Nintendo 1930s HQ
Image: Time Extension / Martin Lindell

Founded in 1889, Nintendo is undoubtedly the elder statesman of the video game arena – although at its inception it was concerned with the production of handmade hanafuda playing cards. Today, the company presides over a billion-dollar business which encompasses not just video games, but toys, movies, retail stores and even theme parks. Nintendo is one of the most recognizable brands on the face of the planet, but it would have been hard to predict this success from its humble beginnings in Kyoto over 130 years ago.

Nintendo has inhabited several locations since its genesis in 1889, but one of the most iconic has to be its 1930s base in Kagiyacho, Kyoto. This has recently been transformed into a hotel with the assistance of world-renowned architect Tadao Ando, who oversaw not only the overall design but also the addition of a new building at the rear. The Marufukuro hotel – as it is now called – is comprised of 18 guest rooms and retains many of the building's 1930s fittings. There's also a bar, spa, lounge and gym, while the 'Restaurant Carta' is overseen by chef Ai Hosokawa, offering both Japanese and Western-style dishes. Most exciting of all for Nintendo fans is the library, which is packed with information about the company and the Yamauchi family.

While we've not yet been fortunate enough to visit this amazing building, we know someone who has. Martin Lindell is a video game veteran who has worked at the likes of DICE, Raw Fury and Krillbite Studio, and is currently employed as Senior Advisor at Embracer Group. He's also something of a video game historian, having penned books on the Swedish video game industry and Nintendo's history in Sweden.

"There were very few games magazines that wrote about consoles in Sweden in the second half of the '80s," he tells us. "Luckily Nintendo's Nordic distributor Bergsala was one of the first in the west to produce a Club Nintendo newsletter. I remember what a revelation it was to read in one of these newsletters that Nintendo was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1989. Seeing that was surprising; as a young kid, I couldn't imagine that a company so cutting edge in electronic entertainment had roots in archaic playing cards."

Finally getting to visit Kyoto, I wanted to see the new and old Nintendo offices to feel the atmosphere... seeing the buildings and their surrounding environment tells you something about the company and its culture

This led to a lifelong interest in the company – and one that has led Lindell to make more than one pilgrimage to the firm's old 1930s HQ. However, the first time he visited, the HQ was very much closed to the public. "Finally getting to visit Kyoto, I wanted to see the new and old Nintendo offices to feel the atmosphere. Reading about how secluded Nintendo is, I knew that I would never be able to enter the buildings. But seeing the buildings and their surrounding environment tells you something about the company and its culture."

Lindell would eventually get his wish to explore the 1930s building, but first, some history. In 1889, Fusajiro Yamauchi established Marufuku Nintendo Card Co., and its workshop was based in Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto. Sekiryo Kaneda, Fusajiro's son-in-law, adopted the Yamauchi surname in 1907 (as is common in Japan; the owners of many family businesses would adopt their wife's husband in the event of there being no male heirs to the name) and would become the second president of Nintendo in 1929. Sekiryo established the company as a general partnership under the name Yamauchi Nintendo & Co., Ltd. "Nintendo had an office, or rather a workshop, and being successful with its cards business, it started to expand," explains Lindell. "Next to the old, now-razed workshop, a beautiful art deco building was constructed in 1933, commissioned by Sekiryo Yamauchi."

Nintendo 1930s HQ
Image: Martin Lindell

Even though the firm was expanding at the time, the 1933 building is surprisingly humble by modern standards – yet it was from this base of operations that some of the key events in Nintendo's history took place. Sekiryo planned to adopt his son-in-law Shikanojo Inaba due to the fact that his marriage to Yamauchi's daughter had produced no male heirs, but Inaba walked away from both his family and the company, which opened the door to the man who, you could argue, had the most impact on Nintendo as a business: Hiroshi Yamauchi.

The lot didn't have much room for expansion, and the blocks around were tightly built small houses, which meant the area wasn't effective for distribution

Hiroshi was Shikanojo's son, and would take over the business in 1949 after Sekiryo's health deteriorated. Hiroshi changed the company name to Nintendo Playing Card Co., Ltd, and the green sign outside of the 1933 offices still bares that name to this very day. Hiroshi was also the man who instigated the company's departure from the HQ.

"The narrow lot consists of three houses in the same style; the office, Yamauchi's family's house and a warehouse," Lindell says. "The lot didn't have much room for expansion, and the blocks around were tightly built small houses, which meant the area wasn't effective for distribution. Under Hiroshi Yamauchi's leadership, Nintendo eventually moved to a larger lot south of the Kyoto station. I don't know the exact dates, but a plaque in the wall around the lot says 1954, so I suspect that was when they moved the headquarters to this new lot that housed several buildings and a factory."

Nintendo 1930s HQ
Image: Martin Lindell

The rest, as they say, is history. Feeling the limitations of the playing card sector, Hiroshi Yamauchi diversified into children's toys, board games and electronic gadgets, most of which were designed by Gunpei Yokoi, who joined Nintendo in 1969. Nintendo entered the video game sector with a series of coin-op titles before releasing the seminal Game & Watch range, the Famicom and the Game Boy – a trio of '80s products which would elevate the company to a major player on the global stage, a position it has held ever since.

Residing in a calm residential part of Kyoto near the Kamo river, the building is quite prominent and gives an aura of success

Nintendo thrived in this office for many years, eventually moving the factory to a new location and erecting a bigger main office a couple of blocks away in 2000 – but the company refused to totally let go of its past. "It's said that Nintendo retained ownership of the old headquarters from 1933 and continued to use it in parallel with the new lot on the south side," says Lindell. "I remember that author Erik Voiskul found out that it was likely used for archival purposes in its latter days. I'm not sure about the exact timeline, but Nintendo eventually relinquished the ownership, and the Yamauchi heirs engaged the hotel operator Plan Do See, who took it over with the hotel operations."

While he wasn't able to get inside on previous visits, this year, Lindell was fortunate enough to have stayed in the Marufukuro – and while the hotel has obviously been updated for its new role, it retains much of the fabric of the original building. "The old headquarters that turned into a hotel is only three storeys high, but with a lot of details and symbols on the metal window bars and carved stone. Inside is also more colourful and with patterns. Residing in a calm residential part of Kyoto near the Kamo river, the building is quite prominent and gives an aura of success for a company that already back then seemed to have outgrown its premises being wedged into a small narrow lot."

Nintendo 1930s HQ
Image: Martin Lindell

Having visited the location prior to its restoration, Lindell is ideally placed to make a 'before and after' comparison. "The facade of the building got a facelift with properly cleaned walls, newly added logos for the hotel and a lot of bushes and trees being planted in front and on the roof – plus some additions like a clock, red flags and a stone dragon outside the main entrance. It feels more alive from the outside than on my previous visits. Inside there are beautiful patterns, straight lines, and colourful environments. The hallways contain old items from the Nintendo era, like framed hanafuda playing cards, signs, shipping crates, old interior pieces like an antique clock, a crane statue, and old furniture that is the same as that which was used when it was Nintendo's headquarters. It gives a feeling of the era when Nintendo was active in the neighbourhood."

The library also had many pieces of art inspired by Nintendo, like a painting of a pair using the Love Tester, a frosted glass shell of a Game Boy, and what looked like a tempura-fried Switch

Obviously, the rooms now used for guests are a new addition to the building, but Lindell points out that they've been crafted with Nintendo's heritage in mind. "The guest rooms themselves are also filled with history," he explains. "I stayed in the old office building, and my room had a huge wooden gate mounted on the wall. This gate was originally located in the old courtyard and was now used to decorate the room.
The hotel itself is quite small with only 18 rooms and suites in total. It is a boutique hotel which means it's more expensive than your typical hotel stay, but it's worth noting that breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks are all included in the pricing – and the staff are very friendly and happy to tell you about the history of the various buildings and interiors."

However, Lindell feels that the real star of the show – for Nintendo fans, at least – is the library, which is named 'dNa'. "It's not big; imagine a living room with some tables and sofas," he says. "The shelves are stocked with books on Kyoto, the history of Nintendo and topics that inspired and shaped Nintendo such as design, pop culture, tesseracts and design. Most of the books are in Japanese, but you can find Before Mario in English and The History of Nintendo in French. Despite being in Japanese, I spent a lot of time flipping through books about Gunpei Yokoi, Satoru Iwata, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Famicom and Game & Watch. Besides the books, the library also had many pieces of art inspired by Nintendo, like a painting of a pair using the Love Tester, a frosted glass shell of a Game Boy, and what looked like a tempura-fried Switch. The library also had 3D screens where you can explore hanafuda cards and rotate various Nintendo products like light guns, Game & Watch, and the various toys they designed throughout the years."

Nintendo 1930s HQ
Image: Martin Lindell

The news that some of the buildings would be augmented by new elements might have caused some consternation with Nintendo historians, but, as Lindell explains, the additions have been tastefully executed. "The most prevalent is an all-new building designed by architect Tadao Ando in concrete that spans across the small old lot where the original Nintendo workshop was located. The new building swings around the old office building and fills the space of an old courtyard between the office and the Yamauchi family house. The small restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner has its own entrance on the side of the building furthest away. The interior of the restaurant is light and clean, and almost reminds me of the modern Nintendo offices – but the rest is naturally transformed, preserving the feeling of the old buildings."

Being able to experience the heritage and the origin of Nintendo is a wonderful and profound sensation

Despite nods to Nintendo's video game successes here and there, Lindell feels that the hotel itself encapsulates the pre-video game era of the company, rather than the boom it would experience thanks to the success of Donkey Kong and Mario. "To an extent, I actually like this," he explains. "Being able to experience the heritage and the origin of Nintendo is a wonderful and profound sensation. To be able to walk the stairs and enter the rooms where the Yamauchi family lived and worked and during a period when Nintendo grew from being a humble hanafuda manufacturer to the path of being a global entertainment is fascinating."

You could argue that the 1933 HQ only had a small part to play in the Nintendo story, and by the time it was vacated in the '50s, Nintendo had yet to take those vital steps into the realm of interactive entertainment. Even so, the building's unique appearance – and the fact that it was Hiroshi Yamauchi's base for a time – make it historically significant to both Nintendo fans and gaming historians. If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, it's well worth a visit.

Nintendo 1930s HQ
Martin Lindell sitting in the Marufukuro lobby — Image: Martin Lindell

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