When you’re Nintendo, the creator of some of the most beloved games of all time that’s just full of playful innovation, wonder and creativity, you can 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 gimmicky offices that exude a ferocious big-kid energy, but you wouldn’t think Shigeru Miyamoto, or all the other creative minds of Nintendo EPD, would spend their day. in a giant corporate concrete block, which another developer I spoke to jokingly referred to as, “the place where dreams go to die.”
Yet its seemingly oppressive exterior also gives it a strange enigmatic quality, if you think of that concrete block as a giant question block instead, one that dedicated fans want to reach out and jump at the chance to find out a little more about the company they love.
However, since my last visit to Japan in 2019, when I attempted to make a pilgrimage to see the outside of Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters, there have been developments for more physical spaces that embody Nintendo’s history and spirit for the public to appreciate. These include specialty stores such as Tokyo and 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 such as Super Nintendo World, which first opened in Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan in 2021, with more which will be built Stateside. Nintendo is also repurposing its former Uji Ogura facility into a museum opening in 2024, tentatively called the Nintendo Gallery.
Now that Japan has officially reopened to tourists after the pandemic, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting both Super Nintendo World and Nintendo Stores, and it’s an undeniable joy to be transported to the physical spaces that recreate that Nintendo magic – but with the latter, the requirement to have a timed entry ticket to cope with overwhelming demand means you feel more compelled to actually spend rather than just casually browse.
But if you’re looking for a different perspective on Nintendo, away from the obviously tourist-friendly attractions saturated with Mario memorabilia, then there’s another important place to visit, or rather live. In the heart of Kyoto, the Marufukuro, which on the surface looks like a boutique hotel in a quiet part of the city, sits next to the Kamo River that runs through the city. What the average person may not know is that this building was originally home to Nintendo’s former headquarters. This is back when it was managed by Hiroshi Yamauchi, under whose leadership the company transformed from a company producing playing cards to the video game giant it is today.
It’s not something that’s immediately obvious, as you’ll find no sign of Mario or Zelda in the hotel’s elegant decor and room furnishings, although it still retains the original plaques on the outside of the building. The English plaque shows the former name ‘The Nintendo Playing Card Co.’, as well as two of its other interesting trademark logos, an early brand based on the 19th century French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and another with the kanji ‘fuku’ 福 (meaning fortune ) inside a circle ‘maru’, or Marufuku, Nintendo’s former name used to distribute hanafuda cards. This is where the hotel takes its name, with the Japanese suffix -ro denoting its luxurious status. Absolutely, it’s the most stylish and expensive hotel I’ve personally stayed in for my own dime.
While the point here is not to review the hotel – considering my previous time in Japan was spent in hostels, I’m not sure I have discerning enough taste – I can tell you that, yes, the bed was super comfortable and spacious and the bathroom was exquisite and I had a quiet bath in the bath when I first checked in. The nice thing about paying for an expensive hotel room is that they also offer quite a few freebies, like electric bike rentals, the absolute best way to get around Kyoto, and a well-stocked minibar that I decided to empty using local game developers at 17-Bit, founded by one-time Nintendo game advisor Jake Kazdal.
There’s something particularly alluring about spending the night not just in luxury, but in the same room that might have been Yamauchi’s office — or nearby. By choosing to reserve a room located in the old building rather than the newly built annex (although this new building was designed by renowned self-taught architect Tadao Ando), I could be sure that I was staying in a piece of history. These elegant nods are present everywhere, including the intimate self-service bar on the third floor, which apparently also stocks Yamauchi’s favorite whiskeys and gins (although, to my disappointment, it didn’t include any Japanese whiskeys).
But the real draw is the library next door, called dNa. While we’re still waiting for the Nintendo Gallery to open, this compact but stylish space is really the closest thing we have to a Nintendo museum. Everything was displayed so immaculately, I almost felt nervous to touch anything. But you are really free to read at your leisure, which I made sure to do in the morning over a cup of coffee, while luckily no one else was around.
The shelves are stocked with books documenting Nintendo’s history, my personal highlights being three massive volumes containing the complete 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-release video. game play products. These include Gunpei Yokoi’s Light Telephone, which is also faithfully reproduced as one of the art exhibits. There are even art installations for its hanafuda cards (designed by Rhizomatics, who have also collaborated with Tetsuya Mizuguchi on several occasions) as well as an interactive touchscreen where you can examine the older products in 3D.
By contrast, filling up the remaining slots with actual Nintendo game consoles, like the N64 and GameCube, felt a little less imaginative and more in the interest of fan service for people who might have come here and didn’t feel like it was Nintendo enough. That said, given that the Famicom and Super Famicom models on display happened to be their mini-retro console variants, I wonder if some guests had cheekily borrowed them from the library to plug into their room’s TV for entertainment tonight.
Considering the high price for just one night (and that doesn’t include the dinner and/or breakfast options), staying at Marufukuro isn’t necessarily something that every Nintendo fan would want to do. But given how the guest book contains many doodles of Nintendo characters, its history and significance are not lost on those who have made the pilgrimage to this building that for decades had only been visible from the outside. The fact that you can also purchase the building’s iconic plaque as a heavy miniature key holder, just like those used for every hotel room key, also makes for a far more stylish souvenir than just another T-shirt or plushie.
There will be many more Nintendo Stores and Super Nintendo Worlds, but there is only one Marufukuro.