Deep Dive Meiji Era Ginza with Edo-Tokyo Museum's Virtual Tokyo App!

The Hyper Edohaku: Meiji Ginza Edition virtual Tokyo app allows users to step back in time to the turn of the century Ginza and relive the historical moment, when Edo became Tokyo as we know it today.
The English version of the Hyper Edohaku app opened up the virtual world of Tokyo to an even wider audience.

The Hyper Edohaku app is part of the TOKYO Smart Culture Project by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture, whose purpose is to provide unlimited access to culture and the arts via technology. The Edo-Tokyo Museum released the Hyper Edohaku Edo Ryogoku Edition in 2022, giving users an entirely new way to interact with museum artifacts and explore Tokyo's heritage in a virtual setting. Covering the Edo period (1603-1868), that version of the app was set in the Ryogoku area, known for its sumo wrestler stables, and where the museum is located now.

Curator of the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Kutsusawa Hiroyuki, says that the team chose the Meiji era (1868-1912) for its second version, released in 2023 because of the incredibly rapid social and technological changes that occurred during that time.

Marking the end of the Edo period, the Meiji era is considered the beginning of Japan's modern history, with Ginza especially at the forefront of Tokyo's swift modernization. This movement was thrust forward by a devastating fire that ravaged the area in 1872—a pivotal event included in the app. Following the disaster, the Meiji government undertook the revitalization of the area by, for example, erecting brick buildings that could withstand fire. This action had a profound influence on Ginza's development, helping to create the unique, chic area loved by international visitors and residents alike.

Symbol of Ginza from the Meiji Era to the Present

The app's center of action is the iconic Ginza 4-chome, considered by many to be the heart of modern-day Ginza. As the app moves through time, the setting evolves, becoming increasingly recognizable as the upmarket shopping district we are familiar with today. Users see the streets widen and eventually form the iconic 4-chome intersection.

Especially for people who take Tokyo in its current form for granted, using an app like this reminds you how much has changed in such a short space of time, and makes you wonder how Tokyo will go on to change in the future.

Within the app, users can speak to people in the streets, interact with objects in the area, and become involved in events of the time.
Current Ginza 4-chome intersection.

This version of the app follows the lives of Akira and Haru, two young Ginza residents growing up during this period of immense change. The app's timeline covers the entire Meiji era, and players personally experience Akira's and Haru's major life events alongside significant historical ones.

Like the previous edition, this one provides a unique way for users to interact with the Edo-Tokyo Museum's extensive collection of artifacts. A hundred items from the museum's massive collection can be discovered in the app. As users move through the app's timeline, they learn about Ginza's history and witness the gradual emergence of new and novel signs of progress in the town.

From left, Akira in a suit and Haru in kimono.

Kutsusawa says that one of the biggest challenges the team faced when developing this version was to faithfully re-create the Ginza of the Meiji era. Photos of Ginza from that time still exist, giving developers more references to work with than they had when creating the original Edo-period Ryogoku version.

One notable cultural development that the app captures, which Kutsusawa thinks users will find fascinating, is the rapid change in food culture during the period. Several of the nation's culinary classics, such as Japanese-style curry, anpan (buns containing sweet red bean paste), and ramune (a carbonated soft drink), came into existence during the era.

The streets of historical Ginza are brought to life in 3DCG.

A New Chapter for Museum Curation

Perhaps the most notable feature of the app is its immersive approach to history education. The purpose of a museum is no longer to just display collections of artifacts in glass boxes or works of art on walls. Rather, museums are taking steps to allow and even encourage people to experience art and history more directly so that they can develop an understanding of what it was like to have lived during a certain time in history.

Some of the items in the collection can be brought into the real world through AR (Augmented Reality), combining characters in the app with tools of the time with the present. Photo: Albert Siegel

The Edo-Tokyo Museum has always striven to give its visitors a three-dimensional view of Tokyo's history, using scale models, dioramas, and even life-size replicas of real streets. And while other museums have created digital collections and online museum tours, the Edo-Tokyo Museum has taken a novel and entertaining approach to digitizing a collection, thereby bringing people into history itself. Tokyo has been at the forefront of this movement toward experiential and immersive museums in recent years.

Hyper Edohaku: Meiji Ginza Edition

Platform: iOS / Android
Release Date: April 26, 2023

Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum

*All buildings closed for major renovations from April 1, 2022 to sometime in FY2025 (April 2025 - March 2026; tentative).
Interview and writing by Katherine Atkinson
Photo courtesy of Edo-Tokyo Museum