Japan isn’t always kind to its old buildings, no matter how historical or irreplaceable they might be. And Kyoto, a city that from the outside seems fiercely proud of its 1,200-year history, is no exception. While its citizens cherish its well-maintained ancient wooden temples and shrines, traditional wooden town houses are being knocked down at an astonishing rate. Removing this vernacular architecture, known as machiya, to make room for parking spaces and shiny apartment blocks has sadly become the norm in this historic city. “Real-estate value of machiya is nearly zero,” says Masaharu Tada, a Kyoto-based architect. “The reality is that it’s more profitable to build new apartments.”
Tada and fellow designer Shojiro Endo have just finished renovating one such machiya, in the process establishing a model to neatly modernise this style while preserving its integrity. “When we first saw the building it looked very tired, it was almost unlivable,” says Endo. “But we thought that we could do something with a bit of creativity.”
Situated near Nijo Castle in central Kyoto, the machiya house opened last year as the A Day in Khaki guesthouse. Those choosing to stay here tend to be lovers of good design as well as of the city itself. “When I came to Kyoto two years ago, I fell in love with the city,” says co-owner Chen Yi-An. “I stayed in a machiya and I loved it.”
An entrepreneur from Taiwan who had studied art in Taipei, Chen was taken by Kyoto’s architecture, landscape and the natural hues she saw in the tsuchikabe mud walls and Japanese maple trees. Good fortune struck when Chen and her business partner Lance Xiao discovered Awomb, a restaurant inside an 80-year-old machiya that had been renovated by Endo in 2014. “When I saw Awomb, I knew I’d found the person to commission,” says Chen.
Before its makeover, the 120-year-old two-storey building was a traditional kimono shop and residence and the architects didn’t want to hide its interesting past. The well-aged tsuchikabe walls and the original double-height ceiling are still in place. The building, which is deep but slender, had been divided into many sections but for its new purpose it needed to be opened up. “We preserved the traditional layout as much as possible, while turning the building into a modern residence,” says Endo. Where necessary the architects removed low ceilings, revealing worn but sturdy beams in the process and turning dim rooms into bright and airy spaces.
“This is our modern take on a traditional doma (pressed earth space),” says Tada, leading monocle into an inviting social area with a high ceiling and an adjacent kitchen-dining room. “People can sit on each side of the doma and chat.” A corridor bridge on the upper floor connects the two bedrooms where guests pull out simple futon mattresses on new tatami mats. The south bedroom gets plenty of natural light while the north room enjoys a view of the rooftop greenery that sits on top of the courtyard terrace.
While the design here is suitably low key, turning such an old-fashioned residence into a functional modern home was not an easy job, particularly on a tight budget. The two commissioned renovation specialist Fujisakigumi, who painstakingly removed walls and ceilings without damaging the original structure. A major overhaul occurred in the new dining space where tatami were replaced with lightly hued sugi cypress floorboards recycled from construction sites. “These boards are cheap but strong and have a good texture,” says Tada. “We used simple materials such as plywood for the sliding doors,” says Endo, stepping across the warm wooden floors.
Unusual for a holiday stay, the most sumptuous space here is actually outside the building, where a terrace and courtyard have been form a calm mini oasis. Here guests can relax on wooden lounge chairs while contemplating the stones weaving through a small garden with greenery including himuro-sugi cedar, kangaroo vine and an old camellia tree. On chilly days the calm of the garden can also be enjoyed from the comfort of a bathtub inside the rooms.
It’s a small touch of luxury within a project that is anything but overtly lavish. A Day in Khaki is unfussy and simple, yet welcoming and warm. The architects have shown what creativity and a little bit of love can do for a tired building. Their work across Kyoto on these neglected houses is proving that there are plenty of uses left for the old machiya. They just need to be viewed with the right kind of eye. “This is a model machiya renovation,” says Endo. “It’s a guest house but we planned it as a residence and you can live here too.”