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Machiya storefronts along Shinmachi-dôri in Kyoto
The tsuboniwa at Shima teahouse. Trees are covered and tied down to protect them from snow.
  • Japanese: 町屋、町家 (machiya)

Machiya (lit. "townhouses") are perhaps the most standard form of traditional Japanese urban one-family dwellings. Developing into their mature form in the Edo period, machiya were the dominant style of one-family homes in the major cities of early modern Japan, and a great many survive today throughout the country, though Kyoto is the city most famous for them.

Architecture and Layout

Perhaps because property taxes were based on the size of the building's frontage, machiya, especially in Kyoto, came to be quite narrow, and long, stretching from a reasonably-sized facade back, deep into the city block. The front portion of the home, or omote, was the commercial space in the case of a family who ran a business out of their home, as many did, or else it was the area used to entertain visitors. Behind this was the oku section of the house, consisting of rooms typically used primarily only by members of the household, such as the bedrooms. The two are often separated by an interior pocket garden, or tsuboniwa (坪庭), which allows in fresh air and sunlight. Overall, a machiya house is made chiefly of wood, with earthen walls and ceramic roof tiles.

The front of a machiya comes right up to the street or sidewalk, leaving no space for a front garden or yard. The entrance is located off-center, to one side, usually the left, and a lattice called kôshi (格子) covers the remainder of the facade, allowing those inside the front room to peer out into the street while still offering them a degree of privacy. The style of the latticework was traditionally determined by the type of goods the shop sold, with grocers, clothiers, and tea shops featuring different arrangements of slats. When a section of the lattice extends out beyond the rest of the facade, it is called degôshi (出格子). The entranceway itself often consists of a regular-sized door for everyday use (潜戸, kugurido) contained within a larger door (大戸, ôdo) which can be opened to bring large objects, such as pieces of furniture, in and out of the house.

Immediately upon entering the house, one enters a earthen-floored entrance foyer (genkan), which connects into a long earthen-floored kitchen often stretching the length of the house. A space above the kitchen, known as a hibukuro (火袋) and formed by crisscrossing beams, allows cooking fumes and heat to escape upwards, rather than flowing into the house. It also lets in light, which illuminates the kitchen area.

Taking off one's shoes and stepping up onto the tatami-lined wooden floors, one enters the main front room of the house, known as the mise-no-ma (店の間) in cases where it is used as a commercial space. Such shops often have ledges called battari shôgi (ばったり床机) which fold down from the facade of the house, providing extra display space and effectively extending the shop into the sidewalk or street, such that it better catches the eye of those passing by. The battari shôgi can also be used simply as a bench.

Behind the front room might be a small room where the family altar (butsudan) is kept, and behind that one or more intermediate rooms (naka-no-ma). Behind this is usually the main sitting room, or zashiki, which looks out over the pocket garden, and features a tokonoma for displaying seasonal arrangements; the zashiki is a formal sitting room for receiving guests. Behind this, at the back of the house (oku), or on the second level, would be the family's private spaces, including bedrooms. All of these rooms feature removable sliding doors (fusuma) which can be added or removed to open up or subdivide rooms, creating larger or smaller spaces for various purposes.

Machiya are typically one-and-a-half or two stories tall, and stairs often take the form of hakodan (箱段), having storage boxes built-in below them.

The facade of the second story often features what are called "insect cage windows," or mushikomado (虫籠窓) - thick-slatted openings in a plastered earthen wall. The roof tiles can take a variety of forms, but one of the most common and iconic is called ichimonji kawara, or "one-character tiles," as they form a gentle curve, like a calligraphic version of the kanji for the number "one" (一). A small figurine of Shôki, the Demon-Queller, often stands above the door or on the corners of the roofing, to help guard the home.

In the rear of the house might be a storehouse (kura), with fire-resistant plastered walls, separated from the main house by a small garden. Important family heirlooms, documents, and the like would be stored here, both to protect such things from possible fires or other disasters, and to keep the limited storage space in the main house comparatively free.

Much has been written about the design features of the machiya house, which despite their simple wood construction offer a fair degree of warmth in winter, cool in summer, fresh air, natural light, and so forth. The differing heights of various parts of the house direct breezes into the home where desired (though these can be blocked by closing doors in winter), and similarly allow sunlight in while also blocking it to a certain extent, allowing the home to be well-lit, and warm, but not too warm. Cool air held under the floorboards helps keep the home cool in summer, as does evaporation from water in the gardens. Sliding doors and other elements of the house can also be changed out as the seasons change, in order to adapt to the needs of keeping the home cool, or warm; for example, in summer, bamboo blinds (sudare) might be hung to block out sunlight, while sold sliding doors might be replaced with slatted bamboo doors which allow breezes to pass through.


Machiya remain quite numerous in Japan today, especially in Kyoto, and in historic districts of many other cities, and many continue to be maintained or remodeled, and to be actively used as homes, shops, or historic houses. The iconic style is influential overseas, as well, inspiring modern architectural designs such as that of the 1971 Japan House in New York. However, even as many machiya remain, many too are torn down each year, and the overall number extant continues to shrink. Surveys show that there are a number of reasons for the decline of machiya. More than 50% of people living in machiya homes have expressed that the expenses involved in maintenance and renovation present a significant challenge. The comparatively small number of available machiya carpenters and other experts contributes to this problem. Other reasons expressed in a 2003 survey include concerns about earthquakes and fires; a feeling that it's difficult to live among high-rise buildings; a feeling that it's not modern or fashionable; as well as the inheritance tax.

Between 1996 and 2003 alone, nearly 15% of machiya in Kyoto City were torn down. More than 80% of those that remain have been significantly altered in some way, with 20% having their entire facade covered over in a frontage of cement mortar, aluminum siding, or other modern materials, becoming what is known as kanban kenchiku. In many other cases, the upstairs has been maintained while the ground floor of the machiya has been gutted to be turned into a parking garage.

Organizations such as the Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration work to reverse this trend, and to maintain Kyoto's unique character, alongside numerous small for-profit and not-for-profit organizations restoring old machiya, and comparable organizations active in other cities. A "Machiya Machizukuri Fund" established in 2005 further aids in this project, as machiya renovated with money from the Fund are used as local community centers, building a relationship with the neighborhood that, it is hoped, will help build support among the neighbors against that home being torn down in future. Further, those machiya designated as "Structures of Landscape Importance" (景観重要建造物) cannot be torn down without the permission of Kyoto's mayor, and their owners receive financial support from the city for maintaining the structure.


  • Kyoto Center for Community Collaboration 京都市景観 まちづくりセンター (ed.), Machiya Revival in Kyoto 京町家の再生, Mitsumura Suiko Shoin (2007).

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