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Take a trip back to 1800s Japan with this collection of breathtaking photographs.

Last month, we finally hit the date on which Back to the Future II was supposed to take place, which was cause for a little melancholy about how hoverboards and self-lacing shoes haven’t become as commonplace or user-friendly as the movie depicted them as being in 2015. Those are pretty minor issues, though, compared to the fact that the first Back to the Future showed a working time machine in 1985, and we’re no closer to having one 30 years later.

But even if we can’t actually travel to the past, we’ve got the next best thing in this series of stirring photographs of 1800s Japan.

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The pictures seen here were taken by Kusakabe Kimbei, one of the very first Japanese photographers to rise to international prominence. Born in 1841, Kimbei (who generally went by his given name) spent his 20s and 30s working as a photo colorist in the Yokohama studio of Italian-British photographer Felice Beato.

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Kimbei would eventually become a photographer in his own right and open a photography studio in 1881. This collection of photos, which is in the possession of the New York Public Library and part of its digital collection, consists of images captured between roughly 1880 and 1890. With Japan’s policy of enforced isolation from other nations not being fully renounced until 1868, Kimbei’s work represents one of the last glimpses of Japanese society before its rapid modernization.

Kimbei photographed the cityscapes of many of Japan’s largest towns, although some of them are hard to recognize for us citizens of the 21st century. For example, this modest-looking row of buildings…

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…is Ginza, the blue-blooded neighborhood in the heart of Tokyo.

▼ Another shot of Tokyo, this time taken on the bank of the Sumida River

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Similarly, we wouldn’t have been able to guess that this is Kyoto’s Gion geisha district.

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Yokohama harbor, which today is one of the busiest ports in Japan

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Out in the countryside, the communities seem a little closer in size to their modern counterparts, and some of the buildings even look like the preserved examples you’ll find in historical tourist destinations. The structures in Kimbei’s photos, though, have an undeniably lived-in quality which lends them a feeling of solemn significance.

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Among other places, Kimbei’s journeys took him to the Nakasendo, one of the two major roads that connected Kyoto and Tokyo, or Edo as the city used to be known.

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With a nationwide rail system yet to be developed, and commoners not allowed to use horses along the Nakasendo, most travelers made the journey on foot over the course of several days. Along the way were clusters of businesses catering to the needs of those passing through the area.

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But while many of the places photographed look quite different today, certain shots show parts of Japan that have hardly changed at all in the century-plus since they were taken. Kamakura’s Great Buddha and Iwakuni’s Kintai Bridge, for example, are such beautiful designs that they’ve been left largely unaltered and still attract visitors to this day.

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But even if some aspects of Japanese art and architecture are eternal, taking a look at the people in the photos reveals that they’re from another era, with their period-appropriate clothing and hairstyles.

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▼ A photo taken in Hokkaido, with locals dressed in the northern region’s distinctive garb

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So next time someone’s taking a picture that you’re in, remember to smile, because 120 years from now, people might be looking back to the past, and looking at you at the same time.

Source: Japaaan
Images: The New York Public Library Digital Collections