Japan’s ancient imperial city and former capital, Kyoto captures the country’s rich cultural history and abounds with relics and monuments of Japan’s long and storied past.
One of the few large Japanese cities to emerge from WWII relatively unscathed, the city’s seemingly timeless old district is home to tens of thousands of machiya, traditional two-story wooden townhouses replete with street-front lattice facades, tatami mats, elevated timber floors, tiled roofs, enclosed courtyard gardens, shoji paper-covered windows, fusuma patterned-paper sliding doors, and other defining elements of Japanese architecture.
Both residential and commercial, machiya housed generations of merchants and artisans and came to define the architectural atmosphere of Kyoto from as early as the Heian period all the way up to WWII.
“The rise of the merchant class in the 16th century necessitated larger shops and storehouses with street frontage to enable customer access,” writes Judith Clancy, author of Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide, “The family lived in back of these long narrow dwellings while the front rooms were devoted to business.” The aesthetics and practical functions of machiya reflect pre-modern Japanese society and how Japanese people lived for centuries.
Today, machiya are steadily falling into disrepair and dilapidation, with many of them disappearing due to poor structural maintenance, earthquakes, fires, and, most of all, urban redevelopment. Unfortunately, the high cost of renovating and preserving machiya has increased the financial incentive to demolish and replace them with modern housing and commercial buildings.
“Newer is better” has largely been the motto of Japan since the end of WWII, prompting urban developers to eschew machiya renovations in favor of inexpensive modern redevelopments.
As Clancy asserts, “Japan’s desire to show the world and itself as a ‘modern’ postwar society meant destroying this gracious, traditional architecture and replacing it with unsightly boxy concrete buildings.”
Over the past few years, however, a growing number of individuals and advocacy groups have stepped up to reduce and optimally end the razing of these culturally invaluable structures. “Many people began to reject the simply new,” Clancy writes, “and to cherish instead the disappearing roof lines, the intimacy of neighborhoods, and the intricate interplay of material and motif.”
In 2010 and 2012, the World Monuments Fund deemed Kyoto’s remaining machiya at risk and established the Kyomachiya Revitalization Project to restore and preserve the city’s historic cityscape.
According to the World Monument Fund, “The project aims to work for model solutions to some of the common threats that challenge the survival of machiya through community action, preserving, and revitalizing machiya in Kyoto.”
Following this announcement, public interest in machiya conservation surged and banks began offering tailored restoration loans for these bygone architectural artifacts. Such loans are made possible by the Machiya Machizukuri Fund, a public-private cooperative agency that certifies structures as legitimate machiya, provides banks with estimates of the necessary restoration work, and subsidizes each restoration project.
While such efforts have been arduous, necessitating special training from architects and craftsmen well versed in traditional Japanese structural design and carpentry, the payoffs have been well worth the challenges.
Not only have demolitions of machiya significantly decreased since 2010, saving Kyoto’s culturally irreplaceable cityscape from imminent destruction, the restoration endeavor has provided the ancient city with new financially rewarding prospects.
Hundreds of machiya have been turned into shops and restaurants or converted to quaint rental accommodations. According to Clancy, “More than two hundred newly established small restaurants and cafes, as well as shops specializing in traditional crafts, have joined the trend and taken over and repurposed old midtown homes.”
A fusion of old and new Japan, Kyoto’s machiya are testaments to the revered architectural heritage of Japan as well as the capacity for any given culture to protect the monuments of its historical past and retain its sociocultural roots.
And with the number of visitors to Japan estimated to rise above ten million people this year, the residents of Kyoto are not the only ones who will reap the benefits of the machiya restoration efforts.
For more about Kyoto’s machiya, Judy Clancy’s book Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide details over 130 restaurant listings (food, decor, hours, addresses, prices, maps, and index) and offers a photographic guide to machiya architecture, culture, and aesthetics.
If you would like to contribute to the preservation of Kyoto’s machiya, you can donate to the Kyomachiya Machizukuri Fund by clicking here. Back in 2012, Stone Bridge Press donated ￥120,000 to the cause, but anything will help!
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