Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
It was a pilgrimage I knew would be stopped short of its goal, but one to which I was committed anyway.
There was no way, after all, that I could travel so far from home and come so close without seeing it. I am, unfortunately, talking about nothing more exciting than the Kyoto headquarters of Nintendo.
If you’re a gamer, you’ll understand. If not, it can be hard to imagine why visiting a corporate headquarters could make the cut on a trip of this scope and velocity. That’s especially the case given there are no tours, no visitors, no special gift shop.
It’s not like visiting Apple in Cupertino, where a special Corporate Store is the only place where fans can purchase shirts and (paper) notebooks and other items with the iconic fruit on them.
No, there’s truly nothing to do when visiting Nintendo except confirm that a cubic white building with the company’s logo in one corner actually does exist. Yet this, and not the ancient shrines and imperial palace, was my primary motivation for flying into Osaka and taking a day trip to Kyoto.
A Long Time Coming
Nintendo is my childhood, as much as anything else. So far as I can tell, my earliest memory is beating World 1-2 of the original Super Mario Bros at age 2 or so. I’ve known the history of the company for what seems like most of my life: it was founded more than a hundred years ago as a manufacturer of hanafuda playing cards.
The standard 52 card deck was illegal in Japan, as the government was nervous about the effect of gambling on the population. Hanafuda cards substituted seasons for suits and made other changes skirting the law, making them a popular alternative. Nintendo’s cards stood out as particularly well-made and with particularly good designs.
In time, hanafuda cards became so mainstream that they were sold in government-owned tobacco shops. Nintendo scored a huge coup by becoming the exclusive hanafuda supplier for these shops, leading the company to tremendous growth, culminating in licensing deals such as one with Disney to introduce Mickey and his pals to the Japanese audience decades later.
It wasn’t until Hiroshi Yamauchi took over the company that Nintendo’s focus began to turn to the video game market. The Color TV-Game 6 hit the market in Japan in 1977, with six variations on Pong.
Six years later, the Famicom launched in Japan. Two years later, the same internal components were rearranged into a drastically different casing and released in the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. The company’s meteoric rise began and characters like Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong and others defined the childhood of a generation.
One of the most brilliant marketing ploys in company history began a few years later, with the debut of Nintendo Power. This Nintendo-produced publication was the sole source for news and information for millions of kids in the late 80s and first half of the 90s. It was holy gospel, received monthly in the mailbox, containing news on forthcoming games, strategy guides, secret codes, comics, interviews and tidbits about the company itself.
This is how I first learned Nintendo was headquartered in Kyoto, and that Kyoto was the ancient capital of Japan.
I learned that Kyoto was where the magic was created, that nearly all of the games I cared about most were made inside a perfectly normal-looking building. It’s disappointing to learn just how much like a regular office its looks, inside and out. After all, how can the headquarters for a company that makes such games look like it could be a regional office for any old business?
Knowing there was nothing special about this place didn’t keep me away, because I also knew that simply wasn’t true. The building might look like an office, and the inside might be an office, but this wasn’t just some corporate block in the middle of an industrial part of town. This was the place where my childhood was designed, developed and tested, whether it looked like it was worthy of the honor or not.
On My Way
I watched Google Maps on the train, not wanting to miss my stop. I saw my location moving on the map, and I saw the red arrow pointing at Nintendo drawing closer. My location jumped ahead a bit as the GPS recalibrated, and all of a sudden it showed my location as being essentially parallel with my destination. I looked out the window, and there it was, for just a second, before being obscured by buildings and then the train station’s structure.
Unfortunately, we didn’t stop at the station like I thought. I’d hopped an express train rather than a local one, so I wasn’t able to exit until the next station. I caught a local train back one stop in order to take a few pictures.
I walked the building’s perimeter, surrounded almost entirely by a large, tile wall. Just as I suspected, there wasn’t much to see and nowhere to go, but it was worth the trip, nonetheless.
Late that day, I saw many of Kyoto’s major points of interest, including Kiyomizu Temple, Nijo Castle, the Imperial Palace and the Golden Pavilion.
I’m glad I saw all of these, but would be lying if I said they could begin to compare with the excitement I felt seeing that plain white office building I’d wondered about for so long.