Machiya are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan and typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Machiya (townhouses) and noka (farm dwellings) constitute the two categories of Japanese vernacular architecture known as minka (folk dwellings). Machiya originated as early as the Heian period and continued to develop through to the Edo period and even into the Meiji period. Machiya housed urban merchants and craftsmen, a class collectively referred to as chōnin (townspeople). The word machiya is written using two kanji: machi meaning “town”, and ya meaning “house” or “shop” depending on the kanji used to express it.
Machiya in Kyoto, sometimes called kyomachiya 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 one or more small courtyard gardens or tsuboniwa. Machiya incorporate earthen walls and baked tile roofs, and could be one, one and a half, two, or occasionally even three 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 (shop space), the remainder of the main building is divided into the kyoshitsubu or "living space," composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma or toriniwa, 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 are found. A hibukuro 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, and typical machiya plots were only 5.4 to 6 meters wide, but about 20 meters deep, leading to the nickname unagi-no nedoko, or eel beds.
The largest residential room, located in the rear of the main building, looking out over the garden which separates the main house from the storehouse, is called a zashiki and doubled as a reception room for special guests or clients. 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), butsuma, and naka-no ma and oku no ma, both of which mean simply "central room".
One occasion when rooms are altered significantly is during the Gion Matsuri, when families display their family treasures, including byobu (folding screen) paintings and other artworks and heirlooms in the machiya. Machiya also provide space for costumes, decorations, portable shrines, floats, and other things needed for the festival, as well as hosting spectators along the festival's parade route.
Machiya 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.
The front of a machiya features wooden lattices, or koshi , 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-goshi (lit. "thread shop lattice") or Komeya-goshi (lit. "rice shop lattice). These lattices sometimes jut out from the front of the building, in which case they are called degoshi. Normally unpainted, the koshi of hanamachi (geisha and oiran districts) were frequently painted in bengara, a vermillion or red ochre color.
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 ("insect cage window").
The main entrance into a machiya consists of two doors. The O-do (lit. "big door") was generally used only to transport goods, or large objects, into the building, while the smaller kugurido, or "side door", was for normal, everyday use, i.e. for people to enter and exit.
Machiya are rapidly disappearing; their destruction has a powerfully adverse effect on the historic and traditional cultural atmosphere of Kyoto, and of the other neighborhoods and cities where they are being destroyed. Machiya are difficult and expensive to maintain, are subject to greater risk of damage or destruction from fire or earthquakes than more modern buildings, and are in the minds of many simply outdated and old-fashioned. In a survey conducted in 2003, over 50% of machiya residents noted that it is financially difficult to maintain a machiya.
Between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly forty percent of those demolished were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades. Roughly 20% of Kyoto's machiya have been altered in a process called kanban kenchiku (lit. "signboard architecture"); they retain the basic shape of a machiya, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and mushikomado windows and earthwork walls of the second story. Many of these kanban kenchiku machiya have also lost their tile roofs, becoming more boxed-out in shape; many have also had aluminum or steel shutters installed, as are commonly seen in small urban shops around the world.
There are groups, however, which are taking action to protect and restore machiya in Kyoto. One such institution, the "Machiya Machizukuri Fund," was established in 2005 with the backing of a Tokyo-based benefactor. The group works alongside individual machiya owners to restore their buildings and to have them designated as "Structures of Landscape Importance": under this designation, the structures are protected from demolition without the permission of the mayor of Kyoto, and a stipend is provided by the city government to the owners of the machiya to help support the upkeep of the building. Many of these restored buildings serve, at least in part, as community centers.
Iori, a company founded by art collector, author, and traditional culture advocate Alex Kerr in 2004 to save old machiya, owns a number of machiya which it restored, maintains, and rents to travelers. The company's main office, itself located in a machiya, houses a traditional arts practice space, including a full-size Noh stage.
There are many machiya remaining in Kyoto. Many are private residences, while others operating as businesses, notably cafes, and a few are museums. The largest machiya in Kyoto is Sumiya in Shimabara, the traditional yokaku (pleasure quarter) of Kyoto.