Monday, April 25, 2016


There is a range of colors associated with Kyoto - matcha green, saffron orange, indigo blue, sakura pink - but the weather-beaten, caramel brown of the machiya (the traditional wooden townhouses) is probably my favorite.

Soon after I arrived in Japan in 2013 I began a series of paintings using burnt sienna.  I had never worked in this hue before, and I wasn't sure exactly why I started then.  I realized later Kyo-machiya (as they are called here in Kyoto) were the inspiration.

Historic European architecture is made of stone and brick.  In the U.S. it is concrete and steel.  But in Japan it is wood.  I'm sure there is a practical socio-geographic reason for this (an abundance of trees and a dearth of stone?) but I don't know.


Kyo-machiya came about with the rise of the merchant class in the Edo period (1603 - 1868), though most surviving structures were built in the 19th and 20th Century.  These deep, narrow one or two-story structures made of wood and ookabe-sukuri (mud daub and plaster) served a dual purpose of shop and residence.  There are a number of unique characteristics that define the machiya from the outside: the koshi (window lattice) which allowed for some privacy, the inuyarai or komayose fence designed to keep animals like horses away, the ceramic kawara (roof tiles), and the mushiko-mado (insect cage) windows on the second floor.  But for me, it is the sunburnt and rain-stained cedar sasarako jitami (overlapping weather board) that say machiya.

The shadowy interior of a machiya is no less distinctively appointed.  There is the spacious zashiki (living room) used for dining and entertaining, the straw tatami mat flooring, the decorated fusuma (sliding doors) which serve to divide the room into smaller units, and the tokonoma (alcove) where you will find kakejiku (hanging scroll) and ikebana (flower arrangement) displayed.


Beyond the zashiki is the tsuboniwa (small courtyard garden).  This not only brings light and air into the house, but also connects it to nature providing the residents with a tranquil miniature landscape.  This connection to nature is an essential element of the machiya.  All the materials used to build a machiya are natural: wood, earth, straw, paper.  There is nothing artificial in their construction.  There is something wonderfully organic and human about the design and construction of these houses.

Sadly, the machiya are an endangered species.  The destruction of these traditional buildings began after the War in Kyoto's rush to modernize.  Whole neighborhoods were razed to make room for large apartment blocks, office buildings and parking lots.

Greedy real-estate developers have for decades manipulated a 1951 law designed to protect the city against fire hazard to their advantage.  A largely powerless and ineffectual preservation movement means the machiya continue to be destroyed at an alarming rate.  Today less than 45,000 machiya remain in Kyoto.

The housing market and banks have also had a hand in the obliteration of these old buildings.  Unlike in the West where the value of historic buildings increases over time, in Japan houses older than 30 years are generally deemed worthless.  The property has value, but not the house.  There is little incentive to renovate when banks will loan up to 10 times more for a tear-down than they will for a restoration.

In my own neighborhood, in the short time I've been here, I have seen half a dozen minka (traditional houses) destroyed, replaced by generic, pre-fab, plastic boxes completely void of any design aesthetic, character or charm.  And what's to become of this non-biodegradable material when these houses are torn down in 30 years time?

Kyoto is quick to boast of its many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but seems oblivious to the fact that its living history, what makes Kyoto Kyoto is rapidly disappearing.  I do fear that one day Kyoto will look something like Osaka or the San Fernando Valley, and the machiya, what give Kyoto its lovely, warm color will be seen only in museum photographs.

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