From the day I arrived in Japan, I knew this was where I was meant to be. Marrying a native of Kyoto, who constantly introduces me to the city’s hidden charms, has led me to conclude that this former imperial capital is my favorite place on the planet.
Last year, after much searching, we found the Kyoto home where we plan to grow old. It was a dark and rundown machiya in a neighborhood of artisans. At more than 150 years old, its crumbling structure was showing its age.
Unfortunately, many people do not see the value of these traditional, narrow, wooden townhouses. Government regulations have also made it too troublesome for most to renovate them. In Kyoto alone, hundreds are demolished every year.
Our machiya is the site of a former kimono obi factory in Nishijin’s textile district. I love that we can still hear the clickety-clack of traditional looms weaving new silk obi sashes nearby. Although the area is central and has great access to mass transportation, it is quiet and the sense of community is strong. On our frequent visits, everyone we have met in the neighborhood has been incredibly kind and welcoming.
The machiya’s exterior is hundreds of years old but cannot be modified, only repaired. The interior was gloomy and cramped, a major reason for the demise of this type of housing. Most people cannot see its potential.
Determined to restore our dwelling, my husband and I were introduced to a young architect, Atsushi Shimada, who specializes in renovating these traditional buildings. I had always dreamed of designing my own home, so I passed him a hand-drawn floor plan on the day we met. Receptive to my American-influenced ideas and my desire to approve absolutely everything, he set about creating a beautiful, modern Japanese home.
While completely gutted, the machiya retains much of its original charm. The connecting structure at the rear was too badly damaged to repair, so a new structure was built in its place. Both parts of the house have a traditional feel, with dark beamed ceilings and antique doors.
The updated interior includes new plumbing, insulation, lots of windows and spacious rooms that look out over an interior garden. I can’t wait to decorate it all with Japanese artwork, pottery and other handcrafted items we have collected over the years.
For anyone interested in living in a traditional Japanese home, my advice would be to go for it. You can own a piece of history while making a small contribution to the beautification of Japan. Just be sure to choose a knowledgeable and flexible architect who is willing to make your dream a reality.
With our own renovation complete, we are thrilled to finally have a place to truly call home.
Words: Sandra Isaka
Illustration: Tania Vicedo