In his book Chroniques japonaise, the French travel writer Nicolas Bouvier transcribed what seems to be the first written evidence of foreigners arriving in Japan. It was the year 1543 and the meeting occurred on the southern island of Tanegashima. Witnessing the event, the local bonze [the master of the monastery], Nampo Bushi, wrote:

“In year 12 of the Tembun era, a large boat anchored in Nishimura Cove. It was impossible to know which country it had come from. It carried a hundred men. Their faces were different from ours, and they did not know our language. All those who saw them found them strange…”

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This was my sixth trip to Japan. This time, I wanted to travel on my own and for a longer period of time—around two months. I rented a minivan and covered 5,000 kilometers. I had already visited the big cities, so this time I lost myself on the roads between Tokyo, Kobe, Tottori and Hiroshima.

For foreigners, Japan is the perfect place to get lost: you can dive into an old and complex culture without a guide. It’s placating to observe without the necessity of fully assimilating. For me, that’s partly the joy and essence of photography—a distance.

I drove south from Tokyo without knowing where I was heading. I followed the coast because I needed a border. Like most islanders, the Japanese people have lived on their own for a long time. As outsiders, we will never fully reach them.

Indeed, foreigners like to think of Japan as a place that brings together antithetical representations of technology and tradition. Whether this is a projection or reality is hard to say, but I personally went there looking for the imprints of an in-between.

My project is titled “SHiMA” because it is the Japanese word for “island.” It speaks to the physical frontier along which I drove, but it also represents the gap between me and this ancient, ancestral and unreachable culture.

—Sylvain Biard

Editors’ note: Biard’s previous project, titled “Les Dominants,” won 3rd place, series, in last year’s Street Photography Awards. Our 2017 Street Photography Awards are now open for entries! Submit your work now for exposure to editors from National Geographic, The Guardian, TIME, and more. Learn more about the competition on its Call for Entries.