Did You See This?

Three Weeks in Japan by Train

An exhilarating whirlwind tour of Japanese culture.

In the video above, filmmaker Vincent Urban presents a dazzling view of Japan. Filmed over the course of a three-week visit in 2015, Urban presents the island nation as it looked while traveling throughout the country on its Shinkansen high-speed railway lines. It’s an appropriately high tech way to see a nation that so vibrantly blends the past and the future.

Urban visited the big cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima, as well as Kyoto and lots of tucked-away hamlets. Japan isn’t a large country, per se, only 145,925 square miles—or about 3.8 percent the size of the United States—but it’s both more futuristic and ancient than the U.S. in many ways.* Once the train doors close at the beginning of the video, you plunge instantly into this temporal schism, from wondrous techno delights to scenes steeped in history. And back and forth, back and forth.

But wait. After a while, you begin to understand how Japan’s modernity—its shapes, movement, and themes—is actually of a piece with traditional Japan. A corridor of skyscrapers breaks into a pathway between bamboo trees. Cityscapes and meditation gardens and modern arenas and Sumo wrestlers come next. And then a sparklingly mirrored escalator alongside a paper-walled home. It’s all one thing.  

No one and nothing stands still, after all—every living culture is always becoming something else. And paradoxical Japan is the perfect embodiment of this idea. It’s hard to see its culture any other way after watching this remarkable travelogue.

Correction, April 4, 2016: This post originally misstated that Japan was 38 percent the size of the United States. It’s 3.8 percent the size of the U.S.