Machiya   町屋

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The machiya attached to each other form a homogeneous and typical whole.

These machiya are attached to each other and form a typical homogeneous whole.

A drawing of a machiya from the Edo era (1603-1868)

In the morning, people get busy to supply the machiya restaurants

In the morning, people are busy stocking the machiya restaurants

The machiya, the traditional houses on the banks of Shinbachi.

Machiya, traditional merchant houses, on the banks of Shinbashi.

The full length kitchen typical of a machiya

The full length kitchen, typical of a machiya

Our "Machiya" rental house in Kyoto, near Ginkakuji

The houses of Japanese merchants

Alongside the multicolored buildings of Tokyo or the reinforced concrete of Naha, some machiya still resist the passing of time. These traditional Japanese houses, witnesses of an ancestral Japan, are real treasures in the heart of the city.

Machiya are urban houses that once housed the merchant class and artisans of the cities of Japan. So, a house was often a shop, workshop and residence at the same time. Made entirely of wood, they were prey to successive fires and earthquakes. The only machiya still standing today are the subject of special attention by organizations working for heritage conservation. The city of Kyoto has more than 40,000 machiya houses, some dating back to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

Old city quarters

In the alleys of the old districts, machiya are easily recognizable. Rarely isolated, they are integral to each other and form rows of homogeneous, linear houses with narrow fronts. Indeed, the machiya is characterized by its narrow façade, the width of which rarely exceeds six meters. This characteristic is mainly down to the taxation system of the time, when tax was calculated not by the overall size of the house, but by the width of its façade.

Houses built along the length

But appearances are deceptive, because behind this front decorated with a wooden trellis called a kimusuko, opens into a vast expanse that can reach fifty meters long! This typical machiya plan has earned them the nickname of "bedrooms for eels". Far from being a disadvantage, this organization in a row adapts perfectly to the use of the households. The merchants received their customers in the first room, called the mise no ma. It was in this room, close to the street, that all transactions took place, thus preserving the privacy of the back rooms or upstairs.

From professional to intimate

Therefore, the more a visitor enters the house, the more intimate the spaces become. Behind the hall reserved for commerce is the naka no ma. This transitional room introduces the visitor to the most privative parts. The third room named oku no ma can be used as a private room or as a reception room for guests of prime importance. Here, it is not uncommon to find the tokonoma, a space where are objects of art and floral composition are displayed, changing according to the seasons. The rooms are separated by shoji or fusuma, the typically Japanese sliding doors.

Miniature garden

But it is also possible to move from one space to another by a long corridor located on one side of the house and connecting the entrance to the most remote rooms. It's in this corridor, called tori niwa that you'll find the kitchen. The highlight of a visit is the miniature garden, essential to any machiya. Particularly neat, it lets some necessary light into the home, compensating for its lack of other openings. Often, the garden is bordered by the hanare. It's here that grandparents spend their day relaxing, while keeping a watchful eye on business affairs. This space can be completed by a workshop or warehouse.

Visiting a machiya

To soak up the authentic atmosphere of a machiya, there is nothing like visiting it. To do this, go to Nara, in the heart of the old commercial district of the city, to discover Naramachi Koshino Ie. This house is about fifteen minutes walk from Kintetsu Nara station, or about twenty minutes from JR station. Admission is free and the house is open from 10:00 to 17:00 (closed on Mondays).

Read also: The Naramachi neighborhood and its machiya

The town of Kanazawa and its geisha district Higashi Chayagai, lined with preserved machiya will delight the most curious visitors. Although most have been converted into restaurants or shops, some tea houses have been converted into museums. One of them, the Shima house, is registered as an important patrimony of Japan. The entrance fee for this museum is 400 yen ($3.60) per adult. The antiquated atmosphere, along with the presentation of objects of another time, will transport you to ancient Japan.

See also: Our Machiya house in Kyoto is a stone's throw from the Silver Pavilion and the Philosopher's Path.

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