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Machiya (Townhouse) - Japanese Encyclopedia

福島

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by MATCHA

2016.07.03

When visiting Kyoto or Kanazawa Prefecture, you will quickly spot old machiya or townhouses facing the main streets. This article introduces these traditional wooden townhouses presently used as accommodations and stores. Read on to find out more!

What is a Machiya?

Machiya, or a townhouse, describes closely packed houses along main streets that are both private homes and shops.

To better facilitate the comings and goings of customers, the majority of machiya have front doors that are wide open. This makes it easy for people to come and go and is suitable for businesses. This is one architectural feature of these traditional wooden buildings.

Most machiya are located in popular sightseeing areas where shops and handicrafts are found.

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The kanji characters for "town" and "shop" are used to represent "machiya." They also refer to the characters for "town" and "house." There isn't a clear division between the two, but if you are talking about a place that functions as a residence, then the characters for "town" and "house" is commonly used.

In fact, machiya is featured in writings from the Heian Period (794-1185). It is believed that these architectural buildings have been in Japan for over 1,200 years.

Special Features of Kyomachiya in Kyoto

Machiya can be found all across Japan. However, there are some regional variations in their construction. For example, machiya in Kyoto is called kyomachiya and has special architectural characteristics. In Kyoto, you are more likely to see machiya described with the kanji characters for "town" and "house." These traditional wooden houses are said to appear more sophisticated than those found nationwide.

One standout feature of kyomachiya is the latticework. Thin pieces of wood are evenly spaced in all directions and installed over the doors and windows. The second feature of these buildings is the tsuboniwa (*1), a natural space that is equally striking as the latticework.

The tsuboniwa is also a practical feature, creating better ventilation and allowing more light inside the household. The types of gardens that each machiya has may vary as the styles were based on what was popular at the time. These gardens also act like a time capsule of the period when they were originally designed.

*1 Tsuboniwa: a small inner garden or courtyard typically encircled by either the building itself or a hedge.

How are Machiya Used Nowadays?

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Since machiya are remnants of Japan's past, they are frequently found in old paintings and photographs. The imagery helps to explain what life was like in those days. Nowadays, many have been re-purposed into exhibition halls and restaurants. In other words, a machiya is where tourists can experience a piece of Japanese history. Among these renovated buildings, we recommend visiting ones turned into hotels or guesthouses. It is fascinating to look around and understand how people lived in those days.

Not too far from Kanazawa Castle is Guest House Shiro in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture. This renovated guesthouse has a history spanning 120 years. While preserving the charms of an old machiya, it has modern amentieis to ensure guests have a pleasant stay.

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If you're interested in staying at a kyomachiya, we recommend Usagi no Nedoko in Kyoto City. This machiya has everything you need, including a cafe, general store, and hotel within the premises. Accommodations are limited to one group per day, so booking reservations in advance is best.

Guest House Shiro and Usagi no Nedoko are ideal places to stay for visitors to Japan. In addition to nearby cafes and convenience stores, the fully-equipped kitchens have cookware guests can freely use. Why not make memories cooking some of your favorite Japanese dishes in these gorgeous buildings?

In Conclusion

Experience the intersection of Japanese architecture and artistry up close in a machiya. Likewise, learn what life must have been centuries ago by spending some time in these traditional wooden buildings.

The information presented in this article is based on the time it was written. Note that there may be changes in the merchandise, services, and prices that have occurred after this article was published. Please contact the facility or facilities in this article directly before visiting.