The machiya of Kyoto, Japan are traditional townhouses dating from the Edo period (1603–1867). Born out of the city’s growing merchant class, they functioned as both residences and workspaces. Deep and narrow, with a shop in the front, a variety of living spaces in the middle, and workshops and warehouses in the rear, they once lined Kyoto’s streets. Machiya were constructed of earthen walls and tile roofs, and they could be from one to three stories high. Incorporating interior gardens that invited light and air, the machiya fostered a culture that integrated urban living and commerce.
Kyoto, the capital of ancient Japan for over a millennium, was fortunate to weather the storm of World War II with relatively little damage. Unlike many cities along Japan’s southern coast, the historic layout of streets and neighborhoods in Kyoto survived intact, as did many of its wooden buildings. Nevertheless, as development in the city has intensified and has separated commercial and residential uses, the machiya are disappearing.
Thoughtful restoration and upgraded amenities can breathe new life into this historic building type, which has suffered from alterations and demolition. With construction of new machiya prohibited since the end of World War II, restoration of historic machiya is a way for Japanese carpenters and craftsmen to maintain a link with a rich building tradition that is an integral part of Japan’s history.