Kyoto’s traditional merchant townhouses (machiya, or kyo-machiya) form an integral part of the historic city’s charming streetscapes and culture, yet are being demolished at a shockingly fast pace.
Despite heritage listings, petitions from local historians, and the best efforts from preservation groups, the city is still losing an average of 800 machiya each year through demolition and redevelopment. The city has recently ramped up their efforts to slow the rate of demolition, sending out fliers to machiya owners reminding them of their importance, introducing a notification system before demolition, and holding machiya-related events and seminars. However, there have been some recent reports of historically significant machiya and the heritage buildings that have been or are in the process of being demolished by their owners.
A kyo-machiya is a house built within Kyoto City before 1950 using traditional methods of construction. These traditional building methods were developed in the Edo period and carried through to the 1940s. Many of the older buildings in Kyoto were lost in fires that resulted from the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion in 1864, which means the majority of machiya in Kyoto today were built during the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras. Something like 2% of surviving machiya date from the Edo period, while 14% date from the Meiji period.
Machiya were the fore-runners of passive design in Japan. Instead of being air-tight, they were purposely designed to incorporate ventilation wherever possible, through courtyard gardens, roof vents, and long kitchen hallways along one side of the house. Floors were raised off the dirt, allowing air flow underneath. Nowadays they are far from meeting the comfort levels that we have grown accustomed to, but can be updated with all of the latest creature comforts such as insulation, double-glazed windows, floor heating, cooling, and structural reinforcement.
The one or two-story wooden row-houses are typically compact in size, with many having a total floor area of 50 ~ 80 sqm (540 ~ 860 sq.ft). What they lack in size, they make up for in convenience with many of them in remarkably urban districts with restaurants, cafes and historical sightseeing spots all within walking distance.
Machiya renovation projects are still few in number. The city has lost 5,600 machiya over the seven years from 2010 to 2017, with approximately 40,000 surviving machiya in 2016 . An average of 2.2 machiya are demolished in Kyoto each day. If this rate of demolition continues, there will be no machiya left in Kyoto by 2066.
The Meiji-era machiya we restored last year is in a laneway of ten terrace houses. When we purchased the property only two of the ten houses had been renovated – one is a bakery and another is a luxury overnight rental. Since then, at least four more terraces have changed hands, with two or three in the process of being restored and converted into licensed machiya rentals. The success of this particular laneway may be due in part to its location with two subway stations, and a slew of sightseeing (Nijo Castle and Kyoto Palace) and restaurants all within walking distance. It’s also zoned to allow hotels, which has been a key factor for investors in Kyoto in recent years. However, the more central and more appealing the location, the more likely it is that a historic home will be demolished to make way for a larger hotel or commercial development.