Brandon Zimmerman: The Military Brat Turned Map-Maker

24 August, 2023 | Blog, Interviews

Brandon Zimmerman is a traveller with a unique background and a passion for exploring new destinations. Brandon grew up as a military brat, living between the United States and Germany and travelling extensively with their family. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography in Colorado and a Master’s Degree in Geography in Missouri. Currently residing in Japan, Brandon’s love for maps led him to a job making maps.


Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu


Brandon, please tell us something about yourself. Who are you, where do you come from and how did you start travelling in the first place?

Answering the question Where I am from gets more and more difficult. I grew up as a military brat. My father was in the army, I was born in Germany. I lived back and forth between the United States and Germany. I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Geography in the state of Colorado and a Master’s in Geography in the state of Missouri. Because of my career path and love of maps, I was offered a job in Japan literally making maps, and have been here going on three years now. 

I grew up travelling. Both my parents and sister are avid travellers. When we were living in Germany, my parents took advantage of holiday weekends and we found ourselves travelling to many countries. We took road trips throughout the U.K., took a cruise ship from Italy to Greece, explored Prague in the Czech Republic, and travelled to many other exciting destinations. 

As I got older, I kept travelling and haven’t stopped yet. 


Diving in Okinawa


Give us a few hidden gems of your country that most foreigners may not know but you absolutely recommend.


Since technically, Germany is my home country, I know of a few locations I love visiting that are not your typical destination like Munich or Berlin which most people travel to. 

My first hidden gem is a location in Germany called Die Rhön. I kind of grew up in this area. Die Rhön is an area of low hills found in upper Bavaria and southern Hesse and Thuringia. It’s such a beautiful area where people from around Germany come to hike, sightsee, and ski, and it even has a popular place called the Wasserkuppe where you can paraglide or do rodelbahn (alpine sledging).  

Another not-so-well-known city in Germany is one of my favourites. That is the city of Würzburg, Germany. Würzburg is a decent-sized city that is full of history from medieval history to WWII. The Residence is probably the most famous attraction here. The Residence a UNESCO site, is a palace that was built in the 1700s.

Today, visitors can walk the beautiful gardens and even take a tour inside the Residence. After a visit to the Residence, I recommend walking through the historical town centre and hiking to the Marienberg Fortress, which is a castle perched on top of a hill, overlooking the city. 


Durnstein Castle, Austria


What is your most preferred style of travel and why?When you travel, what are your biggest interests?


I don’t really have a preferred style of travel. I’ve travelled solo, with family, and friends, and lately, it’s been with my wife. I feel it’s always going to be a unique experience no matter who I travel with. My wife and I have a lot of similar interests so our last few trips have been stress-free and we both get to do and see what we want. 

I have a love for nature and wildlife. I always like to add nature hikes or popular animal destinations to our itinerary. I am also a big foody, I love food, so I always enjoy trying local cuisine. I always say I’ll try everything at least once, so I’ve eaten some pretty interesting foods while travelling. 


El Yunque, Puerto Rico


Please share some special stories from your travels, that have really shaped you.

That is why we travel right? The stories and memories we all have from travelling make us all great storytellers. I have two stories to share, I think of these daily. Because of stories like this, I’ve learned to say yes and just go with the flow, because it usually ends up with the best stories. 

In 2008, I went to Germany for summer break. I took a week’s trip to Vienna, Austria with a friend of mine. We were standing around and met this photographer from Colorado. He had all of his camera equipment with him. We were at the Hofburg, he was teaching us a few of his tips and tricks for shooting photos at night.

All of a sudden, the Rathaus or town hall lit up. We walked in that direction. We passed a building and couldn’t help but notice an event going on. There were a few people who walked out, dressed very nicely with expensive suits on. They told us, the soccer club of Vienna was there hosting an event and actually gave us permission to enter the private event.

Since we were with a photographer with equipment, they must have thought we were supposed to be there. In the end, we got to meet some people and enjoy free drinks and food. Because we randomly stumbled upon an English-speaking photographer, our night turned into one of my most memorable memories. 

For this story, I was in Lima, Peru, in 2016. It was the year of the presidential election between Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. I was walking around Lima and saw a huge police presence around the city. I found myself in the Plaza San Martin and there were thousands of people here getting ready for a protest.

There were also police everywhere and even the military. I was in the middle of it all. As a photographer, I wanted to take a photo really badly to show my wife what I got myself into. I stood there debating. Out of nowhere a guy came up to me, asked if I spoke English and told me I was free to take photos.

He was part of a press and told me to follow him so I could get some great shots and learn about what was going on. I ended up staying for hours, taking photos of policemen, soldiers, armoured vehicles, politicians, and protestors. I even made friends that day and still, communicate with them. Again, just me standing out in the crowd ended up being one of the greatest stories of my life. 

Grand Canyon, Arizona


Hvalfjordur in Iceland


Can you dismiss some popular myth or stereotype about the places which you visited? (about Japan for example)

When first coming to Japan and doing research, I thought Japan was considered an expensive country. In reality, Japan especially as a tourist is quite cheap. Meals are of great value here. You can get a full set meal with a main dish, soup, rice, and other sides for under ¥1000 which is about $10, plus there is no tipping here.

Entrance fees to museums and historical sites are cheap as well. I live in an apartment and my rent is much cheaper than what I was paying in the United States. 

Another misconception about Japan is the thought that it’s nothing but large concrete jungles, modern, and technologically advanced. Sure, this is the case for some cities like Tokyo or Osaka, but the majority of Japan is rural, and mountainous, with stunningly gorgeous small towns rich in history and culture.


Snow Monkey Park, Japan


Mt. Fuji Summit, Japan


How did your general view of the world change with travelling?


The more I travel, the more curious I have become. Every time I travel, I am eager to learn and experience new things. When you travel to various places, you realize how similar people are around the world. I have so much respect for all nations around the world.

Travelling to developing countries has opened up my eyes the most though. Sometimes I don’t realize how fortunate I truly am, to be able to travel. There is a high percentage of the world that can’t afford to take a trip. For some people, a trip to the big city is the trip of a lifetime. 


Montreal Olympic Park, Canada


Which places would you come back to and why?

In all honesty, I’d travel back to every country I’ve been to. I’ve had great experiences in every place and wish to see and experience more from these countries. But a few countries that are high on my list are Peru and Guatemala. 

I went to Peru to do the famous trek to Machu Picchu. I spent time in both Lima and Cusco. But Peru is a large and diverse country. I have a long list of attractions and places to see here including visiting the city of Arequipa, spending time on Lake Titicaca, and exploring the jungles in the northern part of the country. 

I was in Guatemala for two weeks about ten years ago. I am fascinated with Mayan history and culture. I want to visit the Mayan Ruins of El Mirador in northern Guatemala. This is a multi-day trek through the jungle. I could only imagine how much wildlife I would encounter on a trip like this.

Parque John F. Kennedy in Lima, Peru


What will be the next country to visit? How do you choose them?


With Covid-19, I have been stuck in Japan and have not been able to leave the country. Recently, I was given the ok that I can fly back and forth between the U.S. and Japan. One of my goals is to visit every U.S. State and territory, so I am thinking about flying to Hawaii or Guam next. 

When I am able to travel again outside of Japan, I really want to visit Vietnam and Cambodia. I selected these countries based on stories I’ve heard from others here in Japan. I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat though and try some of the cuisines in these countries.  


Scorpion in Mexico City


Finally our signature question – if you could invite any 4 people to dinner, from any period in history, who would your guests be?


There are many people both past and present that have influenced my life or I just enjoy their stories and achievements. Keeping it travel related, I grew up watching both Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel. I also am a huge fan of all things Vikings and think Leif Eriksson would be fun to share a meal and some mead with. Finally, when it comes to exploration, I enjoy reading about Sir Edmund Hillary (and Tenzing Norgay) and their trek to the summit of Mt. Everest. There you have it, I would invite Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Leif Eriksson, and Sir Edmund Hillary. 


Tikal, Guatemala