Step back in time with Tokyo's newest history experience - an augmented reality tour of Edo Castle, home to fifteen generations of samurai rule.

This month a new historical private tour launched in Tokyo. It’s a collaborative effort between Hinomaru Transportation Co., a taxi and limousine service, and Toppan Printing, the company whose virtual reality reconstructions of Edo Castle’s honmaru palace are the most complete made to date and appear in countless books and videos.

Chiyoda, Edo Castle, Imperial Palace, tokyo

The idea of integrating augmented reality with a history tour intrigued us, and naturally we wanted to be the first try this new service out. It was Thursday morning, but I crossed my fingers that we could secure a reservation for the Friday morning as I filled out the English booking form for the Time Slip Taxi. Ten minutes later an email arrived – non-automated, I might add – asking for a prepayment via credit card. Another message came confirming receipt of payment, start time, and pick up location. Awesome. Couldn’t have been easier.

Currently, there are two courses to choose from: one is a tour around Edo Castle, where 15 generations of Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan (currently the site of the Imperial Palace), another is a three hour tour of sites related to the semi-legendary tale of the 47 Ronin – a story of loyalty, revenge, and Confucian tragedy. Three hours seemed a bit too long of a time to be away from the office, but one hour seemed just right.

We arrived at the pick up spot in Marunouchi, more or less across the street from Tokyo Station. The taxi, a sleek, black Tesla Model S, was already waiting for us. Because it was drizzling, our driver commented that the weather was perfect for a tour by taxi. She had a good point. If it’s raining or too hot, this is a great alternative to traipsing around in bad weather. Plus, you have to admit, the car is pretty sweet.

The driver handed us an iPad, asked us to select our preferred language – English, Japanese, Korean, or Chinese – and soon we were on our way. As we approached certain GPS points, the pre-recorded tour guide would introduce different aspects of the castle, for example the area between the inner and outer moats stretching from the former Sukiyabashi Gate and main gate to the west citadel, which was once lined with the palaces of feudal lords. Structures that were non-extant or difficult to visualize, were supplemented with with old photos and woodblock prints.

From every angle in the city loomed the tenshu, or castle keep. While the exterior of Edo Castle was generally white, this imposing 5 story watchtower was black and stood 84 meters above sea level, making it the largest in Japan and along with Mt. Fuji, one of the two constant backgrounds of the city. It took an incredible 15 years to complete construction only to be burned down in 1657. Due to the time and cost required, and the peace and stability of nearly 60 years of Tokugawa rule in Edo, the shogunate decided not to rebuild the tenshu. Sadly, this monumental structure that displayed the power and authority of the shoguns was only a short lived symbol of the city. Far more visible to the people of Edo would have been the elaborate system of gates that dotted the inner and outer moats, as well as the yagura, or turrets, located strategically on the hilltops surrounding the castle.

Imperial Palace

The tour offered a great balance of information about the buildings and the daily life of those who worked in or near the castle, the largest in the world in its heyday. Given the sheer size of the castle and the sparseness of surviving structures, this is probably the most efficient way to survey it and still get a good foundation in the nature of the fortifications. If you plan on entering the castle grounds, the Time Slip Taxi is probably a great addition to your experience. The tour finishes in Nihonbashi, so you can return to the East Imperial Gardens or continue on with your day.

Booking

Currently, both tours can be booked online at Time Slip Taxi:

  • The one hour Edo Castle tour starts at the Mitsubishi Building in Marunouchi and finishes in Nihonbashi. It costs ¥5,000 (this introductory price is good until the end of 2016, after which it will be ¥9,000).

  • The three hour 47 Ronin (Chushingura) tour starts at the Mitsubishi Building in Marunouchi and finished at Sengaku-ji in Takanawa, the place of enshrinement of the 47 ronin (well, 46, technically speaking) and their lord, Asano Naganori. All men had been ordered to commit seppuku. It costs ¥16,000 (this introductory price is good until the end of 2016, after which it will ¥20,000).