Sonoko Nakaya is one of the first Japanese people that I made friends with in Japan Through her stories of her travel adventures she inspired me to see the world. I will always be grateful for introducing me to what this world has to offer. I hope you all enjoy this inspiring interview.
Where did you first travel by yourself and how old were you?
I was 23 years old when I first went to India by myself. This was the third time for me to go there but I had previously gone with other people.
Who or what inspired you to travel?
I can’t tell exactly what inspired me to travel but it might have been because of my childhood experience in Taiwan. I lived in Taiwan for 5 years when I was a child and had the opportunity to get to know a different culture, different food, a different language, different people…..I guess that experience made me interested in exploring the world.
Sonoko in Turkey
India has a reputation of being a place you either love or hate. You are one of the ones who love it. Why?
I have been to India 12 times but I haven’t found the best answer for this question yet. Usually when people ask me “Why do you like the country?” about other countries, I can easily answer“People were very nice!!” “I loved the food!” “The world heritage was great!!”etc…..
But when it comes to India, it is very difficult to answer. Of course I love Indian food, Indian movies, Indian people,there is a lot of beautiful nature and places to see, it is a very unique and interesting country with the mixture of different religions and cultures….But none of them seems to be the best answer for me.
I feel like I’m freed from all of the bondage and I can be myself when I am in India. I don’t need to think about what people think about me or what I look like. I can stay very natural there.Maybe this is the reason why I keep going back ????
How long were you in India? Tell us about your daily life there.
My shortest stay was one week, the longest one was about a year. Maybe 2 years and several months in total?
When I was there long term, I didn’t go sight seeing very much and just enjoyed staying at the place. I ate at cheap local restaurants,walked around the market and town, talked with local people….I also worked as a volunteer in Kolkata.
Have you volunteered in a country,If yes tell us about your experience?
I volunteered at Mother Teresa’s organization in India for one year.(in total. I went back there over again.）I quit my job when I was 23 years old (I was working at a life insurance company as a sales person) and went to India to volunteer there.
I worked at the orphanage for physically and mentally challenged children. I hadn’t had any experience of taking care of children before and it was also quite shocking to see these children who had serious problems. I was also shocked to see how Indian workers treated children.
Gradually I started to understand it’s because of the cultural difference and lack of education(The organization hires very poor people to give them a job I found myself enjoying the work so much. After this experience, I decided to work with children in Japan and studied again. Now I’m a nursery school teacher and I really, really enjoy my job.
If I hadn’t volunteered with Mother Teresa’s organization, I wouldn’t have been able to realize how much I love children, so I am grateful for the organization.
I also worked at the hospice for 2 months. It is the most popular place for foreign volunteers but I felt like I was useless because I didn’t understand their language and sometimes I made them angry or cry because of that.
So I decided to focus on background work like washing dishes, bed sheets and diapers. I didn’t like this place very much because working with children gave me a lot of good vibes but working with dying people zapped my energy
In Nairobi,Kenya, there is a Japanese man who runs a small school in the slum. I went to help make the school yard with some other Japanese travelers. I was told to collect cow’s dung from outside and was picking up a lot of dried dung on my birthday!!
I also volunteered in the day-care center for Tibetan refugees children in Dharamsala, India. There was always a water shortage problem and it was very difficult to take care of children when we needed to clean them.
Sonoko in Ethiopia
How do you afford to travel?
I just work, work, work, work, work, and give up many things while in Japan and save money. I’ve made three long-term trips in my life and every time I quit my job after saving enough money and traveled until my savings almost ran out.
Sonoko in Namibia
Being a female what was it like to travel through the Middle East?
In most of the countries people were very honest, kind and trustworthy so I really enjoyed traveling there. But I got teased a lot in some countries while walking on the street alone, this didn’t happen at all while walking with a man.
In Iran, even foreigners have to wear a scarf on their head and have to cover the bottom with a long shirt or coat all the time. This is the law and it will also avoid problems with men. But even when I dressed appropriately, one guy touched my bottom at the sandwich shop!!
I elbowed him in the stomach very hard twice and made him apologize though…..
When I went to the countryside in Yemen, I had to wear a “niqab”to cover my whole face and a black long coat to cover my whole body. My face became so sweaty and very uncomfortable and it was also very difficult to eat or drink something under the niqab. I really appreciated that I was born in Japan and could wear whatever I like.
The funny thing was that I felt shy to show my face to people once I got used to wearing a niqab even though I had been exposing my face to everyone my whole life.
Sonoko in Yemen
Do you have any tips or recommendations on how to travel through the Middle East?
Because of the media, you might think that the Middle East is dangerous but actually it’s quite safe and Muslim people’s hospitality is great. As long as you respect local culture and religion and dress appropriately, you will have a great time there.
You are a very independent traveler.Do you sometimes take tours,this includes day tours if yes tell us briefly one. If no tell us why?
Basically I don’t like to take tours but sometimes I take day tours when it’s difficult to go to a place by myself (for example when there is no public transportation or when I can’t go there without a guide). I took day tours in Cappadocia in Turkey, glacier trekking in Patagonia,Masai Mara National Reserve, Kakku in Myanmar, Tibet
Sonoko in Patagonia
You have traveled long term and now you only travel on short trips which do you prefer? Will you ever travel long term again?
I think both of them have good and bad points. Once I traveled for 2 years and 6 months with the budget of 2 million yen(about 20,000 USD). I wanted to see as many places as possible so I always had to stay at the cheapest dirtiest hostels, I had to give up eating at restaurants and I cooked by myself almost everyday in expensive countries. It was quite stressful that I always had to mind my budget but I always had enough TIME at each place instead and it was great.
Recently I travel only for a short time. I stay at more comfortable hostels, I can eat whatever I like, I don’t have to spend a lot of time for bargaining. I have much less stress in regard with budget but I have to rush all the time.
I prefer long term travel but I don’t think I will ever do it again. Because the situation doesn’t allow me to do it any more. When I was younger it was easy to find a job again after the long trip but it’s becoming more difficult as I get older. I also didn’t want to settle down at all and traveling always used to be my first priority but recently I would rather settle down and have my own children rather than traveling. I never expected that I would become like this but I think I’m getting old!!!
Sonoko in India
What has travel taught you about the world and about yourself?
Travel has taught me to see how ignorant I am!! While traveling I came across a lot of new knowledge. I also learned that we should not believe all of the things which media shows us. To see is to believe!!
After spending one year in India when I was 23 years old, I realized how lucky I am to be born in a rich country I had a house to live, food to eat, clothes to wear,had a chance to go to school and had freedom to make my own choices for many things.
Since then I am able to appreciate many things. I became happier than before because I have become less materialistic and know I have enough. Having a good status, having a “good” job, becoming rich and having a nice big house and an expensive car mean nothing to me.
I live in a very small apartment and don’t have much money (I mean for Japanese standard) but my mind is always happy because I’m satisfied with what I have now.
Sonoko in Cuba
You have traveled through Asia, Africa, the Middle East,South and Central America but you have never been to Europe and only New York in America. Tell us why you haven’t traveled to these places and do you plan to in the future?
I was interested in only developing countries because I love the places where I can see something very different from my own country and their original deep culture. But I think everywhere has been modernized and westernized rapidly so I wanted to visit these places before they change.
To the contrary, I can guess what I can see in Europe easily. African naked tribal people who have lip plates attract me more than beautiful cities in Europe. Another reason why I haven’t visited Europe is of course budget.
Traveling in Europe costs a lot more than traveling in other areas. If I had visited Europe during my poor long term backpacking trip, I must have been eating only bread and cheese everyday and given up entering many good museums and sightseeing spots. It’s a pity if I had to travel like that …..
Sonoko in Kenya
Recently I am starting to be interested in Europe too so I would like to visit there in the future I was not planning of going to New York at all. To be honest I was not the least bit interested in US. I actually wanted to fly from Mexico to India but the flight was very expensive. Flying from New York to India cost about one-third so I just went to New York for the flight. But as a result, I was amazed with New York and had a great time there for one week!!!
You haven’t traveled much in Japan either but recently I heard that you want to travel more in your own country. Why do you want to do this and where do you want to go?
The main reason is that I know I don’t have enough time to travel abroad anymore. Now that I have only 7~9 days holiday so I would rather stay in Japan. I would like to go trekking in the mountains in Japan.
Recently I saw many beautiful pictures of Japanese mountains which my friends posted on facebook and I was surprised to know that I can see such beautiful mountains in Japan too.
I also want to visit Hokkaido ,Okinawa and Yakushima.
Christmas/New Years is just around the corner. Will you spend it in another county if so where and what will you do?
I will stay in Japan. I will go back to my parents’ place and spend New Years with them. Over the years I have been away from Japan at this time of year, so I will try to spend time with my parents.
If you have a question for Sonoko feel free to ask she would be happy to answer any questions.