rediscovery of Japan and the Japanese. Below is his description of his trip, and his thoughts about Japan, Safecast, and open data.

Stefan Speidel: The starting point was a desire to walk along some of the old kaido, the highways that connected Tokugawa-era Edo with other provinces. Specifically, I wanted to walk the Tōkaidō, as well as the Nakasendō, which both connect Edo/Tokyo and Kyoto via different routes across central Honshu — one along the Pacific Ocean, the other through the mountains.

I was going to start in April and set myself three months for this journey. I calculated that if I averaged 22 – 25 kilometers a day I would be able to cover around 2,000 kilometers during that time, giving me the chance to expand my journey beyond Kyoto and further to the western parts of Japan.

These shoes carried Stefan Speidel – and a bGeigie – 2,000 kilometers across Japan.

Packing lightly was a priority. I made a list of things that I would like to bring and compared it to a goal of carrying a maximum of ten percent of my body weight. In the end, I had three-four sets of clothing, some rain gear, a hat, my camera, a  MacBook Air and a bGeigie.

Early on in the trip, I met an old man who had been doing similar trips. His motto was ‘start early, move slow, and keep going.’ For him, that involved starting at 4.00 in the morning. I think his motto is sage advice for much more in life than walking. Although I’m less sure about starting the day at 4.00 in the morning…

Stefan Speidel on his walk.

My own rhythm quickly turned into walking about 4 km/h for up to ten hours a day. That way, I would surpass 25, 35, and on occasion, even 40 or more kilometers in a single day. The limit for any given day was rarely a lack of strength in my legs. More often I felt I needed more time to process all the things I was seeing. 

Walking, especially by yourself, lets you look around and take the time to digest the scenery and people. It gives you a different view on many things, and I would often find myself around the middle of the day wondering ‘why are people so busy?’ I know it’s a question that, at the time, was partly based on my luxury of being able to focus on just observing what was around me, but I do think people tend to forget to move at their own speed and stop to appreciate their surroundings from time to time.  

The trip itself was a patchwork of experiences that I’m in some ways still processing. Meeting people along the way, having small conversations, walking parts of the way with different people and connecting with them in ways that are difficult in the rush of daily life. One of my favorite memories was when my German friend and I walked into a narrow valley where two guys were fixing the roof of a reed hut. I asked about what they were doing, and it turned out that the house was a zen retreat. The priest in charge told us that he had trained with a German abbot. After a bit of back-and-forth, we discovered that we had a common acquaintance, a Japanese friend who lives in Tokyo. The coincidence of making the connection could only have happened by taking the time to stop in that remote valley. 

While walking, you get to see a mix of the road infrastructure, from lush mountain trails and side roads to the national highways with heavy traffic. Most of the heavily trafficked roads have sidewalks, but you still have to be watchful. In a way, I think the contrast between the highway stretches and the backroads, coastal roads, and trails make the latter seem even more beautiful and peaceful. 

A picture from the road.

One of the more surreal experiences was walking through a 1.4-kilometer-long tunnel. You really don’t know how much noise a car makes in a tunnel until you’re stuck walking next to them for a stretch like that. The air was quite cool, but I remember how I emerged back in the light, soaked in sweat. It must have been scarier than I realized at the time.

The sights, smells, and sounds of Japan are so varied that you come to appreciate the typical nature of many of them. The smell of soy sauce wafting from homes around dinner time, the sound of temple bells, and the uncountable different nuances of green, and the many roadside shrines. It all gives a feeling of being in and connected to Japan in a way that is difficult for especially foreigners – even those who have lived here for a long time – to achieve.

During the journey, I had a bit of an online network that talked about what I was doing and what my plans were. People were extraordinarily kind and generous. They gave me recommendations on where to stay and who I should try to meet along the way. It was a good example of the way that technology can connect us and let us share experiences with each other. 

I guess that’s also part of why I’m involved with gathering data for Safecast. My initial connection to the organization comes through Pieter who I know through a shared interest in photography. We met at a Leica event. 

Day 1 on the Saba Kaido. Obama to Kaminegori. Fukui, Japan.

That was back before the Tohoku quake struck… Speaking of which, I was in Tokyo when it happened. I had been out with my boss and we were going back to the office in a company car. We were pulling into the garage, and I first thought that the driver was going crazy, alternating between the brake and accelerator as fast as he could. Then we realized that everything was shaking and the buildings around us were moving back and forth.

Having lived in Japan for a long time, I’ve experienced a lot of earthquakes, but I immediately felt that this earthquake was different. It was more powerful than anything I had ever experienced before. As I remember it, we heard of the tsunami warnings pretty quickly after the quake hit. Scary figures of tsunamis 6 or 7-meter high, which later proved to be poor estimates. But at the time I was focused on making sure my wife and daughter, who was 17 at the time, were safe, as well as ensuring that everyone at the office was okay. I was in central Tokyo when the earthquake hit, 20 kilometers from home. In the evening, I started making my way back on foot. There were hundreds of thousands of people walking because public transportation was not working. It was very quiet, and while there was no sense of drama, the silence and focus on getting home created a very strange atmosphere. One of the only places you could definitely feel something afoot, apart from the number of people in the streets, was the convenience stores. Their shelves were all completely bare. 

I made it home safely and managed to communicate a little with friends and family. It was only the next morning that I saw the first images from Tohoku. Even then, the scale of the disaster was not really known Around noon that day, we learned that Fukushima Daiichi had what seemed like an explosion, but there was definitely no talk of a meltdown that day. 

Fukuroi, Shizuoka, Japan.

Later we saw the images from Fukushima. I think most people who were in Japan at the time will attest to the fact that the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown, changed them on some fundamental level. I mean, we saw images like the ones of someone trying to survive by clinging to an antenna as the waters swept around them. Imagine the amount of stress that person must have undergone – and the strength it took to hang on. Or the scenes in Onagawa where the waters toppled concrete buildings, some four and five stories high, and swept smaller ones up, carrying them first inland and then off out to sea.

When we heard about the meltdown at Daiichi, an additional issue arose. We needed to make decisions with very limited information, both personally and at the company. How dangerous was the situation? Should we stay in Tokyo or move west away from the plume? Even with the technical expertise that we had in the company, these were hard questions to answer without more data. And data was practically non-existent.  At the same time, trust in information coming from the government was low and fading.

I wanted to have my own Geiger counter to be able to measure what was going on. And I wanted to have access to the data that other people measured. Today, I would say that Safecast offers reliable information about radiation levels not only in Japan but across the world. I am happy if my walk can do a little bit to support that.

Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan.

We need to get back to figuring out facts. What is true and not true must be grounded in data and information. That is the basis for making informed decisions. Without data, we cannot judge if an area is dangerous or not. Even with data, it is hard for people to decide if a potential risk is acceptable. Therefore, we need comparable data sets. Having only one data source is not trustworthy, and it does not provide an opportunity to compare results to others.

Without sufficient and open data, we cannot make progress and get a better understanding of radiation’s potential impact on our health. Again, this is not just something that covers the people who were in Fukushima during the disaster, and the time since. To this day, we still don’t have any consensus on how much radiation is OK. 

Stefan Speidel has written a fantastic book about his journey. It is now available on Amazon.