Kyoto’s traditional townhouses, machiya, were built in a unique architectural style and remain an enduring symbol of the city’s cultural heritage. These long, wooden houses are made up of a succession of rooms, connected by a single corridor, sometimes stretching as far back as 100m from the front. Their design is a result of the taxes that were levied on buildings during the Edo period according to the size of their street frontage. Machiya were generally built by merchants, encompassing a front shop space, living quarters in the middle and a warehouse at the rear. A courtyard garden was also included to aid the flow of light and air through the centre. Their long, thin shape lead to their colloquial name, unagi no nedoko, or “bedroom of eels”.
Machiya were built almost entirely out of wood, which means that because of fire and earthquakes few that remain today are more than a century old. Some of the best examples are protected by law, but this has not stopped others being demolished at an alarming rate (some figures estimate by more than ten percent a year) since the end of World War II as land values increased and modern development was encouraged. However, you can still walk along Sannen-zaka, Shinbashi or through the Nishijin weaving district in Western Kyoto and find some almost complete rows of these beautiful old houses, each dark facade showing subtle variations on the same overall design. Note the distinctive gutter-guards made of curved bamboo, and the narrow-slatted ground-floor windows, which keep out both the summer heat and prying eyes.
Encouragingly, though they are still being demolished, many machiya now seem to be experiencing a period of revitalization, having been remodelled as restaurants, guesthouses, boutiques and galleries, particularly in the central area north of Shijō and west of Kawaramachi.