A Wealth of Free Documentaries on All Things Japanese: From Bento Boxes to Tea Gardens, Ramen & Bullet Trains

“I used to be OBSESSED with Japan­ese cul­ture,” wrote an uncom­mon­ly thought­ful Youtube com­menter. “I miss that part of me. Try­ing to search for it again. That’s when I was the hap­pi­est.” Many of us west­ern­ers — or real­ly, many of us non-Japan­ese — go through sim­i­lar peri­ods of affin­i­ty and avid­i­ty for all things Japan­ese. Some of us put it away with our child­ish things; some of us make Japan­ese cul­ture a life­long inter­est, or even the stuff of our pro­fes­sions. I myself got into Japan ear­ly, at some point found myself put off by the just slight­ly too obses­sive Japan­ese pop-cul­ture fan com­mu­ni­ty in the West (though I admit­ted­ly read that com­ment below a music video with four mil­lion views), and lat­er returned with a much more seri­ous intent to under­stand.

But to under­stand what? The Japan­ese lan­guage, cer­tain­ly, and Japan­ese film, Japan­ese cities, Japan­ese aes­thet­ics, Japan­ese tech­nol­o­gy — all the fruits of the cul­ture that stoke in the rest of the world both deep envy and, some­times, faint sus­pi­cion. Why do they per­sist in using writ­ing sys­tems that, despite their con­sid­er­able beau­ty, come with such aggra­vat­ing dif­fi­cul­ty? The com­pre­hen­sive sub­way net­works in metrop­o­lis­es like Tokyo and Osa­ka func­tion day in and day out with aston­ish­ing reach and reli­a­bil­i­ty, but why do their rid­ers tol­er­ate crowd­ed­ness even to the point of get­ting uncom­plain­ing­ly crammed inside the cars by white-gloved atten­dants? And why, despite the Japan­ese love for ele­gant design and advanced con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy, do their web sites look so jum­bled and con­fus­ing?

NHK World can put you on the road to under­stand­ing these and oth­er ques­tions with Japanol­o­gy, their series of Eng­lish-lan­guage doc­u­men­taries explor­ing the things large and small, all sur­pris­ing to the for­eign­er, that make up the fab­ric of Japan­ese life. BEGIN Japanol­o­gy, their series for the Japan-intrigued but not nec­es­sar­i­ly Japan-expe­ri­enced, has come to six sea­sons so far.

At the top of the post, you can see its episode on ben­to, those painstak­ing­ly pre­pared lunch box­es, sim­pli­fied ver­sions of which even those who know noth­ing of Japan have seen at gro­cery stores the world over. To learn more about ben­to’s place in Japan­ese cul­ture, pro­ceed on to the rel­e­vant episode of Japanol­o­gy Plus, NHK’s series for the even more insa­tiably curi­ous Japanophile. And cou­ple with an episode on Ramen above.

Japanol­o­gy Plus also ded­i­cates one of its half-hour pro­grams to the Shinkansen, com­mon­ly known as the “bul­let train,” that quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Japan­ese mode of trans­porta­tion that, with its impec­ca­ble half-cen­tu­ry record of speed, safe­ty, and punc­tu­al­i­ty, has become the pride of the land. (I, for one, hold out hope that Oba­ma will make The Onion’s “Ambi­tious Plan to Fly Amer­i­cans to Japan to Use Their Trains” a real­i­ty.) But if you don’t feel quite ready yet to board a Shinkansen, much less learn about its inner work­ings, try the Begin Japanol­o­gy Spe­cial Mini series, which offers five-minute dis­tilled doc­u­men­taries on such icons of Japan as tea gar­dens, hot springs, and Mount Fuji. Watch­ing all these, I feel glad indeed that I’ve already got the tick­ets booked for my next flight over there. Do you have yours?

You can find Japanol­o­gy added to our list of 200+ Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Japan’s Earth­quake Proof Under­ground Bike Stor­age Sys­tem: The Future is Now

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Watch a Japan­ese Crafts­man Lov­ing­ly Bring a Tat­tered Old Book Back to Near Mint Con­di­tion

A Pho­to­graph­ic Tour of Haru­ki Murakami’s Tokyo, Where Dream, Mem­o­ry, and Real­i­ty Meet

Ear­ly Japan­ese Ani­ma­tions: The Ori­gins of Ani­me (1917–1931)

Cook­pad, the Largest Recipe Site in Japan, Launch­es New Site in Eng­lish

Let’s Learn Japan­ese: Two Clas­sic Video Series to Get You Start­ed in the Lan­guage

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.