Kyomachiya – 京町家

A Kyomachiya is a traditional Machiya in Kyoto.  It is a traditional townhouse made of wood and featuring very specific details.  Staying in a Machiya is a unique experience that one cannot find in a normal hotel or ryokan.  With us, you too can experience the unique lifestyle of the people of Kyoto.


The Machiya (townhouses) and Nōka (farm dwellings) constitute the two categories of Japanese vernacular architecture known as “Minka” (folk dwellings).  Machiya originated as early as the Heian period (794 to 1185) and continued to develop through to the Edo period and even into the Meiji period.  Machiya housed urban merchants and craftsmen, the townspeople class.  The word Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町) meaning “town”, and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used to express it.

The Kyōmachiya, Machiya in Kyoto, (京町家 or 京町屋) defined the architectural atmosphere of downtown Kyoto for centuries, and represent the standard defining form of machiya throughout the country.


The typical Kyoto machiya is a long wooden home with narrow street frontage, stretching deep into the city block and often containing s small courtyard garden called “tsuboniwa”. Machiya incorporate earthen walls and baked tile roofs, and are usually two stories high. The front of the building traditionally served as the retail or shop space, generally having sliding or folding shutters that opened to facilitate the display of goods and wares. Behind this “Mise no ma” (店の間, “shop space”), the remainder of the main building is divided into the “Kyoshitsubu” (居室部) or “living space,” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the “Doma” (土間) “Tōriniwa” (通り庭), an unfloored earthen service space that contained the kitchen and also serves as the passage to the rear of the plot, where storehouses known as “Kura” (倉) are found.  A “Hibukuro” (火袋) above the kitchen serves as a chimney, carrying smoke and heat away, and as a skylight, bringing light into the kitchen.  The plot’s width was traditionally an index of wealth because it was the base for the tax calculation. A typical machiya plot was only 4 to 6 meters wide, but about 20 meters deep, leading to the nickname Unagi no nedoko, or eel beds.

Wooden structure of a machiya
Wall made of hearth, paper, bamboo
Hibukuro - opening

The sliding doors which make up the walls in a machiya, as in most traditional Japanese buildings, provide a great degree of versatility; doors can be opened and closed or removed entirely to alter the number, size, and shape of rooms to suit the needs of the moment. Typically, however, the remainder of the building might be arranged to create smaller rooms including an entrance hall or foyer (genkan, 玄関), butsuma (仏間), and naka no ma (中の間) and oku no ma (奥の間), both of which mean simply “central room”.

Tsuboniwa, open air garden courtyardMachiya design addresses climate concerns. Kyoto can be quite cold in winter, and extremely hot and humid in the summer. Multiple layers of sliding doors (fusuma and shōji) are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing all the screens in the winter offers some protection from the cold, while opening them all in the summer offers some respite from the heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also made use of different types of screens which would be changed with the seasons; woven bamboo screens used in summer allow air to flow through, but help to block the sun.  The open air garden courtyards likewise aid in air circulation and bring light into the house.

Kôshi - latticework


The front of a machiya features wooden lattices, or kōshi (格子), the styles of which were once indicative of the type of shop the machiya held.  Silk or thread shops, rice sellers, okiya (geisha houses), and liquor stores, among others, each had their own distinctive style of latticework. The types or styles of latticework are still today known by names using shop types, such as Itoya-gōshi (糸屋格子, lit. “thread shop lattice”) or Komeya-gōshi (米屋格子, lit. “rice shop lattice). These lattices sometimes jut out from the front of the building, in which case they are called degōshi (出格子).  Normally unpainted, the kōshi of hanamachi (geisha and oiran districts) were frequently painted in bengara (紅殻), a vermillion or red ochre color.

Mushikomado type of window




The facade of the second story of a machiya is generally not made of wood, but of earthwork, with a distinctive style of window known as mushiko mado (虫籠窓, lit. “insect cage window”).


While Sanjusan Machiya is not an actual machiya but a standard Japanese house built in the 70’s and entirely renovated as a machiya, both Gojo Machiya and Kyomizu Machiya are over one hundred years old real machiya (Gojo Machiya last record is dated 1897 and Kyomizu Machiya was built in 1902).

Gojo Machiya was the first one we acquired and started work on.  It took us a long time to study the options and decide how it would be renovated, as we tried to keep some of the basic features of a traditional machiya that existed while recreating others that had disappeared. We eliminated one small room on the second floor and opened the space to have the hibukuro that brings in some space, volume and a lot of light.  We opened the space of the first floor, removing a wall and storages while keeping the tatami mat room. The bathroom, toilet and area in the rear were all added up as they didn’t originally existed.  The tsuboniwa was recreated.  While trying to maintain as much of the look, feel and atmosphere of an authentic machiya, we also insisted on modern convenience and comfort and tried to find a balance between both concepts.  We specially insisted on insulation of the roof, the walls, the floors, adding floor heating as well as radiators (something not really traditional in Japan, but really welcome in the cold months of winter.)