Featured image: the exterior of Issey Miyake Kyoto. ©ISSEY MIYAKE INC. Photo by Masaya Yoshimura.
Kyoto’s traditional homes, known as ‘Kyo-machiya’, are wooden townhomes with ground floor commercial spaces built with traditional Japanese dovetail joinery methods—no nails. They became popularized during the Edo period in Japan, spanning from 1603 to 1868, though most remaining machiya in Kyoto date from the late 1860s. During World War II, many of these homes were destroyed. In the post-war era, the 1950s Japanese Building Standards Law (BSL) prohibits their construction and rendered the Kyo-machiya, and similar buildings in Japan, as an ‘existing non-conforming building’.
The BSL designates traditional timber construction, known as ‘nuki’ as a safety hazard and therefore no longer lawful construction even though this method has a refined and sophisticated response to earthquakes, which are prevalent in Japan. Vertical columns are connected by horizontal pieces and then sheathed by plaster. In an earthquake, this construction disperses the energy from a quake by allowing the plaster to crumble and the walls to sway with the forces while keeping the house intact.
A typical machiya is an elongated structure that is five to six meters wide by twenty meters deep. A typical characteristic is that the long roof eave is parallel to the street. On one end, there is the commercial space and the outdoor space under the tiled eave typically has a bench to display goods on sale or as a place of respite for the customers. Other representative exterior features include: Zhong Kui Dolls imported from China, there to ward off bad luck and ill health; a protruding lattice for ventilation and privacy; and a mezzanine-storey-window covered in plaster or clay, called the ‘insect cage’, to also allow ventilation.
The interior of the house is a succession of spaces that are increasingly more domestic and private. There is an entrance room for business transactions, adjacent to two private tatami rooms that are sheltered by a wood lattice and lead to a private garden space. At the back of the house there is a stair leading to the mezzanine level which has more living space.
With approximately 40,000 Kyo-machiyas left in Kyoto, there is local effort to preserve these structures and The World Monument Fund put Kyo-machiyas on their watch list in 2010 and 2012. Partnering with the Kyomachiya Revitalization Study Group and the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration, the fund works on various solutions regarding restoration and maintenance. Their efforts provided guidelines for future machiya restorations and modern upgrades while maintaining the original form.
For over a decade, interest in machiyas have increased even though many are disappearing to make way for modern structures. While the remaining are mostly used for residential purposes, a notable adaptive re-use of a machiya is the Issey Miyake shop in Kyoto designed by architect Naoto Fukasawa. With all of the interior partitions removed, the structure of the envelope walls are exposed. The wall sections in between each timber column are plastered in a muted grey referencing Japanese ink wash paintings.
While the Kyo-machiya is an architectural legacy of a bygone era, notwithstanding a fashion brand’s repurposing of these buildings, tourism breathes a new life into these well-crafted homes. Japanese companies such as Hachise renovate machiyas with updated plumbing and electrical amenities with the hope of celebrating the patina in these well crafted homes that exude an old-world charm no longer available in new construction. In a contemporary landscape that is dizzying with all that is novel, travelers relish in a certain nostalgia.
The company, while catering to travelers, also refurbishes these spaces for investment opportunities as restaurants or long-term rental properties for locals. The bones of the homes remain and the interiors are reconfigured to accommodate for more bedrooms, private bathrooms and, of course, all the wiring necessary for outlets and Wifi access. The repurposing often keeps the facades in place and updates the interiors for other uses while maintaining the fluid experience between the indoors and the outdoors.
As it stands, there are over 40,000 machiya structures in Kyoto and about ten percent are sitting empty or otherwise abandoned. Of these, two percent are torn down and lost forever to make way for new city development. Kyoto’s plight to preserve a craft tradition is not uncommon and it serves as a larger lesson for all older cities that contemplate the value of preserving architectural legacy and making way for new, fast, quick and replaceable architecture that panders to the whims of capitalist forces. By contrast, the machiya is an example of an architectural tradition that values the slow process of construction by hand and things which are made to last a very long time.