Looking for the Lost Machiya Buildings in Kyoto

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 but today they’re harder to find. So GuideAdvisor sent professional writer Michael Lambe to look for the lost in the ancient capital city with the help of a Japan guide and below is what he found. (Oh, and after you’ve finished walking around Kyoto exploring machiya, be sure to check out these other 15 stunning walking trails in Japan.

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.

Though many machiya have been lost, they are currently undergoing something of a revival – some have been converted into cool, modern shops, cafés, restaurants and hotels while maintaining their integrity as traditional structures. You can also rent complete machiya houses for temporary stays. These new businesses provide us with a unique opportunity to enter these buildings, admire their architecture and gain an intimate glimpse of machiya life. To visit these places is to experience old and modern Kyoto simultaneously: a modern Kyoto that respects and takes pride in its history.

Here are some tips for finding machiya and experiencing machiya life when in Kyoto:

1.  Stay in machiya accomodation.

Many machiya have been renovated for temporary stays. They have all the modern comforts while preserving their traditional beauty. Here are a few examples:

2.  Take a walking tour with a Japan guide

Local guides will take you into the lanes and alleyways of old machiya quarters and show you both the exterior and interior of old townhouses, explaining (in English!) local crafts and culture as they do so.

3. Visit Kawai Kanjiro’s house

Kawai Kanjiro was 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 museum run by his family. The interior remains as it was when he lived in it, so a visit here provides a real insight into machiya life. Both the townhouse and the garden are wonderful, and you can also see here many of his works: ceramics, sculptures, and woodcarvings.

4.  Enjoy Kyoto cuisine in a machiya setting

There are many affordable restaurants and cafés in town located in traditional machiya buildings. Some locations include:

  • Cameron – formal but affordable Japanese fusion dining
  • Ushinohone Anaza – casual Japanese dining
  • Hale – Vegan Japanese dining
  • Quarirengue – a quiet little café with extraordinary cakes
  • Salut Ya – a relaxed café with great sandwich lunches
  • Café Bibliotic Hello – tea, coffee, pastries, cakes and full course meals. They also have a bread shop and small art gallery.

5.  Explore the city and find machiya for yourself

After you’ve spent time with your local Japan guide, take a walk through the streets of Kyoto (it’s an extremely safe city) and see how many you can spot around town on your own. A simple stroll down Gokomachi street in the city centre between Shijo and Oike will lead you to several machiya encounters.

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