Machiya Tour in Kyoto

A typical Kyoto Machiya. 2nd floor often acts as a storage place.

Machiya means a wooden town house. in Kyoto we often say kyo-machiya roughly referring to Kyoto town house. Machiyas used to belong to merchants where the entrance of the building used to serve as storage and showroom and the back rooms or the 2nd floor used to serve as a residence for the owner's family.  In 2016 there were 40,000 kyomachiya but every year 800 of them are destroyed. There are currently 3000 machiya in Kyoto dating back to the Meiji period (1868~1912) and around 170 of them are protected by the local government as a registered tangible cultural property. (Source: Kyoto City Website)

One of the most famous machiya townhouses in Kyoto is Maikoya Teahouse with 3 separate tea rooms that provide explanatory machiya tours in Nakagyo Kyoto. These are the notes from the machiya tours of Maikoya.

Why are there so many machiya townhouses in Kyoto?

There are 3 reasons. First of all, Kyoto was removed from the list of the cities to be bombed during WW2 by the war minister in the US who happened to have had his honeymoon in Kyoto City. Secondly, in Kyoto building tax was based on the length of the storefront, not the total space the building occupied. That is why most machias' width is only a few meters while the length tends to be 20 metres or longer. 3rd reason is Kyoto has fewer natural disasters such as earthquakes or typhoons compared to other major cities as it is surrounded by mountains.
Did you know? There is a strict building code in downtown Kyoto and all building must have low eaves.

What does it look like inside the machiya townhouse in Kyoto?

The interior is similar to typical Japanese houses where simplicity and naturalness are the most important aspects. The room is simple as there are no furniture and the connection to the nature is maintained with the courtyard garden. These are what you will find in a typical machiya guestroom also called as zashiki.

Light fusion and humidity control in machiya

Tatami: The room is usually covered by tatami mats that measure roughly 90 cm by 180 cm. Tatamis are made out of rice straws but they cannot be put on randomly, especially tea rooms have a particular design where the number and location of vertical and horizontal tatami mats are decided. In Japan usually the size of the rooms are measured with the number of tatamis (e.g. 6jo, 8jo, etc.).  Tatami are changed every season and the ashes are used to warm the house and fertilize the land.
Shouji: Partitions & Sliding room separators covered with white sheet. Shouji are light lattice frames covered by translucent white paper sheets. They block the wind but allow sunlight and air inside. They became popular after the economic hardships that houses had to be divided into many rooms. White color diffuses the sunlight, makes the atmosphere brighter at night and helps people see the silhouettes. It also shows that there was very little privacy in the past. If the partitions’ lower half is not covered with a sheet it is called yukimi shouji as it allows people to see the other side or enjoy the outside view.
Fusuma: Wooden Partitions & Panels. These panels measure 90 cm by 180cm and are used as a room divider. They are covered by simple natural scenery drawings called sumie. Although they are strong and sturdy they tend to be light and easily removed. Similar to shouji they symbolise the lackness of strict boundaries at home in addition to multifunctional and practical home architecture style. There are 2 functions of the fusuma; 1st to separate the rooms and 2nd to cover the osi ire closets where the pillows and beds are kept during the day time.
Tokonoma: Alcove. Most living rooms or guest rooms have an alcove which creates a perspective or a different level inside the room. The area is used to display precious scrolls written by senior monks who passed away or display bonsai the seasonal flowers in a precious vase. The tokobashira, the supporting pillar could be more than $5000 and and often made by rare wood giving the wabi-sabi (rustic patina) feeling. The senior guest should not be seated facing directly tokonoma because it may seem as if the host is showing off.
Chigai dana  with two separate misaligned shelves represents aesthetic design while preventing objects to roll and fall off.
Kakekomi tenjo: Sloping Ceilings. Many machiya, especially the ones with tea rooms, have dropped ceilings. Ceilings with various levels of angles have several explanations. Sometimes it helps the room feel more spacious and sometimes it helps the guests realise and appreciate the unique design and materials as we usually don’t notice the ceiling. In tea rooms, the lowered ceiling above the tea host means he is humbling himself and the ajiro ceilings (plaited) near the alcove are meant to create the rustic feeling.

Did you know? Frank Lloyd who lived in Japan was impressed by tokonoma and transferred the concept into the Western architecture as a protruded fireplace.
Did you know? Both shouji and fusuma symbolise the unique meaning of “ma” or space in Japanese. While they separate inside and outside it also connects inside and outside because the outside is visible and audible. Round fusuma finger catch always attracts foreign visitors’ attention.


What does a Machiya Garden Look Like?

Most machiya townhouses have courtyard gardens called tsubo niwa. Since the land tax is paid based on the store front, the middle part is left empty to get more sunlight.
Tsubo means a small area (3.3 meter square) and niwa means pure place. The rouji, tea ceremony garden, on the other hand are also sometimes found in kyomachiya.  They act as the separation of materialistic world and spiritual world. While walking inside one must forget all the worldly thoughts. The tea gardens usually don't have colourful flowers and big plants. Different from Western gardens, Japanese gardens are asymmetrical and do not try to dominate nature
In tsubo niwa gardens, there is always water and stone because they represent yin and yan, the two opposites that coexist. The water should flow from East to west where east is the location of the Green Dragon and West is the White Tiger. Most of the time there are three rocks representing earth (small), heaven (big) and humanity (medium).  The most common plant is the pine tree representing longevity and Japanese believe god resides in pine trees. Lotus flower, lady palm (kannon chiku) and bamboo are common. Buddha sits like the lotus flower and  bamboo represents emptiness, simplicity and flexibility. North east side is usually considered the demon gate (kimon) and only certain plants are put on that side.




Spiritual meaning Visual Appeal
Asymmetrical and irregular Symmetrical and regular
To be watched from outside To be touched, entered in
Capture the essence of nature. Borrowed landscape. Small universe. Creation of an ideal land
Harmony and Balance. Nothing should stand out. Aesthetics and perfection. Dominant object: sculpture, water fountain etc.
Different shades of green chosen on purpose. Simple plants, nothing dominates Colourful Flowers, figures and statues to stand out
A few plants with solitude Multiple plants systematically distributed
Changing in 4 seasons. Aesthetic in 4 seasons considered. Seasonal change is not the focus, most attractive during the Spring and Summer.
Things should not be grouped in even numbers. (mostly 3 of them unevenly distributed) Even number of grouping is OK


Other Garden Elements in Machiya
  • Tiny pebbles: Resemble the Kamo river
  • Tane Ha Gake : Resembles the rain drops during the rainy season 
  • Tobi ishi: Rare natural stones from the Kurama area each costing 10,000 USD
  • Tsukubai: Washbasin, tsukubau means to crouch which means showing humility. The act also symbolises cleansing our body and our spirit. Tsukubai has 3 stones, one for guests to kneel, one to put in a hot water bucket in the winter and one to put on the lantern at night. 
  • Tome-ishi: The Border not to be trespassed
  • Chumon: Middle gate that separates the waiting garden and the rest of the tea garden. The Rikyu gate is commonly used.
  • Water well: Kin meisui: Kyoto was famous for its water wells and many machiyas had their own well. One of the reasons Kyoto is famous for tofu and yuba is its mineral rich well waters. That is why there are many yuba shops and sake breveries in Kyoto.
  • Ishi Doro: Stone Lanterns. They are used to illuminate the temple grounds but Shiinto shrines also started using them. The Chinese thought of them as offering to Buddha. The Japanese tea masters started using them as ornaments. The oldest one can be found in Kasuga Taisha in Nara. Yukimi doro with four legs , aka snow viewing lanterns, are the most common lanterns in tsubo niwa gardens as they are relatively smaller.
  • Shuro-chiku or Kannon-chiku: Rhapis Lady Palm. Believed to have arrived in Japan in the 17th century, it belongs to the Kannon Temple in Ryukyus. Can grow in the shade.

What are the Characteristics of Machiya Townhouse?

  • Balance & harmony 
  • Warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer
  • Diffusing sunlight as much as possible (open ceilings etc.)
  • Cut-continuance: Not sharp distinctions between inside and outside
  • Portability and multipurpose
  • Look, don’t touch or step in (tsubo niwa)
  • Wabi-sabi, rustic elegance
  • Naturalness
  • Functional minimalism
  • Handmade and customized, no mass production.
  • Use of clay and mud to control humidity (pillars exposed outside in the middle of mud reduces humidity, mud painted, shouji absorbs humidity)
  • Simple principles: yugen, shizen, simplicity, asymmetry, surprise and solitude.
  • Sustainability (Shouji and bamboo were usually replaced every 3 years and used as kiln for furnaces and ashes are used as a fertilizer)
  • The courtyard garden cools down the temperature of the house and calms your mind
  • Earthquake protection (stone supporting pillars and no diagonal beams)
  • Connection to society and self. A storefront facing the street connects residents to society, whereas an inner courtyard in the back provides a connection to nature. Stepping into a tranquil world from the busy city life.

How does the Machiya Townhouse Look from Outside?

Misenoma: Store front.
Noren: The entrance of shops usually have uniquely designed fabric that acts as the store sign and also acts as a door. This keeps the inside warm during the winter but makes it cooler during the summer. It also stops bad smells and dust from getting inside. Usually made out of linen and cotton with natural indigo dye. There is a TV program in Kyoto that only introduces Norens in Kyoto.
Koushi: Most Machiya are covered with koshi wooden lattices. These are labour intensive compared to a straight wooden block but they have a specific function: people inside can easily see outside but from outside it is not easy to see inside. Different kinds of shops have different types of lattices. Sake shops have thick lattices while kimono shops have thin ones. Shops that require sunlight have fewer weaves.
Inuyarai: Most townhomes have a woodwork called inu yarai:oval-shaped low fences which are meant to protect houses from dogs’ pees and dirt and mud during the rainy season.If they are straight wooden sticks then it is called komayose. It had the same purpose to keep dogs and horses away or to tether the horses.
Shoki: These are statues of Shouki-san , a character who defeated the demon that appeared in the dream of an old Chinese emperor. They are placed on the lower edge of the roofs and are believed to protect the house from disasters, bad spells and oni demons. They usually don’t face each other directly.
Mushikomado: These are white colored earthwork or plastered walls on the second floor of machiya to provide ventilation during the summer months. They are often seen on the floors with low ceilings that are used as a storage space. This design also helps prevent fire as it becomes difficult for flames across the building to reach the house.
Sudare: Most townhouses have sudare in front of the second floor windows that creates the breeze effect and stops the dust coming in during the summer months. Sudares act as blinds or screens.
Genkan: Entrance. Genkan usually has shelves for goods or shoeboxes for houses. Genkan floors tend to be tiled, concrete or pebbled differently from other rooms. Genkan also has a big stone to step on which is considered outside of the house. Japanese machiyas have elevated basements because of the high humidity and to prevent water building up during the rainy season. 
You may want to know
1-Why are there so many machiya in Kyoto?
Gion machiya-COLLAGE There are so many machiya in Kyoto because 1- Land tax 2- Bombing in ww2 3- No major earthquakes and typhoons

2- Why do Kyoto machiya have a small garden in the middle?
Tsubo niwa or the couryard gardens are common because 1- to light in the backside of the house 2- get the breeze and fresh air, like the lungs of the building 3- To step into nature from the busy city life

3- Where do people keep all the furniture in machiya?
Osi ire closets keep the beds, pillows , small furniture. Foreigners are surprised they don't have knobs are handles.

4- Why do machiya houses have low ceilings? And Why people shouldn't step on the edges of the tatami?
Machiya low ceilingsmade out of cedar and bamboo also act as a defence for the samurai as katana cannot be easily used indoors. In the past ninja used to hide under the basement and people were advised to not to step on the intersections of the tatami

5- Why do Kyoto machiya have square shaped white buildings with no windows or little windows? (kura)
These are fire proof storage houses. There were many major fires in the 18th century. The wall is as thick as 50 cm.

6- Why do most Kyoto Machiya have wells?

Most machiya have wells because Kyoto is famous for its spring waters though we dont have an onsen hotspring in downtown Kyoto.

7- Why do tea gardens in machiya have a rock wrapped with black rope?
They represent the borders not to be trespassed.

8- What do moss, pine tree, white pebbles, and the frog in machiya gardens symbolize? Moss: hardwork and persistence since it requires so much work and years to prepare. Pine tree: Longevity and strength as they live long years and survive tough winters. Frogs represent luck as the word sounds like safe return in Japanese.
9- What are the differences between Japanese gardens and Western gardens?
Tea Ceremony at Machiya house

Japanese gardens are asymmetrical and they are miniature versions of the natural landscapes. Western gardens are about symmetry and perfection.

10- How does the machiya protect against earthquakes and high humidity in the summer?
The two sides of the pillars that are placed between the clay face inside and outside. This is proven to reduce the humidity in the house.


The machiya building pillars usually rest on big stones so the building usually don't collapse. These stones, often kurama ishi, cost as much as $20,000 a piece.

11- Why don't the machiya have simple wooden lattices but many straight lines?
The straight lattices make it easier to see outside from inside but difficult for outsiders to see what is inside.

12- Do people live on the 2nd floor of the machiya?
A typical Kyoto Machiya. 2nd floor often acts as a storage place.

Usually no, the 2nd floor of Kyoto machiya alson are used as a storage place. the palstered walls are to prevent the fire.

13- Why do machiya have about a meter-tall curved wooden area?

These are called inu yarai. Historically they are to protect against stray dogs peeing in front of the house.