The machiya of Kyoto are traditional townhouses dating from the Edo period (1603–1867). Born out of the city’s growing merchant class, they functioned as both residences and workspaces. Deep and narrow, with a shop in the front and a variety of living spaces in the rear, they once lined Kyoto’s streets. Incorporating interior gardens and inviting light and air, the machiya fostered a culture that integrated urban living and commerce. Kyoto, the capital of ancient Japan for over a millennium, was fortunate to weather the storm of World War II with relatively little damage. Unlike many cities along Japan’s southern coast, the historic layout of streets and neighborhoods in Kyoto survived intact, as did many of its wooden buildings. Nevertheless, Machiya in Kyoto and traditional wooden architecture in Japan continue to be in danger of disappearing as a result of today’s urban development.
Preserving the cultural cityscape and vivid tradition of historic Kyoto
With construction of new machiya prohibited since the end of World War II, restoration of historic machiya is the only way for Japanese carpenters and craftsmen to maintain a link with a rich building tradition. Groups of concerned citizens called for efforts to protect the machiya and to create incentives for their preservation. The Kyoto machiya were included on the World Monuments Watch in 2010 and 2012 to focus attention on these local efforts.
Following the Watch announcement in 2010, we partnered with the Kyomachiya Revitalization Study Group and the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration (KCCC) for the restoration of machiya. This project aimed to work for model solutions to some of the common threats that challenge the survival of machiya through community action, preserving, and revitalizing machiya in Kyoto.
The first phase of the Kyomachiya Revitalization Project was helping to restore a building owned by the Kamanza neighborhood association. The building is a representative example of most surviving, individually owned machiya. The project demonstrated to private owners that even heavily altered houses can be restored to their traditional form. The building now houses a resource center for machiya owners. The second phase of the machiya revitalization project finished in spring 2012 with the restoration of another machiya, Furaibou, which was converted into a museum. The restoration project was followed by a series of public events, designed to share the lessons learned from the project and to strengthen the network of stewards of machiya in Kyoto and in Tokyo, where some surviving machiya can also be found.
For phase three of the project, we will help restore the Ofune-hoko Machiya, with support from the Freeman Foundation. The machiya will become the home of the Ofune-hoko Float for the Gion Festival in Kyoto, as well as serve as a community center and the venue for music rehearsals for the festival. The project will be completed by 2017 through the local stewardship of KCCC and Kyomachiya Council, NGO, in close coordination with the Shijo-machi Ofune Hoko Preservation Association, NGO, the owner of the Shijo Ofune-hoko Float Machiya.