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You met all kinds of people on the roads of old Japan — throngs of them. “An incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japan’s provinces — indeed, at certain times of the year, they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city,” wrote Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716).

Physician, scholar, naturalist, explorer, Kaempfer was in Japan from 1690-92. Fifty years earlier Japan had barred its gates against the menacing outside world — an isolation it would maintain until the mid-19th century. The only foreigners admitted were a handful of Dutch and Chinese traders confined to the little island of Dejima off Nagasaki. Kaempfer, attached to the Dutch East India Company as a physician, writhed under the confinement but twice traveled to Edo (present-day Tokyo) as part the annual delegation that the Company was obliged to send for an audience with the shogun. His “History of Japan,” published posthumously in 1727, was a bestseller — Europe’s first full-length portrait of a remote, mysterious, inaccessible “heathen” land.

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