Last year I was invited to view the ongoing work on an exciting machiya revival project in central Kyoto. Overseen by a local architectural company called Good Design Works the plan is to renovate not just one traditional townhouse but an entire unit of houses as a single integrated resort hotel.
Machiya are the traditional wooden townhouses of Kyoto. Their dark lattice fronts once lined all the streets of the city, and their low-lying tiled rooftops formed a gentle rolling city skyline with here and there a palace or a temple rising up above them. Though the palaces and temples remain, that distinctive machiya skyline has now all but disappeared. Over the last 60 years or so, machiya have increasingly been torn down in favor of high rise blocks and parking lots. Though this destruction of old Kyoto continues today, there have been some efforts in recent years to find new ways to preserve these buildings. Famed Japanologist Alex Kerr was a pioneer when he founded the Iori company to renovate old houses for use as hotel lodgings. Other businesses have transformed machiya into attractive modern cafes, restaurants, and shops, and both the city and local banks offer attractive investments for new home-owners who wish to buy, restore, and refurbish these buildings.
This all represents something of a boom in machiya revival, but up until now most projects have focused on single buildings. Where Good Design Works are showing a new and rather daring approach is in seeking to redevelop an entire connected group of houses. This is actually really important. Traditionally, machiya were (and some still are) grouped together in small neighborhoods, and everybody in that neighborhood knew each other. Typically a narrow lane would run off the main road and around it there would be a close knit community of houses, with many neighbors employed in the same kind of work. People would see each other daily, meet up for gossip at the local public baths, and watch over each other’s kids when they played outside in communal areas. Restoring a single machiya is always a worthwhile enterprise, but on its own it does nothing to preserve this old communal spirit and there really is nothing quite as sad as the sight of an old townhouse hemmed in on all sides by looming apartment buildings.
This is why it is so wonderful that Good Design Works have taken a block of buildings in Kyoto’s Shinkamanza-cho district and renovated them as a group. The new resort is named “Shinkamanza” after this district, and it is an ambitious project, but having viewed the construction site I am happy to say it looks splendid. The resort sits in a well-preserved area on a quiet side street not far from the Shijo-Karasuma intersection, and despite its central location it forms a natural sanctuary from the busy urban surround. Within the resort are 9 houses containing separate apartments. Each house has its own individual design, its own facilities, and its own inner courtyard garden. All of these houses offer unique views on the rest of the resort complex that provide a nostalgic glimpse of old Kyoto. The resort has been conceived as a small village, and to bind this village together there is a communal garden with carefully chosen rocks, a small café bar area where guests can mingle, a traditional public bath for group or family bathing, and a flowing stream that provides both cool air and natural background music to calm the soul.
And the houses are comfortable! These houses have been fully refurbished, so that they will be warm and snug in winter, and cool and breezy in the hot summer months. I was also highly impressed by the attention given to each house’s bathing and toilet facilities. The chief designer, Moatesu Kiraeri, spent a lot of time explaining to me how important he felt these areas are. Machiya houses are generally not that big, and traditionally they didn’t have their own bathrooms, so modern refits tend to skimp on the space and materials used for these modern conveniences. Not so at Shinkamanza! Here you will find not a cramped plastic toilet, but an elegant room with a ceramic bowl, a spacious hinoki wood bath tub, or a piping hot shower, and in each area you can enjoy piped music, or a cleverly angled view of your inner garden (with your privacy preserved intact). As Kiraeri-san enthused on these areas I could see that he conceived of the toilet and bathing areas not simply as facilities, but as comfortable spaces for quiet contemplation. I was instantly reminded of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows where he waxes lyrically upon the Japanese toilet as a “place of spiritual repose”:
“No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden… surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks upon blue skies and green leaves.”
Furthermore, I was assured that each building is fully soundproofed, so you can play your music at top volume, and they won’t hear a thing next door.
Overall I was really excited by this project, both for its overall vision, and for the attention to detail in choosing the perfect materials: just the right paper for the ceilings, the very best cedar wood for the baths, and not this rock but another for the garden display… Clearly no expense or effort has been spared on this project and quite rightly it has been given full backing by the city government too. Shinkamanza looks to be not only a great place to stay when visiting Kyoto, but a brand new model for machiya revival projects elsewhere. Three cheers for Good Design Works and may others be inspired to follow their example!
The Shinkamanza machiya resort will be officially opened in July 2017. All images from the Shinkamanza resort were taken by Elsa Arribas (aka BunnyTokyo). For more information visit the official Shinkamanza Facebook page or follow the project on Twitter.