Saturday, May 16, 2015

Nintendo's birthplace in Kyōto

When visiting Japan a few weeks ago, I took a walk past Nintendo's place of birth in Kyōto, where the company still holds an office at the site where it was established in 1889.

Nintendo means a lot to me, even so much that it inspired me to write a book about its history. Although my visit was limited to the exterior of the building (alas), it is nice to get a feel for the type of neighborhood that the company started in. With some imagination, you can picture in your mind the early days of the playing card business from over a hundred years ago.

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The Nintendo building is situated along Shōmen-dōri (正面通り) [Google map link here] on the eastern part of Kyōto, just west of the famous historical area Gion.

Shōmen-dōri means 'front street', named so because it was the street in front of the Hōkō-ji (方広寺), one of the important temples established in Kyōto in the 16th century. The Hōkō-ji housed Kyōto's great Buddha statue, before this was destroyed, a few times actually, in an earthquake and some fires.

Shōmen-dōri runs west-to-east through the city for about four kilometers, starting near the Tambaguchi Station (丹波口駅) and ending at the Hōkō-ji.


Nintendo was established by Fujisarō Yamauchi as a Hanafuda (flower cards) selling shop and workplace at Shōmen-dōri in the Ohashi area of Kyōto, on September 23 in 1889.


This promotional card from around 1915 lists the Shōmen-dōri address for 'Yamauchi Nintendo' (山内任天堂), the name the company used at the time (written right-to-left in Japanese). This would remain the headquarter address well into the 1950s.


The Nintendo company guide from 2015, published 100 years after the above card, has a section with images from these early days, including a picture of the building at Shōmen-dōri and the circular 'Marufuku' brand logo used at the time.


The Kamo River (鴨川) runs north-to-south, splitting Kyōto in half. A large number of bridges connect the two parts of the city. One of these bridges is Shōmen-bashi (正面橋, 'Front bridge'), which links Shōmen-dōri on both sides of the river.

The Nintendo office can be found a stone's throw away from this bridge, close to the western bank of the Kamo River, in an area with a mix of business and residential buildings.


From this side of the river, we can already see the top of the Nintendo building, as it is slightly taller than the buildings surrounding it. The 131 meter high Kyōto Tower can be seen peeking out in the back.


After crossing Shōmen-bashi, and facing Shōmen-dōri westwards, we have reached our destination. There it is, on a corner on the right side of the street.


Initially, when Nintendo's business started, this site was important as workplace and shop; here Nintendo manufactured its cards in limited numbers and sold these directly to its customers.

Gradually the site's role changed into factory and center of an increasingly large distribution network, until eventually larger factories and offices where acquired elsewhere in the city. At the end the 1950s, this building lost its position as headquarter, but Nintendo retained ownership to this day. These days it is presumably used for archival purposes.


When business blossomed in the early days 1930s, this elegant three story stone building was erected in 1933, right next to Nintendo's original wooden building. It was commissioned by Sekiryō Yamauchi, who had succeeded his father-in-law Fujisarō Yamauchi as president of the company in 1929.

It is an architecturally interesting building, with a metal frame and stonework, that was quite unusual at the time. Today it still stands out from the other buildings in the area.


The building has many fine details, including a Marufuku logo that is sculptured in the street level stonework on the front.


A bronze name plate is placed on either side of the door. The plate on the right states the company name (山内任天堂 or Yamauchi Nintendo) as well its two most important products it manufactures (製造元): Japanese playing cards (かるた or Karuta) and Western playing cards (トランプ or Trump).


The plate on the left side uses Western script, and includes the name used abroad at the time: "The Nintendo Playing Card Co.".


The door and window frames are painted the same green as the name plates. This color blends well with the yellow/grey from the stones.

On the glasses in the front door are two more Marufuku logos.


The building is strictly off limits to unannounced visitors, as highlighted by a sign placed on the door.

This sign was put up in recent years, when an increasing number of Nintendo enthusiast and tourists started to visit the site, some of who did not respect the private nature of the property.


We take a quick glance through the front door window, but that is as far as we go.

The interior remains almost exactly as it was built in the 1930s.


The Nintendo building extends along a small side street of Shōmen-dōri.


The street level windows on the side are protected with metal bars.


These metal bar frames again contain the Marufuku logo, included in multiple places across the building.


When we take a look from above (courtesy of Google maps) we get a better understanding of the layout of the building.


The Nintendo property at Shōmen-dōri (highlighted by the red border) actually consists of three separate buildings.


The building that is fronting Shōmen-dōri is connected at ground level to two more extensions or anexes behind it, which are both three story high as well.

Front and middle building

Although the materials and colors applied in all three buildings are very similar, there are differences in architectural style. It doesn't look like the whole site was designed and built at the same time.

Back building

These extensions will most likely will have functioned as manufacturing and storage space, with the front building containing the main offices.

The back building contains a modest Nintendo (任天堂) sign on the wall of the top floor, written right-to-left as was still the standard at the time.


As mentioned, the stone building was constructed next to Nintendo's original wooden workshop. This wooden building unfortunately no longer exists. It was torn down in 2004. An empty lot remains where it once stood.


The picture below was taken by Isao Yamazaki, before the building was demolished.

Nintendo's first building at Shōmen-dōri (demolished in 2004)

It is a shame that this very first building no longer exists, and one can wonder why this was not deemed an important piece of Nintendo history (or even Kyōto history) worth preserving.

Nintendo, however, is clearly looking after the stone building that still remains.


Although it is not very likely to happen, it would make a great site for a museum dedicated to Nintendo's history. Until that happens, we can content ourselves with a picture in front of it.

7 comments:

  1. This sign was put up in recent years, when an increasing number of Nintendo enthusiast and tourists started to visit the site, some of who did not respect the private nature of the property.

    It's no different from the crap that happens in American cities with people doing the same thing. Nobody has respect, of course I do ask and whe turned down, I leave, even if I wanted to do it so badly (like go up to the top floor of one of my town's skyscrapers since I wanted to get a good view of the downtown that way, nobody gives you a good time I tell you).

    As mentioned, the stone building was constructed next to Nintendo's original wooden workshop. This wooden building unfortunately no longer exists. It was torn down in 2004. An empty lot remains where it once stood.

    A shame they couldn't keep that in one piece. Now it's a pointless alleyway.

    Nintendo, however, is clearly looking after the stone building that still remains.

    Certainly not as a tax write-off I'm sure.

    Although it is not very likely to happen, it would make a great site for a museum dedicated to Nintendo's history.

    I'm sure thousands of us have had the same idea too. Really, even if they were't using it for records, I'd say a museum wouldn't be a bad idea at all, (and making some money on the side wouldn't hurt).

    Until that happens, we can content ourselves with a picture in front of it.

    At least someone from inside didn't walk out and pester you to leave! I'm sure they'll do that after 10 minutes tops.

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  2. Daniel Watts went inside that building and posted a video on YouTube, but it appears that the video has been removed.

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    1. Now it's back online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MeAttf-uyG4

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  3. What's with the "Napoleon" logo on the plate?, what does that mean??

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    1. Napoleon is the brand name Nintendo used for some of their playing cards. I guess it was a name they picked because it sounded cool and evokes a sense of heroic battles and European style (Japan was very much looking towards Europe in the late 19th century).

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    2. I could understand that, even if nowadays we best know the guy as a nutty, little dude.

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  4. Thank you very much for answering my latest question, Erik, you have been so kind... and sorry for pestering you with the next batch (I promise you they'll be the last, hehe):

    Which was the original name of "Nintendo"?, I'm asking you this because, according to the business card that you have in your collection, the company had two (apparent) names: Marufuku Nintendo Co. and Yamauchi Nintendo... which one was the official?, or both were?

    And my final question, what does Marufuku mean?, because (apparently) it was a very important "brand" or "logo" for Nintendo at that time (it appears prominently in the building in a lot of spots)

    Best Regards

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