Machiya: An Endangered Cultural Treasure

Found in cities like Kanazawa or Nara, the machiya were defined in the streets of Kyōto, which counts 20 000 of them. The machiya found in Kyōto are called kyōmachiya (京町家). These traditional homes bring us back to the Meiji period, where merchants coming from the countryside would move in those houses to which they hanged a noren (small cloth curtain) which served as signboards.

Machiya 町家
Machiya 町家

The word machiya can be written with 3 different kanji: 町 (machi, which means town or village) and either 屋 (ya, means shop) or 家 (ya, means house); basically: 町家 or 町屋. Depending on the kanji, machiya can mean town shop or town house.

Around 600 square feet, the machiya can have up to 3 floors. Their long and narrow architecture led to the nickname unagi no nedoko (鰻の寝床) which literally translates as “eel beds”.
Inside those houses is a show from another world: sliding doors opening to a tsuboniwa (坪庭), small garden usually paved with pebbles, lead to a raised floor of sunoko (すのこ, duckboard), a floor to which you have access only after having taken your shoes off.

Tsuboniwa 坪庭
Tsuboniwa 坪庭

During the summer, when the heat takes its toll, the rooms let in a cool soothing wind. The machiya’s multiple layers of sliding doors allow to keep the heat inside during the cold winters, and to cool the air inside by keeping them opened during the hot summers. The tsuboniwa also helps to let the air flow, and brings light to the house. In addition to addressing climate concerns, the machiya’s wooden structure offer seismic resistance. These houses are obviously perfect for Japan’s cold winters, humid summers, and soil.

The front of these houses was used as shop space, the usage of sliding doors allowed the display of goods for sale; and the rest of the building served as living space. Here are various rooms found in machiya:

Mise no ma 店の間
This part of the house that is used for the economic activities of the family. This is where transactions are made, products fabricated.

mise no ma
Mise no ma 店の間

The Zashiki 座敷
This is the largest residential room, surrounded by sliding doors and closets, it has a tatami floor; you will often find a table in the center of the room. It is used as a reception room for guests or visitors.

Zashiki 座敷

The Genkan 玄関
This is the entrance hall of the machiya. Sometimes, outside, right on top of the genkan, you’ll find small statues or talismans made of tiles, in order to keep evil spirits from coming in.

Talisman 魔除けの置物
genkan inside
Genkan inside 玄関の中

The Butsuma 仏間
It is the place where is found the Butsudan (仏壇), which is a Buddhist altar, a shrine found in temple and Japanese buddhist homes. In certain houses, next to the butsuma will be a futsuniwa (仏庭, lit. Buddha garden), a small garden arranged specifically.

Butsuma 仏間

Naka no ma 中の間
This room serves as an intermediate between the mise no ma and the private parts of the house; in it you will find stairs to access to the upper floors. This room is usually quite narrow, but it may be due to the fact that originally ladders were used to get to the upper levels.

naka no ma
Naka no ma 中の間

Oku no ma 奥の間
This is the main room of the machiya. It is a small living room that can sometimes be used to receive very important guests. Most of the time the oku no ma is located next to the tsuboniwa. The oku no ma often features a tokonoma (床の間), a small alcove with a raised floor, allowing the exposition of paintings, plants…

Oku no ma viewed from the tsuboniwa 坪庭から見える奥の間
Tokonoma 床の間

Tōri-niwa 通り庭
This long narrow room has a mortar floor, and is used as the kitchen. To serve as chimney and to bring daylight, right above the kitchen, is found a hibukuro (火袋). The tōri-niwa also serves as passage to get to the kura (蔵 or 倉 or 庫), which are storehouses.

Toori-niwa 通り庭

During the Gion matsuri in Kyōto, especially in the yoiyama, the machiya come to life. Opening their doors to let visitors take a peek at what traditional houses are like; families often display their heirloom: armor, textiles, kimono, treasures, and art works such as byōbu (屏風) which are folding screens. During the matsuri, machyia allow to store costumes, decorations and mikoshi (神輿, portable shrines carried in festivals), and also offer to host visitors during the festival, for a unique experience.

Byoubu 屏風

Sadly, machiya are endangered. Each year in Kyōto, 500 of them are being destroyed! The same thing is happening in Kanazawa where only 1 200 remain.

Seeing things how they were, the World Monuments Fund, an american non-profit organization, decided to add the machiya to their list of endangered cultural goods in urgent need of financing. The Machiya Machizukuri Fund is another institution helping these homes in Kyōto.

Iori is a company founded by Alex Kerr, which also participates to restore and save old machiya and offers visitors to stay in those houses. The company’s main office is itself located in one of those houses.

Unfortunately, in Japan, old buildings are considered poverty and lots of them are being demolished. To maintain the machiya is an extremely expensive process, given that they are the work of traditional knowledge and that the resources with which they are made are hard to find. It is estimated that for each tsubo (Japanese unit of about 35 square feet) renovated, around 7 000 dollars are required.

Today, around 80% of the machiya found in Kyōto are not in their original shape, for example, some of them lost their kōshi (格子), which are wooden lattices found on the front of the house.

Machiya with koushi 町家の格子

To this day, around 70 machiya were restored thanks to the Machiya Machizukuri Fund, and it’s increasing. It is now also possible to stay in some of these houses, for around 150 dollars a night. Some real estate agencies also started to suggest the machiya to western investors.

Perhaps, in the near future, a new life may be foreseen for those traditional Japanese homes.

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