Making Zelda Fun to Play: Retracing Meta Origins of BotW-TotK's Hyrule in Kyoto, Japan

POSTED ON:  April 6, 2024

by: Aufigir1

Breath of the Wild was my very first Zelda game that I owned and played. Prior to this, I loved playing open-world exploration games such as Fallout, The Elder’s Scrolls and Assassin’s Creed. But Breath of the Wild had completely captured my gaming attention and imagination in ways that I had not experienced since I was in high school. The amount of fun and hours put into just exploring the massive sandbox world of BotW’s Hyrule, as well as solving puzzles and finding new ways to fight enemies is astonishing. That, along with discovering the subtle bits of lore and stories that tells the history of Hyrule, 100 years ago to the present day. 

To say that I was excited when Tears of the Kingdom was announced would be an understatement. I had even taken a week off from work just so I could spend time playing the sequel on release day uninterrupted. 

All that being said, I was always so fascinated by how the developers created both games and previous titles. So much so that I had bought the Creating the Champions Artbook and later the Tears of the Kingdom Collector’s Edition, just for the Illustration books. I also watched the interviews of the Zelda developers and how they created it. 

However, reading developer’s notes is very different from actually experiencing the places that inspired their creative process. Over the Christmas and New Year of 2023-24, I had the pleasure of visiting Kyoto, Japan— the home and base of operations for the Legend of Zelda development team and their parent company, Nintendo.

For those who may not be aware, Kyoto is home to Nintendo’s HQ and their Development Centre. It is also the hometown for many Zelda developers, including Hidemaro Fujibayashi, the Director for Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom.  

In an interview about Breath of the Wild’s development, Fujibayashi and the Zelda producer, Eiji Aonuma explained that when they began to conceptualise the new world of Hyrule, they drew inspiration directly from Kyoto’s own layout and draft versions of the overworld were scaled to such. At the time, I misinterpreted their words as drawing inspiration from Kyoto’s metropolitan area. It was not until I was in Kyoto that I finally understood what they meant. 

I travelled to Kyoto with my family as part of our Japan holiday in Dec 2023-Jan 2024 and stayed there for four nights. It was one of the MUST VISIT places on my Japan bucket list and we were there during the first week of the New Year Celebrations. The whole city, like everywhere else in Japan, was in full festive mode to celebrate the new year, especially around the local shrines and Grand Temples.  

And yet, while I was there, I noticed many things about the city and the surrounding areas that I also see within Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom. Especially as I had brought along my copy of Tears of the Kingdom during the downtimes between walks and tours. How the city was on a flat plain with rolling hills, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Much like Central Hyrule’s landscape. And at night, you can see the bright glow of Kyoto tower in the far distance. Just like the glow of the Sheikah Towers in BotW and the Skyview Towers in TotK.

(Right to left) Ancient Sheikah tower. Kyoto Tower. Skyview Tower. Source: original author

One of the biggest facts I have learned about Kyoto was that of the shrines, particularly the ones from Tears of the Kingdom. What many foreigners—including myself— do not realise about Japan is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of shrines throughout the country, from both Buhhdist and Shinto religions. They range from small shrines found by the streets or inside buildings and stations, known as hokora. To neighbourhood temples to the massive grand shrines.

In Kyoto, there are about 400 shrines scattered throughout its metropolitan region and if one were to overlay the overworld map of BotW or TotK onto the city, the Shrine locations in-game (almost) aligns with a real-life shrine or place of interest. And each Shrine’s name is an allegory to their respective real-life counterparts. 

A Redditor and Zelda fan by the username, Chubby_Bub had created an interactive Google map of Kyoto with the TotK Shrine locations with brief descriptions of their allegorical names and real-life history, as well as a few personal comments of their experience. You can find the map here.

As pointed out by Chubby_Bub, the locations of each Shrine’s real-life inspirations are not exact to their in-game locations. But it does give a retrospective insight from where they received their name. Majority of the Shrines’ names on TotK’s Overworld and Sky maps are inspired by Shinto shrines, however there are a handful that are based on other notable sites throughout Kyoto.

For example, Marari-in Shrine (Ni-iraram Lightroot) on Eventide Island. Its real-life counterpart is the  Fushimi Inari-taisha, arguably the most famous grand temple in Kyoto - best known for its 10,000 red torii gates.

Source: original author

Rōmon gate of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Source: original author 

Gasas Shrine (Sasag Lightroot), their real life counterpart is the Saga-Arashiyama Station, formerly known as the Saga Station. This is the closest station to the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. 

Source: original author

Saga Arashiyama Station (formerly known as Saga Station). Source: (link)

Another one is Serutabomac Shrine (Camobatures Lightroot), the Shrine found in Hyrule Castle. Its real life counterpart is Senbon Marutamachi which in present-day, is a major intersection in Kyoto. But historically, this area was once part of the famed Heian Imperial Palace, the original seat of Imperial power when Kyoto was the capital of Japan from. This was also likely the inspiration of Hyrule Castle’s location in the game. 

Source: original author

Shrine location marked on the Senbon Marutamachi intersection. Present-day Kyoto. Source: (link)

Shrine location marked on the Senbon Marutamachi intersection. With a historic map of the Heian Imperial Palace overlaid on present-day Kyoto. It is unclear on the image but where the Shrine marker is located was once the Daigokuden (Great Audience Hall) of the Daidairi (Greater Palace) complex. Source: (link)

So if you ever happen to be in Kyoto and in a Zelda mood, you can try a “Zelda shrine tour” to see how many shrines you can visit based on the game’s own shrine locations! 

I had an amazing time in Kyoto. From playing Tears of the Kingdom on my Switch in the hotel room to being able to wander through the real-life places that inspired the game’s world setting adds another level of fun to my four day experience. And there is still so much of this city that I have yet to experience. 

Such as visiting the actual Nintendo Headquarters and the largest Nintendo store in the world (which I have since regretted NOT going.), to visit the numerous historic districts and castles. As well as exploring other regions outside of the major cities, like the Gifu Preference which is home to many traditional Japanese architecture that inspired the aesthetics of Kakariko Village and their Sheikah residents.

And I hope to visit Kyoto and Japan in general again in the near future. Not only for the Japanese experience but to also see what more of Zelda I can retrace in the real world. 

Source: original author