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Sunday, September 26, 2021

To Survive the Pandemic, a Secret Nintendo Cafe Is Secret No Longer


TOKYO — Toru Hashimoto ran a cafe that he hoped no one would find.

His tiny hideaway is a nostalgic repository for objects he kept during his decade as an engineer at Nintendo in the 1980s and 1990s: the original score for the Mario theme song, company baseball jerseys, and a rare factory cartridge label for Super Mario Bros.

Mr. Hashimoto saw the Tokyo cafe as an extension of his living room, where he had previously stored his memorabilia. He only let in his former industry colleagues and their friends, and he worked hard to keep the location a secret. However, he also left cryptic clues about its location on Facebook, such as the number of steps required to get there from a specific landmark, which obsessives followed in the hopes of finding a way in.

“In games, you must locate the capital or the location of your enemies. So you can’t just walk straight to your destination,” he explained.

The mystery, however, has now been solved. Mr. Hashimoto, like many other small-business owners who have taken drastic measures to survive the pandemic, felt compelled to open his cafe to anyone with a reservation beginning this summer. He is hoping to alleviate the financial strain caused by a coronavirus outbreak in Tokyo, which has kept some customers at home.

“I am carrying debt, and we are barely scraping by, treading water,” he explained.

Mr. Hashimoto established the cafe in 2015. He named it 84, after the final round of Super Mario Bros. — World 8, Level 4 — and the year he began working for Nintendo. (Pronounced “hashi,” it is also an abbreviation of his surname as well as the Japanese words for “chopsticks” and “bridge.”)

He joined Nintendo a year after the company, which was previously known for designing card games, released its first video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. He learned engineering from the ground up and spent the majority of his time there debugging games before they were released to the public. In 1996, he joined a small consulting firm that advised developers on how to make games more enjoyable.

His cafe, like others in Japan devoted to niche interests ranging from trains to murder mysteries to stationery, is small, seating only five people, and only open on weekends. Customers can reserve a 90-minute slot for 8,400 yen ($75). Reservationists are given the address if they promise not to reveal it.

Mr. Hashimoto is quick to point out that the cafe is not a place to play video games. In recent years, Japanese video game bars have been raided due to copyright disputes with manufacturers. The country’s once-ubiquitous arcades have also declined in popularity, a decline hastened by Japan’s deteriorating economy and the pandemic.

Customers enter the cafe and are immediately immersed in a loving tribute to the video game world. The door opens to a jingle from The Legend of Zelda, signalling that players have arrived at their destination. A Nintendo console, surrounded by candy-colored cartridge slots, is wired to the ceiling. On a loop, a TV shows old video game commercials. A couch is ruled over by an army of plush video game characters and creatures.

Autographed sketches of Pokémon, Zelda, and Dragon Quest characters by the games’ creators and developers adorn the walls.

“Before the cafe opened, all of this was in my living room,” he explained. “As a result, the theme of this cafe is also ‘welcome to my humble home.’”

He invited his friends to come in for beers and stayed open until 3 a.m. He’d miss the last train, forcing him to stay in a hotel down the street. He now lives in a nearby apartment, where he keeps “all the junk” that he did not include in the cafe.

Because of his “shyness,” he only catered to acquaintances and their friends. “I wasn’t sure I could serve a large group of strangers, so I started with people I already knew,” he explained.

Mr. Hashimoto, who was hesitant to work with strangers, struggled to find a replacement for the cafe’s cook, and the cafe stopped serving hot food. It now only serves drinks and a basket of nostalgic candy-store snacks. And when Mr. Hashimoto needed a new waiter, he befriended a cashier at the convenience store downstairs — she appeared unhappy, he said — and eventually hired her.

Hisakazu Hirabayashi, an 84-year-old video game consultant, said he had enjoyed meeting others in Mr. Hashimoto’s inner circle when the cafe only accepted members and their friends.

“People in the gaming industry can be socially awkward and prefer to communicate in their own gaming jargon. And 84 was the perfect place to do that with new people,” he explained. “Hashimoto is fantastic at connecting people; he networks for you simply by being present.”

Others welcomed the new inclusiveness. Eishi Ozeki, a 46-year-old manga artist who said he made the hour-long journey from his home to the cafe up to three times a month, applauded the decision to make it open to the public.

“The new system is fantastic for international clients or people like me who desperately wanted to come to the cafe but couldn’t due to a lack of connections,” he explained.

Finding a way into 84 had become an obsession for Mr. Ozeki, who kept pestering an acquaintance who he thought might know where it was. Later, in order to break into the video game industry, he created a manga about a girl who frequented the cafe.

Mr. Hashimoto hopes that as he expands his business, video games will be just a starting point for deeper discussions.

“People don’t come in and ask each other, ‘How do you get to the final stage of Mario Bros.?’” he explained. “We talk about life, we talk about career advancement for the younger people. That is the conversation that takes place here.”

He described a chance meeting between a woman interested in video game development and Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest.

“He signed her passport and said, ‘This is your good luck charm,’” Mr. Hashimoto said, referring to the cafe’s customer visit stamp book. “This is exactly what I intend to do with this cafe. And I told her that when she makes her own video game, she should bring it here for us to see.”

Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong, and Hikari Hida from Tokyo.

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