Take a Virtual Tour of Edo-Tokyo Museum!

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is currently closed for major renovation work and will remain so until the end of March 2026. In the meantime, however, there's Hyper Edohaku, an app developed to enable people to interact with the museum's collection and learn about the history and culture of Edo (the name for Tokyo during the period between 1603 and 1867 when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate) during its closure.
Hyper Edohaku is the first Japanese smartphone app offered by a museum that utilizes a game engine. The experience is set in the area around Ryogokubashi Bridge, bustling with the kawabiraki (river festival marking the start of the boating season) at Sumida River.

Explore the City of Edo in All Its Recreated Glory

Hyper Edohaku was developed as a joint effort between the Edo-Tokyo Museum and a game development company. It is a part of the Tokyo Smart Culture Project, an initiative that aims to create environments in which art and culture are available to anyone, anywhere, at all times.

The theme of the app is, "Finding, Discovering, and Collecting Edo." Users play as Edohakun—a boy who lives in Edo (the former name for Tokyo)—walking around and exploring while collecting the 100 Edo-Tokyo Museum artifacts hidden throughout the city. The app is designed so that users are able to learn about Japanese lifestyles and culture during the Edo Period, just by playing the game.

The game is set in the Ryogokubashi Bridge area of Edo. The look and feel of the area were recreated using the model of the west end of the bridge that is part of the permanent Edo-Tokyo Museum exhibition, as well as various other ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) and historical materials. The game is divided into four stages with four different settings: the nagaya (a traditional Japanese tenement house), Ryogokubashi Bridge, Ekoin Temple, and Sumida River. Users must find five to ten items relevant to the theme of the area before they are able to move onto the next stage. After clearing all of the stages, users are free to move back through each of them in search of the remaining items.

The Ryogokubashi Bridge of the game is a bustling place, complete with iconic Edo events such as the sumo wrestling tournament at Ekoin Temple and a performance by the Misemono Spectacles.

Haruki Shoko, the Edo-Tokyo Museum curator in charge of the planning and supervision of the app, says, "We recreated the city of Edo, as well as its people and their hairstyles and clothing, based on artifacts and historical materials from our exhibits. The world in the app is designed to feel very real—for instance, some of the character movements in the app are based on motion-captured footage of a traditional Japanese dance teacher. Even after you've collected all of the items, there's still so much more to see and explore in the town, which is what I think makes it so fun."

On the left is A Fan Seller (painting by Suzuki Harunobu; approximately 1765), part of the Edo-Tokyo Museum collection, and on the right is the digital recreation of the work.

Fun, Simple Descriptions Befitting a Game

The Edo-Tokyo Museum, which opened in 1993, currently houses about 370,000 artifacts. The 100 items featured in-game were selected from this enormous collection based on how well they would fit into the themes of the four stages, and how interesting they would seem to the user at first-glance.

One of the features the developers of the app struggled with, they say, was the descriptions for the artifacts. If these were descriptions for the special exhibitions in the actual museum, they could be very detailed. This is because the people who would come to these sorts of exhibitions would most likely already be interested in the works shown. But in coming up with the description for artifacts in-game, what was important was making sure the content would be interesting to people with little prior knowledge about the artifacts. The descriptions would also have to be concise enough that people would not be tempted to skim through them.

Haruki says, "We thought about what sorts of things users would be interested in, asking the game developers for their input as well." The result? Descriptions that are entertaining and enjoyable for a wide range of people, including children, people from foreign countries, and others who may not know much about Edo history and culture. An English version of the app is available, and the language setting in the Japanese version can be changed to English as well.

A page from A Hundred Tales from Japan and China: Shirafuji Genta Watches Kappa Wrestle (painting by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi; printing by Daikokuya Kinnosuke; approximately 1865). The header is designed to draw people in and make them want to read the rest of the description.

Digitalization of Artifacts Opens Up a Whole New World for Museums

Until now, museum-related digital content had mainly taken the form of 360-degree VR experiences, based on 3D spatial scans, or digital archives that allow people to view materials in museum exhibitions/collections online. The use of a game engine for Hyper Edohaku, however, has given the app the technical foundation for its future expansion into realms like the metaverse and VR. Artifacts are now available not just as objects but as data. This means that the Edo-Tokyo Museum's resources can be used in schools and other educational environments, in the form of a "virtual museum visit."

Haruki goes on, "The Edo-Tokyo Museum is relatively well known in Japan, but virtually unknown overseas. We're hoping this app will become a promotional tool that will boost the museum's recognition." Some users of the app, wanting to see the real-life version of an artifact featured in-game, may even visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum after it reopens.

The digitalization of these sorts of artifacts is opening up a whole new world in terms of museums. Soon, it may become normal for people to be able to look at historical materials on computers and smartphones, interact with museum artifacts in-game, and so much more.

Hyper Edohaku

Platform: iOS / Android
Release Date: April 22, 2022 (iPhone) / June 30, 2022 (Android)

Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum

Address: 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida City, Tokyo
TEL: +81-3-3626-9974
*All buildings closed for major renovations from April 1, 2022 to sometime in FY2025 (April 2025 - March 2026; tentative).
*Facility information is current as of July 15, 2022.
Interview and writing by Abe Kimiko
Photos courtesy of Edo-Tokyo Museum
Translation by Amitt