If you’re Nintendo, creators of some of the most popular games of all time, bursting with playful innovation, wonder and creativity, you might expect that to be reflected in the building where the magic happens. Sure, maybe it’s not Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory or even Google’s tricky offices that exude a spasmodic grandkid energy, but you wouldn’t believe that Shigeru Miyamoto or all the other creative minds at Nintendo EPD would spend their day in a giant corporate concrete block, the one jokingly referred to as “the place where dreams die” by another developer I spoke to.
However, that seemingly oppressive exterior also lends it an oddly enigmatic quality if instead you think of this concrete block as a giant block of questions, one that dedicated fans will want to reach out and poke at for a chance to find out a little more about the company that they have love.
However, since my last visit to Japan in 2019, when I attempted to make a pilgrimage to see the exterior of Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto, there have been developments for more physical spaces that embody the history and spirit of Nintendo, that the public can appreciate. These include specialty stores like the Tokyo and the recently opened Osaka, branches of the Nintendo Store (which actually began in the US with Nintendo New York in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center), and theme parks like Super Nintendo World, which first opened at Osaka’s Universal Studios in Japan Year 2021, more to be built in the USA. Nintendo is also converting its former Uji Ogura Plant to become a museum, opening in 2024, tentatively named the Nintendo Gallery.
Now that Japan has officially reopened to tourists following the pandemic, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting both Super Nintendo World and the Nintendo Stores, and it’s an undeniable delight to be transported to the physical spaces that house these Nintendo Recreate magic – although with the latter, the requirement to have a timed entry ticket to meet overwhelming demand means you’ll feel more compelled to actually spend than just casually browse.
But if you’re looking for a different perspective on Nintendo, away from the obvious tourist-friendly attractions saturated with Mario memorabilia, then there’s another key place to visit, or rather stay. In the heart of Kyoto lies the Marufukuro, which superficially looks like a boutique hotel in a quiet part of town next to the Kamo River, which flows through the city. However, what the average person might not know is that this building was originally Nintendo’s former headquarters. This dates back to when it was headed by Hiroshi Yamauchi, under whose leadership the company transformed from a playing card manufacturer into the video game giant it is today.
It’s not immediately apparent, as you won’t find any signs of Mario or Zelda in the hotel’s elegant decor and room amenities, though it still retains the original plaques on the building’s exterior. The English plaque shows his former name “The Nintendo Playing Card Co.” as well as two of his other interesting brand logos, an early trademark based on the 19th century French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and another with the kanji “fuku” 福 (meaning luck means ) in a circle “maru” or Marufuku, Nintendo’s former name used for distributing Hanafuda cards. This is where the hotel gets its name from, with the Japanese suffix -ro denoting its luxurious status. Certainly it is the fanciest and most expensive hotel I have ever stayed in on my own.
While this isn’t about reviewing the hotel – considering I’ve spent my previous time in Japan staying in hostels, I’m not sure I have discerning enough taste – I can tell you, yes, the bed was super comfortable and spacious and the bathroom was exquisite and I took a leisurely soak in the bathtub upon initial check-in. The great thing about paying for an expensive hotel room is that they also throw in some freebies, like electric bike rentals, the absolute best way to get around Kyoto, and a well-stocked minibar, which I got at 17 with the help of local game developer friends -Bit, founded by former Nintendo games consultant Jake Kazdal, emptied.
There’s something particularly alluring about spending the night not only in luxury, but in the same room that may have been Yamauchi’s office – or close to it. By choosing to reserve a room in the old building rather than the newly constructed annexe (despite the fact that this new building was designed by the renowned self-taught architect Tadao Ando), I could be assured that I was staying in a piece of history. These elegant nods are present throughout, including the intimate third-floor honesty bar, which apparently also stocks Yamauchi’s favorite whiskey and gin (although, to my disappointment, it didn’t contain any Japanese whiskey).
But the real attraction is the library next door called dNa. Still waiting for the Nintendo Gallery to open, this compact but elegant space is essentially the closest thing to a Nintendo museum. Everything was displayed so immaculately that I was almost nervous to touch anything. But you can indeed read it at leisure, which I did over a cup of coffee in the morning while luckily no one else was around.
The shelves contain books documenting the history of Nintendo. My personal highlights are three massive volumes containing the full Japanese scripts for the Mother trilogy, as well as Nintendo collector Erik Voskuil’s bilingual book Before Mario, which covers the extensive history of the company’s pre-video game toy products. These include Gunpei Yokoi’s light phone, which is also faithfully recreated as one of the art exhibits. There’s even art installations for his Hanafuda cards (designed by Rhizomatics, who have also collaborated with Tetsuya Mizuguchi on multiple occasions), as well as an interactive touchscreen that lets you examine the legacy products in 3D.
In contrast, filling the remaining spots with actual Nintendo gaming consoles like the N64 and the GameCube felt a little less imaginative, and more for the sake of fanservice to people who might have walked in here and didn’t feel like they were if it were Nintendo enough. Given that the Famicom and Super Famicom models on display happened to be their mini-retro console variants, I wonder if guests cheekily borrowed them from the library to hook up to their TVs in their rooms for a bit of entertainment join evening.
Considering the high price for just one night (and that doesn’t include the dinner and/or breakfast options), staying at the Marufukuro might not necessarily be something every Nintendo fan would want to do. But given the fact that the guest book is full of Nintendo character doodles, its history and significance are not lost on those who have made the pilgrimage to this building, which for decades was only visible from the outside. That you can also purchase the building’s iconic plaque as a weighty miniaturized key holder, just like the ones used for every hotel room key, also makes for a far more classy souvenir than just another t-shirt or stuffed animal.
There will be many more Nintendo Stores and Super Nintendo Worlds, but there is only one Marufukuro.
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