Explore Japanese Art in an Online, 3D Virtual Space

Explore Japanese Art in an Online, 3D Virtual Space

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This virtual space allows a visitor to freely explore the museum, strolling from striking paintings to gorgeous prints.

Japan’s borders have been closed to tourists since March 2020. But the Japan Cultural Expo has finally launched the next-best thing: an immersive, 3D virtual tour through Edo-Tokyo Museum’s Hokusai and Hiroshige exhibit from last spring, featuring the stunning ukiyo-e prints of two of Japan’s preeminent landscape painters.

This well-executed virtual space allows a visitor to freely explore the museum. Stroll from striking paintings to gorgeous prints, clicking around to discover some of the greatest works of Japanese art. The exhibit focuses on the life stories of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, laying out their iconic paintings, including Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji. The most famous of these is the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” woodblock print, which has practically become synonymous with Japanese art.

A screenshot of the Cultural Expo's 3D, navigable space.
A screenshot of the Cultural Expo’s 3D, navigable space.

But the worlds of Hokusai and Hiroshige are worth exploring more deeply, which you can do at your own pace in the virtual gallery. Other prints from the 36 views of Mt. Fuji series include a white-capped mountain in golden sunset repose, under the assault of fierce storms. This serves as a backdrop to rice-planting, commerce, Buddhist architecture, and striking wildlife, all in the lush,  swirling style that defines the Great Wave. Hiroshige’s ukiyo-e prints are no less remarkable, if somewhat calmer, showing an Edo period Japan at rest, as opposed to Hokusai’s more active portrayals of distress.

This 3D gallery space, which also provides support for VR viewing, is a part of the Japan Cultural Expo. The Expo was launched in March 2019 to overlap with the Tokyo Olympics. But with COVID putting a damper on tourism for the last two years, the ministry of culture pivoted to a project that would enable people from all over the world to experience Japanese culture digitally. 

A screenshot of the virtual Cultural Expo's centerpiece.

A new way to explore

While the Japanese government isn’t well known for executing technological projects, this virtual platform runs smoothly and provides a surprisingly integrated experience. As a result, you can: use the virtual platform to explore an immersive, 3D digital exhibit on handicrafts; experience Noh and traditional dance programs with good English localization; watch short films based on traditional Japanese folktales; enjoy performances from an arts festival for people with disabilities; navigate the world of Japanese fashion and kimono; and much more.

“After various performing art programs were canceled last spring because of COVID-19, for the first time, kabuki theater was distributed and archived online,” says Junko Kawamura, president of the Japan Art’s Council. Before last spring, the cultural ministry was unable to obtain permission from performing companies to distribute materials online. “But after streaming online, many more spectators came to see the online broadcasting. Through this platform, where people gain access to information about Japan, we hope to bring more tourists to Japan in the future,” says Kawamura.


The Cultural Expo is simple to navigate: access the link here, and click your way from exhibit to exhibit, either in immersive 3D format or via the map in the top-right corner. Clicking on the purple diamonds reorients the camera to face the individual exhibits. Then, just click on the exhibits to experience the photos, videos, virtual galleries, text blurbs, and more. 

Besides the virtual Hokusai and Hiroshige exhibit, which one could spend well over an hour exploring, here are some of the virtual platform’s other top highlights. 

A virtual hallway in the section on Ainu culture.

Emphasis on Ainu arts and culture

The indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, have only in recent years been openly accepted and embraced as a part of Japanese culture and society. Their indigenous status and importance were at long last formally enshrined in law in 2019.

The virtual expo highlights Ainu art and culture in two different places: first, in an excellent short film about contemporary indigeneity, which begins at the 1:00:00 mark of the “Discover Beauty Symposium” exhibit in the N2 area.

The film is director Daichi Tomida’s short “Future is MINE AINU MY VOICE”. It focuses on the story of one woman, Rie, as she explores her Ainu roots. She uncovers a passion for traditional Ainu singing and storytelling and advances on a path towards activism. The film provides an insightful glimpse into the contemporary status of Ainu in Japan—the richness of the culture; just how severed most people became from their identities; and the shards of hope for a road forward. Then, there is a virtual exhibit on the Ainu Cultural Festival in S5, with videos of traditional Ainu dances on display.

The Colonization of Hokkaido

How a mysterious frontier island peopled by “barbarians” became one of the four main islands of Japan – and how the original inhabitants suffered as a result…

For more on the history of the Ainu, watch our video on the Colonization of Hokkaido.

Architecture-lovers’ delight

One side-benefit of the virtual experience is that it allows the ‘visitor’ to experience many different museums. Japan’s museums have famous and fantastic architecture, and the presentation of virtually navigable buildings is a fun way to go building hopping. Check out the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, the Seikado Bunko Library and Art Museum, and the MOA Museum of Art, among others.

Wander through the virtual spaces of the Expo.

Architect buffs also can’t miss a deep-dive into legendary architect Tange Kenzo’s plan for Neo Tokyo from the 1960s in section S5. This video explores the sheer chaos of Tokyo’s rapid-fire 1960s development and Tange’s “Tokyo Plan 1960.” This radical and ambitious architectural vision imagined a New Tokyo soaring above Tokyo Bay, sheering off from Tokyo in a linear axis.

The sophisticated world of sake

Drinkers, rejoice. You can go deeper into sake than perhaps anything else in the exhibit, with in-depth videos and discussions on the emerging science of Sakeology at Niigata University (N6). Two Sakeology videos explore the production process and business side of sake alike. Then, there’s guides to the history of sake as well as sake-tasting tips. It’s more of an online lecture series than an art exhibit, but for those of you looking for a crash course in all things sake, here it is.

The entire exhibit offers an impressive lineup of culture and art. So, you may not be able to enter Japan and visit the actual famed museums of the country, but you can do the next best thing.

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Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a writer, translator, and book editor based in Nagoya. His investigative features on Japan have been published in The Japan Times, The New York Times, Vox, Slate, and more.

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