April 17, 2009
A visit to a private Kyoto machiya
Kyoto’s abundant traditional Japanese architecture is one of the most noticeable and impressive characteristics of the city. The opportunity to get inside these traditional buildings–including private homes and merchant’s houses, known as kyo-machiya–is a rare and fascinating experience in Japanese culture.
Once abundant in central Kyoto, the machiya served as both shops and homes for their owners. Machiya typically occupy deep, narrow lots (property tax was based on the street-side width of the house), leading to their nickname “bed of eels.” They are usually two-story structures built of wood, bamboo, stone, clay, tatami and paper.
The distinctive facade of a machiya features a tile roof, exterior walls of scorched wood (which helps prevent mold), and vertical lattices of plaster, wood and bamboo that allow light and air into the house while maintaining privacy and security.
The family shop was in the front of the machiya, in the room or rooms facing the street. The tatami-floored residential quarters open off a clay or stone path that runs from the front of the house to the back. One or two internal gardens bring light, air and greenery to the interior rooms.
Most machiya also have a fireproof kura (storehouse) used to store the family’s treasured items, including lacquerware, furniture such as tansu chests, supplies for festivals and holidays, and other important heirlooms.
The number of machiya has been in serious decline over the last few decades due to the difficulty of their upkeep, the high price of land and other factors. However, in the last few years, many Japanese have re-discovered the unique beauty of machiya, and many machiya have been restored and turned into restaurants and shops.
Artisans of Leisure brings travelers into original, private machiya that have belonged to the same families for several centuries. This is a great opportunity to learn about Japanese homes, architecture and traditional family customs.