May 27, 2013
by Yuko Nakamura and Aina Maeguchi
What is a Machiya and its History
Have you ever seen a machiya? Kyoto is especially well known for machiya (町家), one of the residential-style of buildings that still can be seen in this city. Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses that originated in buildings that were built as early as the Heian period (794-1185), but they especially developed throughout the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods.
Many machiya in Kyoto are narrow but deep, so Japanese call them unagi no nedoko (a bed for an eel). The reason they had such narrow frontage was due to a strict tax system, which taxed property on how wide it was. A typical machiya might be 5 to 6 meters wide, but 20 meters deep. Machiya were constructed with earthen walls, dark wood pillars, had sliding door, elevated floors covered with tatami mats, and baked tile roofs.
Especially in the old days, but even today, people lived and worked at the same location. Merchants and crafts people, townspeople called chonin, were the most common residents of machiya. So machiya are divided into working and living spaces. The front of the building traditionally served as shop space.
This first space is called ①mise-no-ma Behind the store space there is the ② naka-no-ma or genkan (interior entrance), ③ the daidokoro (kitchen), ④ the tori-niwa (a space that begins in the kitchen and runs the entire length of the house) ⑤ kura (warehouse) and so on. The naka-no-ma is a public space, where people living in the machiya greet guests and clients. Behind the naka-no-ma are private spaces. The tori-niwa is an earthen floor that connects each room, so people don’t need to take off their shoes. The daidokoro or kitchen is also called ⑥ hashiri niwa in machiya. in the kitchen there is also a “okudosan” (furnace) and sink. The especially high ceiling of the kitchen is called the hibururo, a chimney for cooking smoke to escape. Most machiya contain courtyards that increase the amount of light and air circulating in each room. Machiya were built to be cool in Kyoto’s hot summers. Some machiya have tiny gardens, or tsubo-niwa, in their courtyard.
Disappearing and Why
Today Machiya are rapidly disappearing. There are some reasons for this. First, machya are difficult to maintain. They do not do not have staying power — they have greater risk of damage or destruction from fire or earthquakes than more modern buildings. If people who live in Machiya renovate them, it will cost a large amount of money to make them meet modern safety regulations. Secondly, there are many problems with as inheritance. Many people who live in Machiya are elderly and their children have moved to brighter, more modern urban structures. They are not likely to take over a machiya from their aging parents since machiya are costly to maintain and have a steep inheritance tax. It is esier for children to have the machiya torn down and made into a parking lot. Of course thinking about preserving a machiya because it has long history in Kyoto is attractive. On the other hand, there are few heirs. So Machiya are often sold and parking lots, apartments or condominiums are built in their place. Some of the problems facing machiya are outlined in Wikipedia:
Between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly forty percent of those demolished were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades.
Where can we see Machiya in Kyoto?
1. Kyousiki (kyo-ryori) 〒604-8085
299,shiroyama-cho,sanjo street, huyacho, nakagyouku, Kyoto city.
2. Nest (dog cafe)
130 matsushita-cho, kanagyouku
3. Ao (French restaurant) 〒604-8174
361 ennogyoujya-cho, muromachi street, nakagyouku.
There are several groups working to preserve machiya in Kyoto. One is The Machiya Machizukuri Fund. It was founded in 2005 and raises money to protect machiya. Please visit them at: