Coming Home to an Old Machiya

Kyoto, the political and cultural center of Japan for more than a thousand years, is still the center of Japanese traditions in art and architecture. Besides the famous temples and shrines, Kyoto's architectural treasures include many machiya townhouses. Some of these date as far back as the Edo Period (1600-1868). Many were destroyed and damaged by fire and other disasters in the 1700s and 1800s, but were rebuilt in the Meiji or Taisho Periods. The townspeople who started the tradition of building these homes had neither the important titles nor the privileges of the aristocrats or the samurai of their time. Nevertheless, the houses that these people built incorporated beauty and function so well they continue to attract us today.

The machiya are usually located on lots averaging about five meters wide by about 20 meters deep, purposely kept narrow because property taxes were determined by the amount of street frontage. These homes usually had a shop or workroom in front, with private areas in the back An earthen-floored long corridor, called a tori-niwa. extends from the entrance all the way to the back of the house providing access to all the rooms. There may also be another earthen floor area called a doma, reserved for cooking or other chores. Other rooms are raised on a plinth, and people are expected to remove their shoes before entering. Honored guests or customers may be ushered to a more formal room in the central part of the house, located next to a tiny elegant garden (tsubo-niwa or senzai) that brings light and air to the adjoining rooms. Formal rooms are often decorated with fine woods, coffered ceilings, as well as some elements of the aristocratic Shoin style.

Architect loru Baba and his wife, essayist Keiko Asou, had always wanted to live in a machiya, but were having a great deal of trouble finding one. Traditional houses in Japan are hard to find, as they are increasingly being demolished by owners opting for modern conveniences and low maintenance. Contributing to this ongoing loss is the lack of public support for preserving buildings that are not designated cultural properties. "loru and Keiko were finally able to find this wonderful machiya, a former retreat for a merchant family in the early Showa Period (1926-1989). As it had been unoccupied for years, this home required extensive renovations, including the cleaning and refinishing of walls and floorboards. These surfaces were lacquered by this energetic young couple themselves. The new owners have also added several unusual and personal elements to the house, making this machiya truly their own.

It is quite difficult to equip a small machiya with modern conveniences such as air-conditioning and heating. Instead of worrying about making these changes, Toru and Keiko have decided to endure periods of intense heat and cold in order to stay in touch with the changing seasons, which is more in keeping with how they wish to live their lives. Throughout the year, the couple also enjoy the local events and festivals that take place outside their front door—another advantage of living in a machiya.

Above. Toru and Keiko have kept the furnishings to a minimum and tine décor of their small townhouse as simple as possible, thus giving it a feeling of spaciousness. Here, camellia buds, are arranged in a simple bud vase placed atop a tansu chest. Camellia flowers were not used in ikebana arrangements in the past, because the falling off of the ripe blossom from its stem was associated with the beheading of a samurai.

Right: Tine hanging flowerpot in the entrance hall holds an inviting arrangement of magnolias, seen here from the tearoom through the arched door called katoh-guchi. The present owners installed the wall on the left with two round windows to replace an old sliding partition. The bamboo and reed grid in these openings, called shitaji modo, is created by leaving the lattice framework of the walls unplas-tered, providing a rustic touch. The ochre color of the walls comes from natural clay called osaka-csuchi, which had been also used in the original interior of this house.


Above: This room is cozy and warm in winter. The walls are finished with fine orange sand. The lower part of the walls is covered with rice paper (koshibari), traditionally installed to protect kimonos from the mud walls, but used here to reflect the daylight to brighten the room.

Left: Subdued colors and a system of simple lines lend order to Japanese interiors. The very small three-mat sitting area, furnished with a low table and small reed cushions, is seen here through an open, single-panel screen (tsuitote).

Above: This simple but elegant entrance is for guests. Japanese craftsmen take pride in making the shoji latticework. Although very thin, it does not warp over time. This is achieved by using wood with a straight, parallel grain, taken from the center of hinoki (Japanese cypress) trees.

Right: Another unusual detail in the house is this backlit white glass floor of the small tokonoma alcove (90 x 90 centimeters) in the drawing room (zashiki). The walls of the tokonoma are pasted with thick sculpted paper, to which persimmon tannin has been applied.

Japanese Old Architecture Pictures

Above: Traditional wooden shelves in the kitchen were replaced by contemporary glass shelving for storing dishware and seasonings.

Top: The earthen-floored kitchen is located in a tori-niwa. which also serves as the main corridor of the house. The kitchen is open to the sky, letting sunlight in and smoke and heat out through the roof beams. Over the years, these rafters have become soot-covered, and are an impressive sight. This type of terrazzo sink (jintogi) is rarely found today, even in Kyoto and other traditional areas of Japan.

Above: Traditional wooden shelves in the kitchen were replaced by contemporary glass shelving for storing dishware and seasonings.

Left: An earthen-floored room called a domo is traditionally the place for cooking, craft work and other informal activities in a machiya. Here, a tatami room has been remodeled into an earthen-floored dining room. The original floors in the foreground also were previously covered with tatami mats, but have now been replaced with wooden floorboards. The new owners applied several layers of lacquer to the floors so that they harmonize with the rest of the house.

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