In 794, the capital of Japan was moved to the present-day city of Kyoto. Known as Heian-kyo, the ancient city was planned on a grid design. Like a giant board game, Heian-kyo was divided into many separate districts, and houses were built in these districts, which were demarcated by hedges and fences.
By the end of the Heian period, however, people began to construct buildings in these boundary areas where fences and hedges used to stand, as well as in the vacant spaces that existed between these demarcated plots and the roads. These buildings were of various types, such as small galleries for watching the passing street festivals, rental properties, and homes for the common people.
Distinct from the buildings built inside the districts, it was these buildings built facing the roads in which today’s machiya have their roots.
An ancient city in Kyoto "Heian-kyo" planned on a grid design
Houses of nobels demarcated by hedges and fences
Houses of common people demarcated by hedges and fences
Watching a festival from a house
From the end of the Kamakura period, the social situation became unstable in Japan. While the elite engaged in a power struggle over the status of the emperor, peasants engaged in uprisings in various parts of the country; and in 1467 full-fledged civil war known as the Onin War broke out, bringing Kyoto into utter desolation.
With the great breakdown in public security, people began to engage in their own self-defense. They built defensive structures around the neighborhoods such as walls, levees, moats, checkpoint gates, and watchtowers. Houses also came to be equipped with wooden lattice, called koshi. This architectural element is still seen in the machiya of today.
Koshi: Constructed out of thin pieces of lumber, the lattice is assembled in a grid design, which allows for light and air to circulate into the building but limits visibility of the interior from outside the building.
The undisputed leader of the time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had a tremendous impact on the redesigning of Kyoto from 1586. This urban renewal was one of the major influences on the Kyoto urban landscape of today.
In order to better make use of vacant land areas located in the center of city blocks, Hideyoshi introduced the creation of small roads, called roji. These small roads were the origins of Kyoto’s distinctive alleyways of today.
Roji: The small alleyways that connect roads are collectively called roji.
Redesigning of Kyoto conducted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi
While the free and easy-going atmosphere of the Azuchi-Momoyama period saw machiya that were characterized by their gorgeous colors and ornate decoration, this extravagance became prohibited during the Edo period, which saw a different aesthetic sensibility.
Mid-Edo period Kyoto experienced a dramatic increase in population and city expansion, which was accompanied by an urgent demand for new construction and housing. This led to rapid developments in building technology and standardization.
In 1674, pantiles—a much lighter form of roof tile were invented; and in an effort to reduce fires, people were encouraged to build using roof tiles, and this practice became common with lower classes, too. These changes led to a more unified and harmonious cityscape.
The 18th century saw the appearance of some of the distinctive characteristics of the exterior of today’s machiya, such as the lofts, known as tsushi nikai; as well as lattice windows (mushiko-mado) and projecting lattice bay windows (de-goshi).
However, in 1864, a political rebellion called the Hamaguri-gomon Incident took place, which resulted in the burning down of much of the city, including many machiya. Most of the machiya we see today in Kyoto, therefore, were built after this turbulent and destructive time.
Characteristic Kyo-mahiya in early Edo Period before the extravagance became prohibited
The difference of Hongawara-buki and Asagawara-buki
In the wake of the political turbulence known as the Meiji Restoration, the capital of the country was moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. This led to a great decline in the population of Kyoto, as well as in business and industry.
Aiming toward revitalization, the city of Kyoto embarked on a period of rapid modernization. As part of this, major changes in architecture appeared. It was during this time that two-story wooden homes were built, as well as homes with a European influence, such as machiya with sitting rooms equipped with chairs and tables. Traditional mushiko-mado windows were replaced by glass windows, and wooden-latticed windows (koshi) by frosted windows and metal-pipe lattice; and along with the development of electricity, gas, and water, rice cookers came to supersede the old-fashion hearths (okudo-san) and long earthen-floor hallways (tori-niwa) of days past.
A room with a European influence
Frosted windows and metal-pipe lattice
After the Second World War, the Building Standards Law was enacted in 1950. With the passing of this law, traditional building methods became inconsistent under the new standards. It, therefore, became impossible to build new machiya under the current law.
Kyoto was transformed into a city of multi-story buildings and high-rises. This situation increased under the bubble economy from 1986 until around 1991. In the midst of this building boom, traditional Kyoto machiya continued to disappear from the urban landscape of the city.
However, as more and more machiya were being replaced by condominiums and parking lots, the people of Kyoto grew concerned, and before long neighborhood associations and organizations rose up to voice these concerns.
In 1998, the city of Kyoto put in place measures to try and halt the decline of the city’s machiya and became the first in the country to enact laws to protect the urban landscape. This city ordinance created very strict new building regulations even in downtown Kyoto, which was the heart of the city’s high-rise building boom.
According to a city survey conducted from 2008–2010, there were 47,000 machiya in the city, but this number has continued to decrease with each passing year. People in recent years, however, are starting to re-evaluate traditional buildings like machiya, and historic buildings are beginning to attract more people; and we are now happily seeing many old machiya being turned into homes and shops around Kyoto.
Modernized Kyoto's cityscape
An area in Gion with Kyo-machiyas still stand in line
Kyo-machiya surviving next to a concrete building