I’ve just finished reading this fine little book about the machiya (町家) of Kyoto. Machiya are the traditional narrow wooden townhouses of the old capital. Once, their tiled roofs and wooden lattice fronts typified Kyoto’s urban landscape. However, since the end of WW2 this traditional landscape has in large part been replaced by high rise buildings and parking lots. 13% of Kyoto’s remaining machiya were leveled between 1996 and 2003, and sadly this process continues even today. However, not all has been lost and in recent years there has been a movement to renovate and restore old machiya. Many of them have been converted into cool modern shops, cafes and businesses while maintaining their integrity as traditional structures. To visit these places is to experience old and modern Kyoto simultaneously: a modern Kyoto that respects and takes pride in its history.
Machiya Revival in Kyoto is produced by the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration, an NPO that works to protect and restore old machiya. The book is divided into four parts. The first gives a thorough grounding in machiya history and design. Cross-sectional diagrams reveal both the typical structure of these buildings and also their design genius. You can see how gardens, courtyards and the hibukuro (火袋) ventilation system are used to increase the flow of cool air and bring natural light into the buildings. Fine attention to detail is manifest in the koshi (格子) latticework (each specific style of koshi denotes a particular business) and in the hakodan (箱段) stairs that can also be used as storage space. These buildings exhibit great versatility in that they combine a private residence with business and the use of space reflects this. Sliding doors and screens can be added or removed to create different rooms for varying purposes. The book also celebrates machiya’s use of all natural materials, and their role in preserving traditional crafts and in reviving community spirit.
The next section details the havoc wreaked by modernisation. Maintaining a machiya building is an expensive undertaking. Many are lost to make way for profitable high rise apartment buidlings, others are modified sloppily with “practical” modern materials, become steadily uglified and lose their unique machiya character. Before and after pictures showing the streets of Shijo/Kawaramachi and Higashinotoin over a hundred year interlude are absolutely heartbreaking. It is rather like looking at pictures of the Amazon rainforest beofore and after the clear cutters have been through it. It is absolutely tragic how much architectural beauty has already been lost. Other pictures of machiya under demolition are incredibly sad.
After that, chapter three comes as a much needed unicorn chaser! In 2005 the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration set up the Machiya Machizukuri Fund to help machiya owners preserve and restore their buildings – and through this to revitalize community spirit. A series of case studies detail several projects where existing machiya have been renovated and beautified. Particularly nice examples of the fund’s use are the car port and air conditioners which are screened with traditional latticework. The work of restoring architectural grace to the modern city needn’t ignore the needs of the present.
The final part of the book discusses international interest in Kyoto machiya. Clearly there are lessons to be learned and support to be gained from those in other countries who also seek to preserve their architectural traditions. And also it is clear from the interest of those abroad that machiya are not just a treasure for Kyoto, and for Japan, but for the world.
You might also consider investing in a copy of “Machiya Revival in Kyoto (京町家の再生)”. It’s a fine basic (bilingual) guide to machiya history, their destruction and revival.
Here are some more renovated machiya locations you might want to try:
Cafe Bibliotic Hello, Omuraya (izakaya style restaurant), Salut Ya (cafe/bar/diner), Hale (vegan restaurant), Quarirengue and Nest (dog friendly cafe). Kyoto Cycling Tour Project also does a machiya tour.