Taking on the World, One City at a Time
At NCI, our engineers are involved in more than just fixing roads and designing bridges. From hiking, rowing and running, to woodworking, photography and aviation, they are as passionate and talented in their pursuits as they are at their work. For some engineers, their hobbies even include planning adventures to the farthest corners of the world. From Europe to Canada and beyond, our engineers like to travel and one globe-trotting enthusiast, Matt Drago, recently dreamed up and experienced the trip of a lifetime! Read on to hear his first-hand account of his journey to Japan, and how he fueled his own passions over 6,000 miles from NCI and the place he calls home.
Matt is not afraid of travel, and made sure to make the most of every opportunity on his trip. From speaking Japanese to trying delicious and exotic new foods while touring the country, here are some numbers he racked up while experiencing the best of Japan!
Trip Itinerary: Destination Japan!
Arrival in Japan:
Friday, September 7, 2018
New Adventures Ahead
“It’s hard not to be a little afraid before leaving on a big journey – 6000 miles is no small leap! But there’s nothing quite like that first view of a new airport after landing, and it’s certainly enough of an energy rush to wash away any feelings of fatigue after a 12 hour flight. The most surprising thing I felt after landing at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport was how shockingly open everything felt ahead of me – it’s like I had gone from one simple path forward to a whole world of possibilities ahead of me. Yet despite that, one single thought remained in my mind as I set out on my first train ride of the trip: after over 6 months of planning I had finally arrived, and all of my adventures were only just about to begin.”
Saturday, September 8, 2018
Learning from the Unfamiliar
“The first few days of my trip were a whirlwind trying to get accustomed to the many, many differences between the US and Japan. “The weather is far more humid than home! Everyone speaks in a different language! The cars drive on the left side of the road!” But in the midst of these numerous overwhelming differences, I was also identifying and learning about the different ways Japanese cities approach traffic and utility challenges – something that is a favorite activity of mine while traveling. Whether it was observing the distinct gutter system Japan uses for water drainage along streets and pathways, wandering along narrow streets where travel lanes and sidewalks blend together, or noting the different chimes used to indicate which crosswalk was active at an intersection, my time in Kanazawa was an introduction to Japan’s unique infrastructure design and gave me much to reflect on in comparison to my own work with NCI.”
Kyoto: Sunday, September 9 to Wednesday, September 12, 2018
A Modern City Built upon Tradition
“Kyoto is a city known and renowned for its wealth of well-preserved shrines and temples, but the city had far more to offer than just a window into the past. Nishiki Market in the heart of Kyoto was filled with people browsing shops for fresh food and produce, while the Philosopher’s Path offered a more tranquil experience walking alongside a cherry tree-lined canal in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. Additional experiences such as the expansive Kyoto Railway Museum and the narrow, atmospheric Pontocho Alley were further proof of how Kyoto’s historic past is a foundation for the city it is today, giving the city a lively, warm character hard to match elsewhere.”
Takayama: Thursday, September 13 to Friday, September 14, 2018
A Second Home in the Mountains
“I never expected to be so deeply reminded of home while separated from it by thousands of miles, but Takayama managed to do just that. The train ride to this small city took me on a winding journey through the mountains, not unlike my past trips to visit family in Pennsylvania on the other side of the Appalachian Mountains. And Takayama itself felt similar to my college home of Ann Arbor, both in size and culture. Filled with natural sights, cutesy shops, and plenty of heritage, my 24 hour visit to Takayama was a short but sweet cure for any homesickness I had been feeling up to that point of my trip.”
Nagoya: Friday, September 14 to Sunday, September 16, 2018
The Excitement of Everyday Life
“Nagoya is hardly a tourist hotspot compared to many other Japanese cities and towns – it’s consistently voted one of the most ‘boring’ cities to visit in Japan. But despite that, Nagoya felt lively and exciting as a city where everyday life takes center stage over the big temples and attractions of other cities. With a college friend who lives in the city as my guide, I had the opportunity to wander through crowds in train stations and underground malls, visit a nearby amusement park, and dine at many local restaurants I could’ve never found without a local showing me the way. Just like my hometown city of Detroit back home, Nagoya is a place with charm that comes from abandoning the tourist perspective and seeing things through the eyes of those who live there.”
Uchiura: Sunday, September 16 to Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Small Town Warmth
“The Izu Peninsula (about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo) is not a place well known outside of Japan. A distinctly rural area with few English speakers and limited public transit, planning a visit to the area was a much more daunting task than planning any of my more urban stays. Yet the rewards for visiting Uchiura, a small town on Izu’s western coast, were immense: stunning views of Mt. Fuji across Suruga Bay, gorgeous (and exhausting) hikes up coastal cliffs and Awashima Island just offshore, and shop after shop of warmhearted, enthusiastic local residents. My two-night stay on the coast was one of the best parts of my trip, an experience truly unique among all of my adventures and with a warmth I couldn’t have found anywhere else but there.”
Tokyo: Tuesday, September 18 to Sunday, September 23, 2018
The Best Sights are the Ones You Find Yourself
“It’s hard to imagine the scale of the Tokyo metropolis until you realize that it’s a 45 minute train ride across the city to where you’re trying to visit. Simply put, Tokyo is a massive, sprawling network of urban districts – and sometimes that atmosphere can feel very impersonal and oppressive. But what makes Tokyo so incredible is that it’s still possible to make parts of that city small and personal for yourself, despite that massive size. From the lively, bright shops of Harajuku’s Takeshita Street, to the quiet parks of Tsukuda; or from the stunning sight of Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple to a quiet night at a bar with friends in Koyama. Tokyo always has something to offer no matter who you are – you just have to go out and find it for yourself.”
Animation Comes to Life
Japanese animation, or anime, often uses real-world locations as models for locations that appear in shows or movies. During my time in Japan, I took many side trips to visit some of these places and attempted to capture images that matched with their anime counterparts. Below are some examples of my efforts to match the real world with the animated one.
Genko-an Temple, Kyoto / Kyousougiga – Genko-an’s distinct windows appear as a reflection of the feelings of the two pictured characters: the character at ease stands in front of the circular Window of Enlightenment, while the character in strife is in front of the rectangular Window of Confusion.
Bench along Uji River, Uji / Sound! Euphonium – A favorite place of reflection for main character Kumiko Oumae, Sound Euphonium takes place in Uji, about a half hour outside Kyoto and only a few train stops away from the studio that animated it, Kyoto Animation.
Bagpipe Café, Takayama / Hyouka – Also animated by Kyoto Animation, this café appears in Hyouka’s third episode as a setting for a discussion between the show’s main characters.
Mito Yasudaya Ryokan / Love Live! Sunshine!! – Well-known as the inn where famed Japanese author Osamu Dazai would occasionally stay and write portions of his novels, this ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is also the home of Chika Takami in the popular series Love Live Sunshine.
Matt’s Top 5 Tips for Traveling in Japan
1. Go Country!
Visit somewhere rural for at least one night.
2. Learn the Language
Try to learn hiragana and katakana (the two phonetic alphabets used in the Japanese language) if you can, it makes navigation much easier.
3. Get in Shape
Plan on lots of walking and don’t push yourself too hard to see everything.
4. Don’t be Shy
Be prepared for lots of crowds and interactions at restaurants, Japan isn’t very friendly to those with social anxiety.
5. Be Bold
Step out of your comfort zone, whether that’s trying new foods, visiting a public bath, or simply going somewhere on a whim!
Matt’s Upcoming Trips
His trip to Japan was just the beginning. Check out the links below to see what’s next on Matt’s exciting travel agenda!
Matt’s photography skills rival his engineering prowess. To see more of the awe inspiring images he captured during his trip, check out the gallery below.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in the Detroit area, and I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life.
What are some of your interests/hobbies?
My interests tend to grow naturally out of one another, but they include a wide variety of topics such as aviation, public transit networks, Japanese culture and media, photography, roller coasters, and fashion, to name a few.
How do you pursue your interests in your free time?
I usually just spend evenings searching online for more information and reading and learning what I can about each of them – that in turn might motivate me to start considering bigger plans such as a trip to a city or amusement park I’ve never visited, or smaller plans such as a day out looking for good pictures to take or even just watching a Japanese show that caught my eye.
What is your favorite color(s)?
Purple (it’s a distinct color with many shades and numerous applications) and orange (the color of mandarin oranges – they’re my favorite fruit and I was able to get many of them while I was in Japan).
Spring and fall while traveling (milder weather and, if you’re lucky, gorgeous colors with the flowers blooming in spring and the leaves changing color in fall); winter while at home (I love snowy weather and it’s hard to truly hate the cold living in Michigan).
Why visit Japan?
My interest in Japan actually started as an offhand comment 8 years ago when I was planning a spring break trip my senior year of high school and jokingly mentioned Japan as an idea. Though it wasn’t meant seriously at the time, the idea stuck in my head – and as many of my interests in different topics grew (particularly my interests in public transit and Japanese culture), the idea of making a trip to a location that catered to so many of them grew as well from a casual remark to a serious goal.
What was your most and least favorite experience from your trip?
It’s hard to come up with one single favorite experience, but riding the shinkansen (bullet train) absolutely lived up to the hype – I’ve never been on any train that’s accelerated as fast as they did. Least favorite is definitely the flight to Japan – I may have been fortunate enough to have an empty seat next to me, but long-haul flying is something that I look at as more of a necessary evil for any future trips.
Do you know any Japanese?
Matthew G. Drago, EI
A graduate of the University of Michigan with a BS in Civil Engineering, Mr. Drago’s work spans multiple areas of engineering, from plan preparation for roadway designs, to utility improvement and waterline replacement projects. His experience includes preparing maintenance of traffic plans for complex interstate projects, designing traffic and detour layouts, calculating full quantity and cost estimates, and analyzing and reporting on crash data. Matt also has experience working on drainage repair design, field inspection, survey data collection and processing, sidewalk design, and water main design.
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