Machiya is a traditional Japanese building that is found throughout the country. They are typified in Kyoto, which is why they are also widely known as Kyoto Machiya. Despite being a cultural icon and fundamental part of Japanese heritage, Machiya buildings are being demolished throughout Japan to make way for new houses and apartments.
No trip to Japan is complete without visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Listed city of Kyoto. Not only is it stunningly beautiful, but it is famed for its historical architectural gems such as the Machiya buildings.
Although they have been subject to widespread teardown and removal, there are fortunately a number of programs in place to help preserve and restore those that remain.
What is a Machiya building?
Machiya (町屋/町家) are traditional Japanese wooden townhouses that served as both shopfronts and residents for the shop owner. Although there are fewer today than in the past, they can still be found throughout Japan.
For the most part, merchants, craftspeople, and urban villagers (chonin) lived and worked in Machiya buildings.
Traditional Machiya structures are long and narrow, with street frontage and a small courtyard or garden at the rear called a tsuboniwa.
Most of these types of buildings were constructed using traditional materials including baked earth bricks and ceramic roof tiles.
They are usually only one or one and a half stories in height, although they can reach as high as three stories.
The front of a Machiya house is traditionally a retail or shop space known as a mise no ma. It is usually fitted with shelves to display products which can be covered with shutters as needed.
What are the characteristics of a Machiya building?
Behind the shopfront lies the living spaces including the kyoshitsu-tu (living room), doma (basic unfloored space including the kitchen), and kura (storehouse). The largest space is the zashiki, a reception area that overlooks the garden.
Traditional Japanese sliding doors known as shoji are popular in Machiya buildings, enabling the configuration of rooms to alter according to need.
Thanks to the versatility they offered, Machiya buildings could also have a small genkan (foyer) or oku no ma (central room).
The wider the Machiya house, the wealthier the owner. Most Machiya plots would be between 18 and 20 feet (5.4 to 6 meters) wide, and up to 66 feet (20 meters) deep. It’s no surprise that they were known by the nickname ungai no nedoko, which translates to ‘eel beds’.
What is the connection between Machiya buildings and Kyoto?
More so than anywhere in Japan, Machiya buildings are the defining architecture of downtown Kyoto. Here, they are commonly known as Komachiya (京町家/京町屋).
The Kyomachiya has been a part of Kyoto for centuries and their design set the standard for Machiya buildings throughout Japan.
The design has its origins in the Heian period of classical Japanese history, which occurred from 794 to 1185 BCE. That’s over 1000 years ago! It continued to evolve during the later Edo and Meiji periods.
The Machiya design is well-suited to life in Kyoto, with its hot and humid summers and cool winters.
The many layers of shoji could be used to moderate the temperature inside. More shoji helped trap the heat inside in winter, while fewer in summer allowed air to flow throughout the building.
Why are Machiya buildings disappearing?
Within the past couple of decades, a great number of traditional Machiya structures have been demolished to make way for new buildings.
Between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of Kyoto’s Machiya buildings were destroyed. Unfortunately, this trend is also seen throughout the rest of Japan as well.
There are several reasons for this:
Space is at a premium in Japan
Japan is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with 899 people per square mile (337 people per square kilometer) in its major cities.
Even though its population growth rate has declined in recent years, there is only so much space for the people to develop the land and modernize the architecture.
Is it difficult to keep a Machiya building up and running
Most Machiya houses are over 100 years old. Not only are they difficult to repair to keep their heritage integrity intact, but they are expensive to maintain.
In 2003, a survey of Machiya residents in Kyoto found that 50% felt that their Machiya was a financial burden.
Machiya buildings aren’t as safe as modern ones
Japan is located along a belt of high tectonic and volcanic activity called the ‘Ring of Fire’. This makes it prone to earthquakes and the people of Japan withstand around 1,500 minor earthquakes each year.
Modern Japanese buildings are built with earthquake-resistant technology that makes them much safer than traditional buildings like Machiya homes.
They don’t have the bells and whistles of modern buildings
If you like the conveniences of modern living, life in a Machiya home might be difficult to withstand. Unless it has been renovated extensively, it would not have the modern conveniences that most of us enjoy.
Can Machiya buildings be saved?
There are a number of concerned Kyoto citizens who have organized community groups to try to save and protect their city’s Machiya buildings.
One of the most prominent is the Machiya Machizukuri Fund which was set up in 2005. Thanks to a Tokyo-based supporter with deep pockets, the fund works with owners and developers to restore Machiya houses.
Whenever possible, they are designated as keikan jūyō kenzōbutsu ‘Structures of Scenic Importance’ (景観重要建造物]) which protects them from demolition. The city has also set up a stipend for Machiya owners to help fund the costs of repair and maintenance on their homes.
Is there anything I can do to help preserve Kyoto’s Machiya houses?
When you visit Japan, make sure to visit Kyoto’s downtown district and its famed Machiya buildings. Not only does this raise awareness of this precious cultural heritage, but your tourist dollars help pay for the exorbitant maintenance costs.