Accommodations rarely get more atmospheric than this: a 100-plus-year-old Kyoto town house that once housed maiko, or Japan’s apprentice geisha, now renovated to 21st-century standards and trimmed in 1,000-year-old temple beams, antique art and tatami mats.
On the banks of the Kamogawa River, the two-bedroom vacation rental called named Kamogawa-tei is one of six traditional town houses known as machiya renovated by Aoi Kyoto Stay.
“We have our eye on another in the neighborhood,” said Shiho Kawashima, general manager of Aoi, a 3-year-old company that restores and rents the traditional town houses to travelers (see en.kyoto-stay.jp/). “Just recently, people are really interested in machiya.”
Most closely associated with Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan, machiya developed as merchant town houses 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 honored nature.
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Before World War II, these structures, which often included shops in the front and family dwellings in the rear, were crowded into lively blocks. Postwar, many of these close-set buildings were demolished to make way for new concrete construction in the wake of city growth and the conviction that Japan needed to modernize.
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 hundreds, even thousands, 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?”
Modernization 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 called Iori that he helped found, Iori now rents such vacation homes in Kyoto (see kyoto-machiya.com/eng/
Staying in the past
With upgrades including underfloor heating and modern bathrooms, machiya are now considered romantic by Japanese travelers, evocative of the Imperial era.
Domestic travelers 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 run more than $400 per night, modest options abound. I stayed in one of the least expensive ones, Shirakawa Cottage (through the company Windows to Japan, kyotomachiyastay.com).
The 12,000 yen rate ($121 at 99 yen to the dollar) got me a full kitchen, bedroom and itty-bitty 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 neighbor and I giggled as she effected a three-point turn to reverse her bike.
Midrise apartment buildings and offices often tower over neighboring machiya, 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, rokuroku.netor kyotoguide.jp/rokurokudou) still operates like a traditional machiya, with a shop in front and private living quarters behind.
The town houses are so popular that Kyoto Cycling Tour Project (kctp.net/en/tour/machiya.html) runs a full-day machiya bike tour combining mainstream sites like such as Kyoto Imperial Palace Park with interior home tours. (from 11,000 yen per person).
Residents say machiya are expensive to maintain, and inheritance taxes often force sales that renovators hope to catch before rival developers. When I left the Aoi town house, 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.