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Preserving the Past & Shaping the Future- Inspiring Transformations of “Machiya” Townhouses in Kyoto

August 28, 2020 Visit North Asia No Comments Email Email

Kyoto, Japan’s former capital with over 1200 years of history, is home to traditional townhouses (known as Kyo Machiya) a symbol of Kyoto’s unique lifestyle culture refined over many generations. In the modern world of changing priorities many Machiya were demolished and lost, however in Kyoto City efforts are being made to preserve and extend the life of remaining Machiya recognizing them as valuable cultural assets.

The Machiya is often called an “eel bed” because it has a long depth. Inside, a room runs along the street, there is a courtyard and a backyard. The exterior is characterized by having a large, tiled roof with a tiled tier, in addition to street fences, lattices (ultra-fine lattice acting as insect windows) which are plastered on the outside. Kyoto City is geographically positioned in a basin and has always suffered from hot summer heat, so when building these townhouses, priority was given to protecting against the heat.

Renovating these traditional structures with preservation in mind can be challenging and requires highly skilled craftsmen for a broad range of delicate and technical work. Today, many of these townhouses are successfully preserved and converted for use as authentic lodging facilities, restaurants, shops and businesses.  Chosen as a popular accommodation option by travellers seeking a unique way to experience Japanese history and culture, the Machiya certainly offers an authentic local experience.

Experience a Machiya Stay:

A stay in a Machiya comes in a range of levels from highend luxury ryokan style accommodation to a private stay in your own serviced apartment Machiya, there is plenty of choice. Here are two fine examples.

Nazuna Kyoto Tsubaki St. is a luxury contemporary ryokan, opened earlier this year. The property was developed by renovating an entire L-shaped alleyway of Machiya buildings dating back over 110 years. The 23 Machiya lining the street have transformed into individual guest rooms with private semi open-air bathrooms, all named and decorated according to elements of nature that have long been cherished in Kyoto.  The reception building on an unassuming street serves as both an entrance to welcome guests, as well as a passage from the outside world into Tsubaki St. On the other side, guests are greeted by an otherworldly, nostalgic street view – a world reminiscent of the historical geisha districts of Kyoto. Nazuna Kyoto Tsubaki St. combines the fine “omotenashi” hospitality of a ryokan, traditional Machiya buildings and inspiring contemporary interiors, all elements staying true to the essence of Kyoto.

Iori Machiya Stay offers a range of twelve carefully preserved and renovated Machiya around Kyoto. The townhouses range in size, sleeping from 2 to 9 people, and can be privately rented. Whilst Machiya buildings are designed to stay as cool as possible in the summer months, the Iori Machiya Stay properties all come with modern air conditioning. They come with kitchenette complete with microwave , fridge and the convenience of free Wifi. All have a small garden courtyard and some even face onto Kyoto’s Kamogawa River. Whilst your Machiya will not have all the services of a hotel, the Iori Machiya Stay office is not far away and the staff are very helpful assisting visitors’ needs. Breakfast can be ordered to arrive at the door of your townhouse, with a choice of either traditional Japanese or Western fare. A Machiya stay is an unforgettable way to experience Kyoto culture firsthand.

Other examples of Machiya having undergone inspiring transformations:

Hard Rock Café Kyoto: Opened in July 2019, this is the world’s only Hard Rock Café preserved to feature the appearance of a traditional townhouse. Located in Kyoto’s historical Gion area, known for teahouses with Geiko and Maiko entertainment, the Hardrock is a perfect example of a contemporary brand blending into the traditional aesthetic of the city. But the blending of tradition does not stop at the building, the Hard Rock, famous for American style burgers, also offers local specialities on the menu such as Kyoto vegetables and some traditional Japanese food. Their range of branded gifts and small souvenirs include some items which are traditional Kyoto crafts.

Kyoto Columbia Store: Columbia Sportswear Kyoto: A Kyoto townhouse with a history of over 100 years was reborn in September 2019 as the Columbia Kyoto Store in line with the brands’ concept of “History, Culture and Outdoors”. While following the original appearance of a Kyo Machiya, it has been made with a commitment to old materials and furniture, making it a shop that combines Kyoto tradition with the Colombian brand identity. The recessed alcove for displaying items (Tokunoma) and the central courtyard to bring in light (Nakaniwa) have been integrated as part of the store.

Nagae family Residence: This former residence of a Kimono making family was listed as a “Kyoto City Designated Tangible Cultural Property” in 2005. The total frontage of just 13m a depth of 54m comprises a total of six buildings and two storehouses totalling over 700m2. In keeping with the building’s culture and history as a Machiya, in collaboration with Hoosiers Corporation, Ritsumeikan University, and Kyoto City, the Nagae family residence has been refurbished and is now used as an office and guesthouse. A fine example of a Kyo-Machiya, the Nagae Family residence was accoladed in 2019 with the Good Design Award*.

*Good Design Award is a “Comprehensive Design Recommendation System” sponsored by the Japan Design Promotion Organization.

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