Kyoto’s Traditional Live/Work Homes

May 2020

Kyoto’s traditional homes, known as ‘Kyo-machiya’, are essentially wooden townhomes with ground floor commercial spaces built with traditional Japanese dovetail joinery methods - no nails.  They became popularized during the Edo period in Japan which spans from 1603 to 1868, though most remaining machiya in Kyoto date from the late 1860s.  Many of these homes were destroyed during World War II and since then, their construction was prohibited when the Building Standards Law (BSL) was enacted in Japan in 1950.  Consequently, the BSL rendered the Kyo-machiya, and similar buildings in Japan, as an ‘existing non-conforming building’ type.

Kyoto, 1935

Kyoto, 2008

The standards stipulated by the BSL regarded traditional timber construction, known as ‘nuki’ as a hazard to life safety and therefore no longer in the realm of lawful construction practices even though this method of construction is refined and sophisticated to respond to earthquakes which are prevalent in Japan.  Vertical columns were connected by horizontal pieces and then sheathed by plaster.  In an earthquake, this construction was able to disperse the energy from a quake by allowing the plaster to crumble and the walls to sway with the quakes forces but still keep the house intact.

With the approximately 40,000 Kyo-machiyas left in Kyoto, there has been a local effort to preserve these structures, so much so that the World Monument Fund recognized these efforts and put the Kyo-machiyas on their watch list in 2010 and 2012.  Partnering with the Kyomachiya Revitalization Study Group and the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration, they worked on various solutions regarding restoration and maintenance of these wood structures.  Their efforts provided guidelines for future machiya restorations and modern upgrades while still maintaining the original form.

A typical machiya is an elongated structure which is five to six meters wide (16 to 19 feet) by twenty meters (65 feet) deep.  A typical characteristic is that the long roof eave is parallel to the street. On one end, there is the commercial space and the outdoor space under the tiled eave typically has a bench to display goods on sale or as a place of respite for the customers.  Other typical exterior features include: Zhong Kui Dolls, imports from China, that are there to ward off bad luck and ill health, a protruding lattice for ventilation and privacy and a mezzanine-storey-window covered in plaster or clay, called the ‘insect cage’, to also allow for ventilation.  The interior of the house is a succession of spaces that are increasingly private. There is an entrance room for business transactions, adjacent to two private tatami rooms which are sheltered by a wood lattice and which eventually lead to a private garden space.  At the back of the house there is a stair leading to the mezzanine level which houses more living space. 

For over a decade, the interests in machiyas have increased even though many are disappearing to make way for more contemporary structures.   While the remaining are mostly still used for residential purposes, a notable adaptive re-use of a machiya is the Issey Miyake shop in Kyoto designed by architect Naoto Fukasawa.  With all of the interior partitions removed, the structure of the envelope walls was exposed.  The wall sections in between each timber column were plastered in a muted grey referencing Japanese ink wash paintings.  While the Kyo-machiya is an architectural legacy of a bygone era, new life can be infused into these well crafted homes.

Exterior of the Issey Miyake shop in Kyoto

Interior of the Issey Miyake shop in Kyoto