Machiya: Traditional Japanese Townhouses

Machiya: Traditional Japanese Townhouses

You've come to a two-story wooden building with clearly visible wood grain on the aging beams. Stepping inside, the classical and simple décor transports you back to ancient Japan. While walking through the millennia-old streets of Japan, these wooden machiya, which have witnessed the joys of countless people, emit their own unique warmth that has been infused with the passage of time.

A Glimpse into History


Machiya is a prevalent style of traditional wooden row houses found throughout Japan. The term itself is composed of two parts: "machi", meaning "town," and "ya", meaning "house." Machiya refers to a particular type of dwelling that was originally designed for urban residents, often incorporating shops into the layout. Machiya originated during the Heian period (794-1185) and flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868). These wooden townhouses were not only homes but also served as shops, workshops, and places of business for merchants and artisans.

Originally, Machiya emerged from small market huts during the Heian period and gradually evolved into mixed-use buildings. During this time, the aristocracy would sell land to the common people, with the street-facing sections being ideal for setting up shops. This gave rise to urban planning known as "Ryogawa-cho (townhouse developments)." As the economy flourished in the Edo period, merchants accumulated wealth and began constructing Machiya, with shops located at the front and residences situated toward the back. Today, Kyoto still boasts over 40,000 Machiya, most of which were built between the Edo and Taisho periods.

Architectural Marvels


Machiya architecture seamlessly blends aesthetics with functionality. The design of Machiya houses was deeply influenced by the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism. Incorporating natural materials and a small-scale garden called "Tsuboniwa," these houses embraced a deep appreciation for the spirit of nature. The Tsuboniwa, a private courtyard unique to Machiya houses, typically only occupies a few square meters. It serves as a connected rear garden or a surrounding courtyard, providing both aesthetic charm and light and ventilation to the narrow and elongated Machiya houses.

Influenced by Japanese dry landscape gardens, the design of the Tsuboniwa often follows the principle of "small-scale, large view." Materials like bamboo, wood, moss, gravel, and rocks are used, often accompanied by stone pathways or steps. Decorative elements such as stone basins or lanterns create a microcosm of a natural landscape.

Machiya houses not only possess elegant exteriors but also conceal the wisdom and ingenuity of ancient Japanese craftsmen in every corner. The narrow facades showcase intricate lattice designs known as koshi, allowing natural light to filter through while maintaining privacy. Sliding doors (fusuma) and folding screens (shoji) create versatile spaces that can be adjusted according to the needs of the occupants. The roofs feature distinctive curved tiles and often display family crests, adding a touch of personalized elegance to each house.

Preservation of Tradition


The most authentic examples of Machiya architecture can be found in Kyoto, where they are commonly referred to as "Kyo-Machiya," representing the city's cultural and architectural landscape.

After 1950, these century-old Machiya faced challenges due to their inability to meet modern fire and building regulations, resulting in a halt in new construction. While Kyoto has made efforts to preserve Machiya more effectively than any other region in Japan, they are gradually disappearing at a rate of approximately 2% per year due to factors such as war, natural disasters, and societal changes. In order to safeguard these historical treasures and prevent the traditional streetscapes of Kyoto from being overtaken by modern high-rise buildings, the Kyoto municipal government launched an extensive "Machiya Preservation Plan." This plan aims to creatively incorporate existing materials and structures, allowing Machiya to once again become an integral part of the lives of Kyoto residents while revitalizing appreciation for the townhouse culture. Many have been transformed into guesthouses, cafes, galleries, and shops, allowing visitors to experience the charm of these traditional spaces firsthand. This preservation not only safeguards Japan's cultural heritage but also promotes sustainable living and a connection to the past.

Back to blog