Japan has come a long way since the era of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), arguably the world's most famous and certainly the first Western Japanophile. Before Hearn, a Greek-Irishman who married the daughter of a local samurai in remote and rural Shimane Prefecture, and also took on Japanese citizenship, there had been virtually no one from afar who had immersed themselves in Japanese culture as deeply as him — or who served so prominently as a cultural interpreter between the East and the West.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Japan is no longer the economic animal, the "Asian tiger," it was feared to be in the 1980s. Instead, it has now more or less settled into being a "soft power," with its global cultural offerings of manga, anime, costume play and more.

But there are still many people following in Hearn's footsteps who are drawn to the Japan of old. Indeed, many such folks have delved deep into aspects of Japanese art and culture that most Japanese themselves have lost touch with — in the process overcoming the often introverted, if not outright xenophobic, establishment to gain not only acceptance but also respect and awe from top practitioners in their chosen fields.