In Kyoto, tradition meets modernity

OLD-WORLD CHARM: Living rooms in Iori's machiyas are decorated with antiques, including folding screens. Duvets in some bedrooms are wrapped with a sash made originally for an apprentice geisha.


    Jun 18, 2014

    In Kyoto, tradition meets modernity

    HOLIDAY accommodation rarely gets more atmospheric than this: a more than 100-year-old Kyoto townhouse that once housed maiko, or apprentice geishas, now thoroughly renovated to 21st-century standards, trimmed in 1,000-year-old temple beams, antique art and tatami mats.

    Situated on the banks of the Kamogawa River, the two-bedroom townhouse named Kamogawa-tei (Kiyamachi Street; 81-75-354-7770; is one of six traditional ones - known as machiya - renovated by Aoi Kyoto Stay.

    "We have our eye on another in the neighbourhood," said Shiho Kawashima, general manager of Aoi, a three-year-old company that restores and rents the traditional townhouses to travellers.

    Most closely associated with Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan, machiya developed as merchant townhouses from the 17th to the 19th centuries with several common features.

    To avoid excessive taxation, which was based on width, many facades were narrow. Wood-slat-covered windows balanced privacy and natural light. Interior courtyard gardens honoured nature.

    Before World War II, these structures, which often included shops in the front and family dwellings in the rear, were crowded into lively blocks.

    Post-war, many of these close-set buildings were demolished to make way for concrete construction in the wake of city growth and the conviction that Japan needed to modernise.

    By all accounts, the American expatriate and author Alex Kerr, who has been living in Japan since 1977, started the renovation movement in 2004.

    "Over the years, I watched old houses in Kyoto being destroyed by the hundred, even thousand, turned into parking lots and ugly structures," he said in a phone interview. "I kept thinking, isn't there some way to save these places?"

    Modernisation required nearly ground-up reconstruction. The uninsulated buildings lacked central heating, air-conditioning and adequate plumbing. They were considered cold in winter, hot in summer and too rustic for modern tastes.

    Though Kerr parted ways with the machiya stay company he helped found, Iori (81-75-352-0211; now rents 12 vacation homes in Kyoto.

    With upgrades including under-floor heating and modern bathrooms, machiya are now considered romantic by Japanese travellers, evocative of the imperial era.

    Domestic travellers to the ancient capital - of 12.2 million overnight visitors to Kyoto in 2012, about 845,000 were foreigners - are especially embracing machiya repurposed as shops and restaurants, as well as rental homes.

    Shedding my shoes, I slid open the door to a dining room at the machiya-based Japanese restaurant Rojimon (71 Shinmeicho, Nakagyoku; 81-75-212-9393) when the septuagenarian diner at the next table, noting my appreciation for the mat-floored rooms and internal garden, lifted his beer glass in salute, "This is very Japanese!"

    Though larger and more elaborate machiya-for-rent can cost more than US$400 (S$500) per night, modest options abound.

    I stayed in one of the least expensive ones, Shirakawa Cottage (Umemiya-Cho, Higashiyama-ku, 81-75-711-2527; The 12,000-yen rate (S$147) got me a full kitchen, bedroom and itsy-bitsy bathroom with a deep Japanese tub opposite a tiny moss garden visible through a porthole-like window.

    The experience introduced me to local life on a lane so slim that my immediate neighbour and I giggled as she effected a three-point turn to reverse her bike.

    Mid-rise apartment buildings and offices often tower over neighbouring machiya, usually clad in dark wood with opaque or mat-covered windows, throughout town, though many historic examples are clustered together in popular tourist districts such as the night-life-focused Gion.

    On a busy pedestrian lane leading to Kiyomizu Temple, the ceramics gallery Rokuroku Dou (3-342 Kiyomizu Higashiyama-ku, 81-75-605-0862; still operates like a traditional machiya, with a shop in front and private living quarters behind.

    The townhouses are so popular that Kyoto Cycling Tour Project (81-75-354-3636; runs a full-day machiya bike tour combining mainstream sites like Kyoto Imperial Palace Park with interior home tours (from 11,000 yen per person).

    Local residents say machiya are expensive to maintain, and inheritance taxes often force sales that renovators hope to catch before rival developers do.

    When I left the Aoi townhouse, I tripped over a construction site next door, where an equally historic machiya has been stripped down to its wood frame, poised for a complete remodel as a rental in time for summer's high season.