Lena is an IT consultant who has been living in Tokyo for almost 3 years now, although she was born and raised in Bavaria, Germany. She speaks Japanese very well after seven years of learning the language in university and, of course, while living in Japan. She enjoys reading fantasy books, self-help stuff, or educational books. Occasionally, she does yoga, likes baking cookies, and explores local neighborhoods of Tokyo and its surrounding cities. Lena calls herself ‘shy’, but she loves meeting people, especially when she travels. Usually, she travels with her Japanese boyfriend, Taka.
Lena runs the blog Social Travel Experiment, where she wants to teach travelers about destinations from the perspective of locals. Her readers learn how and where to stay in social environments and what to experience in doing so – that means an in-depth look at a culture through the eyes of locals. The Social Travel Experiment Blog has been nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award – an award from bloggers for bloggers who are creative, inspiring, spread positive vibes, and sunshine in the life of their readers.
Let’s hear what Lena has to say about life, travel, and authentic travels.
What’s your concept of life? Do you have a life motto? How do you integrate it into your present life?
My motto is: “Life starts at the end of your comfort zone.” For me, this means that even if I’m not good at going up to people, I try to challenge myself and do it, getting out there (e.g. moving to Japan, or quit my job and travel). However, I find it hard to integrate this concept in my daily life because I have a daily routine (wake up-work-come back home) and the changes I am thinking about are big changes, not daily changes. Even though, I am doing something for myself every day to push me out of my ‘comfort zone’ – e.g. I have started a travel blog and I work on it 2-3 h/day, I research and plan my upcoming trips. I do small steps.
When did you begin traveling or started traveling seriously? Is traveling a constant part of your life?
When I was a teenager, I became interested in Japan and developed a love for this country. I saved all my money and when I was 18, I went to Japan for the first time. I stayed with a host family in Tokyo, attended a language school, and had six weeks to explore the Japanese capital. When I turned back home to Germany, I enrolled in university to study Japanese, and after that, the process of saving money – go to Japan – come back home repeated several times until my graduation. That was the moment when I took a huge step, found a job in Japan, and moved here.
I was always interested in traveling in a more serious way but I never had money to travel how I wanted. I saved all my money for going and coming back from Japan. Now that I live here, I have started to explore other countries, too – especially from the south-eastern part of Asia. I am still fascinated by the Japanese culture, but now it’s easier for me to take small trips to Asia and discover other cultures.
Why are you traveling? What does traveling bring to your life?
Traveling opens your eyes to the differences between countries and I consider that this is important for the level of development of a person – to see different perspectives. People have different ways of thinking. I want to know and learn about these differences. Traveling broadens my horizon and I get to know these things about others. For example, I realized people in other countries have a different sense of punctuality. In Germany (and Japan), if someone says to meet at 12, you are there at 12 (or 5 minutes earlier). Other cultures are much more relaxed and mean ‘around 12’ when they say 12, but they might arrive 10 to 20 minutes late. If you want to meet them at 12, you have to stress that you mean ‘12 sharp’. There are so many other cultural differences and ways to see the world that we never know when we don’t open up to other people’s way of thinking.
Did you travel when you were a child with your parents? Did you like it? Has this affected you somehow?
I think it is because of my parents that I fell in love with traveling the world. When I was growing up in Germany, we went on family holidays once a year. The most memorable one was a four-week trip to Venezuela when I was 12 or something like that. My mother was born and grew up in Venezuela until she was 18. During the trip, she showed us her old house where she used to live and the school where she studied. I also met friends of my mother. This was the first time I got to see the difference between Europe and other cultures. I was fascinated by the difference between what I was used to in Germany and what I was experiencing in Venezuela. Food was very different but delicious, people behaved differently and had quite different lives than people who I knew back home. Everything was different and I found that both very interesting and challenging. The trip had a big impact on the way I saw the world. It was a turning point of my seeing-the-world experience.
How do you feel when you’re traveling? What’s different when you are traveling than when you’re staying at home?
When I work, I have a routine. When I am traveling, I feel free. I can do whatever I want: I can wake up whenever I want, I can go to the beach, I can go to a restaurant, I can explore a new place. Traveling is freedom, the opposite of a daily job routine. This feeling of freedom makes me more curious and I feel more energized when I explore something new every day. When I am traveling, I want to get up early to see the sunrise, something I would never do while I am at home. I want to take long walks around a neighborhood and take pictures of all the small things that are different from what I know from home in Germany or Japan. I know every person in the world only has a certain amount of time on this earth and I feel like when I don’t travel this time is running away from me. When I travel I feel like I am using my time on earth how I should be using it. My choice is to use it to be happy and free.
Where have you been traveling in the world so far?
At the age of 12, I went with my parents to Venezuela. When I grew up, I started to travel in Europe. There, I have traveled to France, Spain, England, Croatia, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Iceland. England is one of my favorite destinations so far, but I have been only to London until now. I did most of my trips within Europe while I was still living in Germany. Since moving to Japan, I have mainly been traveling within South-East Asia and, of course, back to Germany to visit my family and friends. Among the Asian countries, I have visited I can mention Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. Besides Japan, I really loved exploring Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, because of it’s delicious food and our super friendly hosts.
What’s your traveling style or your traveling pace? How often do you travel and for how long?
At this moment, my traveling pace depends very much on how much free time I have. Since I still have an office job, I don’t have too many free days and I have to adapt myself to my current working pace. Secondly, I don’t travel alone. I feel lonely if I travel alone and I like to share my experiences with someone.
For me, traveling is about culture, people, and food, and if I go somewhere, I want to get to know the place, its people, and their recommendations. For example, our last trip to Taipei, Taiwan, lasted only three days (an extended weekend). I did a lot of research in advance on what to see and I looked for a host on Couchsurfing. We found a nice host and when we arrived, she took us to a Taiwanese restaurant with her friends. The following day, we woke up around 10 a.m., went to see some temples, and ate a lot of local food from different markets (I loved the Gua Bao – Taiwanese style burgers in a steemed bun filled with pork and mustard greens). On the other hand, when we travel through Japan for a weekend trip, we rent a car and stay in a hotel. Me and my boyfriend, we both speak Japanese, so we have no problem talking to people. We already know the local culture, so we focus more on exploring nature, shrines, or something that is worth seeing in the region we visit rather than meeting locals and learning from them.
Which places do you choose to go? How do you select the destinations?
As I am working full-time I have chosen places easy to get to (e.g. with a direct flight connection). Usually, these are places close to where I live – Asian countries close to Japan. Besides, these countries are cheaper and it’s easy to go there even if you don’t have too much money. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a small or big country/town. If I haven’t been there it’s still interesting to visit it. However, for our upcoming around-the-world-trip starting July this year, we have made a long list of places we want to explore, but we will have to select and make some decisions based on the time and money we have.
What’s the difference between ‘authentic travels’ and ‘simple travels’ in your opinion?
‘Simple traveling’ means going to a country, stay in a nice hotel, sunbath on a beach all day long, go out to tourist attractions (maybe with a travel agency), and repeat this cycle every day. ‘Authentic travels’ means connecting with people, getting to know the place, its traditions, its history, the real local food, eat and try stuff. When you know a place through its people, history, and culture, you add a new layer of knowledge and understanding to your travel experience.
Do you travel in your own authentic way or not at this moment?
At this moment, I try to travel in my own authentic way as much as possible (staying with locals and exploring a place in-depth) but sometimes I stray from this kind of travel and go on holiday somewhere just to lie on the beach, sleep until late, and enjoy my free time. I don’t really understand this as traveling, though. I would just call it a ‘holiday’. Eventually, I need more time to travel in my style. If I had an infinite amount of money, I’d totally stay in a lot of countries for a year and explore them all more in-depth.
Do you give up your dreams of traveling in a certain way for the sake of something or somebody else?
I always try to be true to myself. If I want to travel in a certain way, I do it. If I don’t feel I am traveling in a way that brings something positive to my life, I may try something completely different. I don’t let myself get influenced by what other people think or do. I do whatever I feel I want to do. This is sometimes a bit hard, though.For example, on one of my first solo trips in Japan, I realized I get very lonely traveling on my own and don’t enjoy it. So I always need a travel partner. No matter if it is my partner, my parents or friends – they also have interests and thinks they want or don’t want to do. So sometimes it is necessary to compromise during my travels because I am not the only one involved in them. However, I have realized that sometimes I get to experience wonderful things that haven’t been on my original plan but someone else’s plan. You just have to stay open.
Are you planning to travel the same way from now on or you want to change something? You wish you’d travel in a different way?
There’s for sure something that is going to change in the near future. However, it’s not going to change in the travel style but just the amount of countries visited. We have plans only for one year of traveling (a gap year). There is a lot of stuff we want to see, but unfortunately, we will go fast from country to country; we don’t have time to get to know the places as best as possible. We have money saved only for one year, so we want to see what is possible in this upcoming year.
What plans do you have in the future?
I am still fascinated by everything the Japanese people do, but I have grown restless staying in one place. Taka, my Japanese boyfriend, thankfully feels the same way and we are going to start a big adventure in July 2018 – a social trip around the world. It will take one year and we will be visiting at least 22 countries.
We have already booked some flights for our round-the-world trip. What we know so far is that we will start with Hong Kong (5 days), then we will go to England when the weather is good (3 weeks, rent a car around the country); after that Morocco (our first time in Africa), Egypt (the pyramids), and we haven’t decided yet if we go to other countries from Africa. From there, we will fly to Dubai, India, Sri Lanka, and some more Asian Countries. We also want to go to Australia and New Zeeland, then the United States (a road trip through the country for one month), and finally we will hit South America at the end of our round-the-world trip. During this year of traveling, I want to constantly write on the blog about our experiences.
This is what Lena has to say for us about her traveling style. Let’s wish her all the best for their upcoming trip and follow them on the Social Travel Experiment. Good luck Lena and Taka.