Tag Archives: 町家

Shinkamanza: An Innovative Machiya Townhouse Resort in Downtown Kyoto

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 first floor design plan.

The Second floor design plan.

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.

Matcha Tea & Machiya in Kyoto – Two Articles for GuideAdvisor

Whether you are interested in tea ceremony or traditional architecture, two pieces I wrote for GuideAdvisor earlier this year, offer my top tips for for your trip to Kyoto.

ga machiya

The first article is on how to find the very best machiya:  the traditional wooden townhouses of Kyoto. After decades of neglect and outright destruction, machiya have been undergoing something of a boom in popularity in recent years.

Climb a hill on the outskirts of Kyoto, and you’ll look upon a city transformed. Fifty years ago, you would have seen a sea of low lying tiled rooftops, and here and there a shrine, temple or villa rising up like islands lapped by baked tile waves. Machiya, the old wooden townhouses most closely associated with the city of Kyoto in Japan, covered the landscape… Machiya were the houses of merchants and craftsmen, designed to be lived and worked in. Long sturdy structures of simple grace, they closely lined the city’s narrow streets, the style of lattice-work at front giving tell-tale notice of the business within. Today that old skyline, with its sweeping sea of tiles has gone, and the cityscape initially presents to the eye a jumble of gray and brown apartment blocks, city offices, and pachinko parlors. If you go and explore the city though, the older more traditional buildings are still there, down amidst the looming towers of modernity, and their dark wooden beams and refined latticework still enchant us with the flavour of old Kyoto.

You can read the rest of the article here: Looking for the Lost Machiya Buildings in Kyoto.

ga matcha

My second piece is a guide to enjoying matcha tea in the ancient capital, whether in traditional tea ceremony, or in the many matcha flavored food products that are on sale here.

Due to the close vicinity of Uji’s tea fields Kyoto has a long association with matcha tea: the powdered green tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The monk Eisai first brought this powdered tea from China to Japan in 1191, along with Zen Buddhism, and the two traditions have been closely linked ever since.

In Kyoto, Eisai founded the city’s oldest Zen temple, Kenninji, and on its grounds you can find a teahouse designed by the legendary 16th Century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who is responsible for developing the refined tea ceremony that we know today. Called variously Chado, Sado or Cha-no-yu, this ceremony ritualizes the act of preparing, sharing, and tasting tea into a slow, meditative process that emphasizes simplicity, grace and serenity. Yet despite the simplicity of the ceremony itself, the Way of Tea is intimately bound up with many other traditional arts such as calligraphy, ceramics, flower arrangement, and Japanese cuisine. So if you want a gateway into Japanese culture and philosophy, a cup of matcha tea is where you start!

You can read the rest of the article here: Go Green in Kyoto! Enjoy the Famous Tea Ceremony Then See How a New Generation is Serving up Matcha

And while you are about it, why not check out pro-photographer Paul Crouse‘s piece on the 10 Best Photo Spots in Kyoto.

See also: The Health Benefits of Japanese Green Tea

Ran Hotei Cafe – Vintage Taishō Romance & Excellent Cake

On Wednesday I took a walk over to the Sanjo-kai Shōtengai shopping arcade and popped into Randy Channell’s machiya cafe Ran Hotei.

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Randy is well known as a master of Japanese tea ceremony, and he does teach a few tea ceremony classes at Ran Hotei. Mainly though he gives classes at a shrine near the Imperial Palace. So if you are not interested in tea ceremony, that’s ok, Ran Hotei is essentially a cafe, a place to relax, with coffee, tea and other standard beverages plus some damn fine cake.

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On my visit I had a coffee and cake set for 850 yen. It was a maple chiffon cake, not too heavy and not too light and tasted excellent.

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Randy opened the cafe in 2007, after having the building, a traditional wooden townhouse, or machiya, thoroughly renovated. He explained that he was looking for an art-deco, “Taishō Roman” kind of style when decorating the interior. Taishō refers to the Taishō Era (1912-1926), a short period of liberalism in Japanese politics and culture, which in popular memory stands in sharp contrast to the chaotic drive towards modernism of the Meiji Era that preceded it and the more militaristic early Shōwa Era that followed.  “Roman” is short for romantic, so essentially Taishō Roman stands for a kind of vintage romance.

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The stained glass doorway above was found for him by our old friend Rob Mangold.

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Take a pew – the seating above was originally from a church!

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Or if you prefer you can kick off your shoes and relax on a tatami floor.

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Randy has decorated the machiya very nicely with some lovely items. Check out that beautiful chandelier.

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The Ran of  Ran Hotei is from Randy’s name and the Hotei comes from the popular figure above. Randy has an extensive collection of Hotei statues and images, over 3000, but the one above he tells me, is his “treasure”. Hotei is a folkloric figure representing contentment and generosity.

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Plus points: Ran Hotei is non-smoking and it is also officially a “Dog Cafe” meaning you can pop in here after taking Rover out for walkies. If you are lucky, you may get to meet Snow, above, so named because she is black (?), but perhaps also because she is すなお, a very calm, gentle natured dog.

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Randy is a very welcoming and friendly chap and he has been in Kyoto long enough to have a few stories under his obi. Before he was a tea master, he was a practitioner of various martial arts. I was very glad to meet him and am looking forward to getting to know him better. Mostly though I just want to go back and have another piece of that cake.

Ran Hotei is situated on the south side of the Sanjo Arcade which lies between Horikawa and Senbon Streets. Here is a MAP.

Kawai Kanjiro’s House


This is the house of Kawai Kanjiro, a legendary potter and a key figure in the mingei or Japanese folk art movement. His beautiful wooden townhouse has been preserved as a memorial run by his family. The building itself and the garden are wonderful, but you can also see here many of his works: ceramics, sculptures, and woodcarvings. His kilns are preserved at the back of the house. I was there back in September and took some 360 degree pictures which I shall share here as they give a good impression of how much there is to explore in the house. Just click on them to have a proper look around: Continue reading

Trattoria Dougetsu by the Ocean

Mewby’s birthday was a couple of weeks back and to celebrate I took her to Trattoria 道月 by the Ocean. Though the name is a bit unwieldy, the restaurant itself is very welcoming and friendly, and the food was superb.

IMG_4365This is the outside of the building which as you can see is a lovely old (but fully renovated!) machiya townhouse. You can’t beat a bit of machiya dining when in Kyoto. This restaurant specializes in fresh seafood served with Italian pasta, which you can eat at the counter whilst watching the cook at work, or separately at your own table. We had a little room to ourselves and here are the dishes we ordered: Continue reading

Machiya Dining at Cameron


This restaurant, Cameron is, in a very good way, odd. The graceful decor,  the attentive service, and the exquisite delicacies they serve you, all give the impression of expense. Yet though we ate our fill of fine things and were waited on hand and foot, after bracing ourselves for a very steep bill, we were surprised to find we had spent less than at your average rough and ready izakaya. Really. I cannot stress this enough. This place is extraordinarily REASONABLE.

Here’s the food:


A nice piece of breaded marlin and some choice veggies. How I love those snow peas. Continue reading

Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces

Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide - Click to buy!I am currently reading this new book by Judith Clancy and at some point will write up a proper review for Kyoto Journal. But for the time being here are some rough notes and impressions.

Machiya are the traditional wooden townhouses of Kyoto, sadly under continuing threat from modern developers and their preference for boxy apartment buildings and parking lots. This book provides a guide to 140 of Kyoto’s machiya restaurants and cafes, with 20 singled out as personal favorites. Many I have been to and many I haven’t, so it’s nice to know there is plenty yet to explore and with excellent maps, details and directions they all look to be easy to find.

In addition, introductory chapters describe the evolution of Kyoto’s machiya culture and design within a historical context, and celebrate the revival of machiya values in recent years. An excellent photo essay by Ben Simmons also helps to act as a guide to differing machiya design characteristics as well as helping the novice to appreciate their simple beauty.

Indices by both cuisine and shop name provide easy reference. And with a glossary of culinary terms, plus a guide to Japanese table manners, this is a very handy tool for the Kyoto explorer.

The small businesses featured in this book are helping to preserve and revive Kyoto’s machiya culture for future generations and so a book that supports those businesses in turn is to be praised. Judith Clancy’s Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide is an essential addition to the Kyoto lover’s library.

Available from Amazon.co.jp, Amazon.com, and Amazon.co.uk. Also available on Kindle.

Exploring Kyoto - click to buy the bookJudith Clancy is the author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, long a favorite walking guide to the city.

A portion of the proceeds from Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide are being donated to the Kyomachiya Machizukuri Fund to support machiya preservation.

See also: Machiya Revival in Kyoto
Images of machiya from Stone Bridge Press.

Shijo Kyo Machiya BBQ Night II

Look at this lovely old machiya! How could you resist a barbecue here?

Shijo Kyo Machiya BBQ Night II is on Saturday, June 18th from 5pm-8pm. Here are the details:

Shijo Kyo Machiya BBQ Night II will feature a special lecture by architect Geoffrey Moussas. In 1994, he started the all-out research work of Kyo Machiya and, with his company Design 1st, has since become known for his Machiya renovation design while incorporating modern elements.

1st Part: 5PM-6PM: Lecture on Kyoto machiya by Geoffrey Moussas

2nd Part: 6PM-8PM: Dinner in the 100 year-old machiya building, garden and “Kura bar”. All of this will turn into a big party space, where business persons and students can socialize and network.

Also, this event is our “tribute” to the non-Japanese who continue to visit and live in Japan after 3.11. In short, non-Japanese will be given a

Non-Japanese / Students: 2,000yen
Japanese: 2,500yen
With RSVP: food + two drinks / Without RSVP: food + one drink

For reservations, please visit this facebook page,
or send an e-mail to: information@waraido.com

There are some pictures from the first Shijo Kyo Machiya BBQ Night here on facebook.

Venue: Shijo Kyo Machiya (Nishinotoin-Shijo)
〒600-8493 11 Kakkyo-Yama-Cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto City
Just 5 minutes on foot from the subway Shijo Station or Hankyu Karasuma Station. Here is a map.

Easy access, plenty of food & drinks, inspiring presentations.
Don’t miss it!!

Thanks to Eric Luong for sending both the information and the pictures.


Ushinohone Anaza

Here’s another comfy, little izakaya style restaurant in an old machiya building on Sanjo. There are lots of simple but tasty Japanese dishes to choose from here. Behold the food!

Appetisers. Unusually (but happily for me) none of them contained meat!

This Crab and tomato tartare was luscious...

Potato Salad with Mentaiko (marinated roe of pollack) - a very nice mix!

”Renkon no kinpira” - stir fried slices of lotus root.

"Kumoko no ponzu" - Cod milt in a ponzu (citrus based) sauce

Shrimp and avocado baked in mayonnaise

Spring rolls with oyster and winter vegetables.

Kinako (soybean) flavored ice cream with kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup))

Ushinohone Anaza is part of a group of restaurants established in Kyoto in 1985. They specialize in hot charcoal cooked dishes and seasonal obanzai ryori. The atmosphere is relaxed, spacious and welcoming. This one sits on the north side of Sanjo in between Tominokoji and Yanaginobanba streets. You can find a map to it here and a map to the other branches here.
Open every day:17:00~24:00

京町家の再生 – Machiya Revival in Kyoto

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. Continue reading