The best views of the courtyard are from the zashiki, the place of honor in kyomachiya houses. Only important guests are allowed this deep into a host’s home. Photograph by David Celdran
Travel Destinations

The disappearing wooden townhouses of Kyoto

The traditional Japanese town house, notoriously expensive to maintain, is being systematically demolished or modernized beyond recognition.
David Celdran | Dec 05 2018

While many bemoan the loss of geisha and maiko in Kyoto, it is the kyomachiya, the traditional townhouses where artisans and merchants once lived and worked, that is disappearing at the fastest rate today.

Over the last 70 years, kyomachiya have been systematically demolished all over the city. Many of the town houses have since been renovated and modernized beyond recognition. A survey conducted in 1998 by the city government shows that only about 28,000 of the traditional wooden houses remain (from a peak of hundreds of thousands before the Second World War), with approximately 500 more being torn down every year. Between 1993 and 2003, over 13 percent of kyomachiya were destroyed.

It's not that Kyotoites have turned their back on tradition; the decline in kyomachiya in the city is largely due to government policy and practical economics. The wooden houses are expensive, difficult to maintain, and considered fire hazards. Since 1936, the Kyoto government has banned the construction of new kyomachiya, while those remaining have been demolished for being costly to maintain and having steep inheritance taxes. A few, however, have been leveled because they simply look too old-fashioned and poor.

Instead of fixed walls, screens can be opened, closed, or removed to alter the number, size, or shape of rooms.

That the latter should be used as an argument is ironic for a city that prides itself to be the source and guardian of wabi, a central Japanese principle that values understatement and imperfection. The kyomachiya's humble structure is, after all, an architectural style that originated in Kyoto.

The wooden shop houses of craftsmen and merchants flourished in Kyoto more than anywhere else in Japan because of the presence of the Imperial court. The long and narrow houses of the shopkeepers were tailored to their trade and lifestyle—a store up front and residential quarters further back. (A second floor was discouraged in keeping with a tradition that prohibited anyone from standing higher than the shogun on horseback.)

The Gion district in the center of Kyoto is where many of the best-preserved kyomachiya are found.

The original kyomachiya left standing in parts of the city are little changed from those built during the Edo period (1603-1868). Most town houses have maintained their original businesses from a century ago with facades that still conform to the type of trade they were known for. A telltale sign of an authentic kyomachiya are windows protected by wooden lattice called koushi.

Fusae Kojima of the Kyomachiya Council, a non-profit organization at the forefront of efforts to conserve Kyoto’s wooden town houses.

Private quarters are off limits to curious foreigners, but the best opportunity to view the interiors of a kyomachiya is within the mise or the retail space closest to the street. Only special guests have access to the reception area known as the genkan, and those who do have to remove their shoes before stepping into the residence. This common practice symbolizes the transition from public to private, between the filthy world outside and the pure world inside. Within the genkan of bigger homes is a tsuboniwa, a pocket garden, which, apart from providing a window to nature inside the receiving area, also serves as a natural drain during downpours.

Windows on the first floor of kyomachiya are protected from damage and intruders via a wooden lattice known as a koushi.

The deeper a guest is allowed inside, the more important he or she is considered by the host. In the rear is the zashiki, the place of honor where the best views of the garden are visible. Too bad, not many make it this far into the home as some courtyards are known to rival the serenity and beauty of Kyoto's most famous Zen gardens.

Since property taxes were based on the amount of street frontage one’s building occupied, kyomachiya were built long and narrow.

Despite their age, kyomachiya are surprisingly comfortable and practical. Rooms are raised above the ground for this allows air to move freely under the house and protect the wood (and the residents) from Kyoto's notoriously humid summers. Instead of fixed walls, sliding doors or screens can be opened, closed, or removed to alter the number, size, or shape of rooms, depending on the requirements of the moment. Except in the shop area and the interior pathway, all floors are covered with thick woven straw or tatami mats that keep residents cool in summer and warm in winter.

The old wooden houses of Kyoto may embody the frugal spirit of wabi, but they have become prohibitively expensive to maintain and restore—up to JPY 25 million for one house according to Fusae Kojima, Directress of the Kyomachiya Council, a non-profit conservation society. Part of the high cost, according to Kojima, is due to the shortage of craftsmen, the only ones left with the skills to repair the antique structures. Because of this, and the temptation to sell their land to building developers, the destruction of homes is expected to continue.

Deep wells were an important feature of original kyomachiya, as the old buildings had no water pipes installed.

The only thing stopping the complete disappearance of the wooden townhouses of Kyoto is the conservation work of non-profit organizations and a new generation of entrepreneurs who are converting the old structures into coffee shops, galleries and houses for rent. Without them and the intervention of government, Kyoto's link to its long and proud history of craftsmanship is in danger of being lost forever.

 

Photographs by David Celdran

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 5 2012.