At the foot of Sanjo Ohashi Bridge, close to Kyoto’s fabled Gion neighbourhood, home to the city’s kimono-clad geishas, once sat an old Japanese inn.
Today, a concrete Starbucks stands in its place. But before it was knocked down, American architect Geoffrey P Moussas rescued the inn’s wooden bathtub. The tub now sits in his machiya townhouse where, through a small window, bathers can gaze out at a century-old Japanese walled garden.
Japan is famous for its futuristic designs and daring new architecture. In most of the country, largely due to destruction during the second world war, buildings have been erected in a mishmash of modern styles.
But in and around Kyoto, which is renowned for its ancient temples, architects and homeowners are increasingly renovating old houses – and, in doing so, seeing the beauty inherent in the historic.
A decade ago Moussas, an expert in the renovation of machiya and temples, who learned his craft through a three-year apprenticeship with traditional Japanese carpenters, received few requests to restore the wooden town houses. He has now completed 30. Many have reopened as guesthouses; others are for families. Residents are charmed by the serene courtyard gardens, front wooden lattices, and tatami mat floors.
Yet, compared with years gone by, few machiya remain standing. Punctuating the skyline like an ugly paean to modernity is the needle-shaped Kyoto Tower. In the decades that followed its construction in 1964, as Japan raced towards the 21st century, whole swaths of the old town were destroyed.
Locals call the old wooden houses “the bedrooms of eels” and machiya fall under the category of minka – literally “house of the people”, once reserved for the non-samurai class of farmers, artisans and merchants. Often inhabited by the poor and disenfranchised, machiya were deemed uncomfortable and outdated. Rising from their ashes are concrete western-style mansion blocks and houses.
Moussas’s own machiya sits down a quiet leafy street next to one of the city’s few remaining public baths. Built in the early 20th century as part of a collaboration between a lumber dealer and a carpenter (responsible for the exquisite craftsmanship), it once housed a shop at the front and living quarters behind before being abandoned.
The long-term Kyoto resident has retained its original features while updating it for modern living. In the kitchen, Moussas installed underfloor heating but kept the black brick stove; once operated by firewood it now runs on gas. As in the past, life runs according to the seasons. In the winter, delicate sliding shoji doors, made from translucent paper, shelter the house from the cold; in summer, these are replaced with fusuma reed doors made from split bamboo so fine that the air can circulate while shutting out the swarming mosquitoes.
At the heart of Japanese culture is aimai, meaning “ambiguity”. In machiya, visitors often step off the street into a small open-air courtyard, which represents transition from the exterior to the interior worlds. Speaking from this hushed space under a milky summer’s night, Moussas elaborates: “Kyoto culture is especially vague. Aimai is a purely Japanese construct. It’s abstract. To me, it’s very intriguing.”
But if historic Japanese homes embody the country’s culture and arts, 90 per cent of Moussas’s clients are expats. In most cultures, historic properties increase their value over time. But in Japan, new buyers more often than not bulldoze and rebuild. This is largely due to the country’s unique topography; earthquakes and tsunamis have led to an architecture of impermanence.
Physical homes are deemed worthless after 30 years; the land they sit on, however, is valuable. As such, half of all homes in Japan are demolished within 38 years (60 per cent of homes were built after 1980).
There is little incentive to renovate: loans of up to $50,000 are given for renovating old houses. But that rises to $500,000 or more for knocking down and rebuilding a house on the same plot.
For the older generation of locals who survived the war, historic architecture retains negative associations. “They wanted to cleanse the past,” explains Moussas. Tokyo-based architect Yumi Kori agrees: “People born around the wartime still have a difficult time appreciating Japanese tradition. Old houses are related to the old Japanese family system and the feudal system – it used to be harder to just admire Japanese tradition because of that bad history.”
Knowledge among the young is scant. “I ask [my students] have you ever sat down on the engawa and relaxed?” recalls Kori, referring to the wooden strip of flooring that acts as a buffer between the peaceful sanctuary of the home and the chaotic smells and sounds of the street. “They say: ‘No, I’ve seen it on the television.’ For them, it’s very new.”
In the past, families slept on futons rolled out in the evenings; walls were paper-thin and bathrooms were outside. Now architects use novel ways to add privacy and modern conveniences: Moussas has pasted elegant dark green handmade wallpaper in one guesthouse to the tune of $100 a sheet.
But he makes sure he combines such unobtrusive luxuries with practicalities. Washing machines, for example, are hidden discreetly behind cupboard doors and modern bathrooms are tucked behind winding entrances.
Furniture is also key. In an early 20th-century-renovated machiya in Kyoto’s Gion district, Kori extended the back area, while leaving the formal central entertaining room – or zashiki – intact. “That way the back areas are used as a functional space where you can wear shoes, use western chairs, and move around freely,” she says. “The centre is more like a stage space. Instead of converting everything into a western style or leaving everything Japan style, we actually created some separation between them: you can admire the space itself as a kind of artwork.”
Kori has also played with more avant-garde designs. One set of 12 historic buildings she renovated in Chiba prefecture, just outside Tokyo, were in too bad a shape to resurrect faithfully. Instead she created “the feeling of abandoned or suspended time”. In one, now used as a café, the old beams of the original roof tower over floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which allow in a flood of light; in another, ancient tiles have been transformed into a garden sculpture and stepping stones over a pond. Kori insists adaptation is crucial: “You don’t want to make the historical a preserved Disneyland.”
Disneyland is something Naruo Mizuno has a particular aversion to. “Nowadays the standard is plastic and aluminium,” scoffs the Japanese entrepreneur, pointing disparagingly at the faux industrial chic appearance of the Sanjo Bridge Starbucks.
In order to escape from this generic globalisation, Mizuno hired Moussas to convert a Kyoto nagaya or “long house” – so called because the lines of the wooden homes, located in between the machiya, share one roof – into a live-work space. The nagaya is made of wood, earth and thatch; grass is found in the walls, the tatami, and the base of the roof. In the nagaya, Mizuno wanted a wide, open space to better suit his modern lifestyle. To achieve this, Moussas raised the ceiling, created a bedroom in the loft and made the downstairs open-plan.
Challenges persist: despite glass windows and underfloor heating, historic houses remain ill-equipped for shielding inhabitants from the bitter winter winds or the hot summers. Mizuno is not put off; he has just commissioned Moussas to renovate another nagaya, this time as an office. “The traditional style can work in the now modernised life in Japan,” he asserts with a thumbs up. And what do his friends think? Mizuno laughs: “Some love it. Some ask if I’m crazy.”
For Fumiaki Tanaka, moving this summer with his English wife and three small children from Exeter, in southwest England, to rural Japan to live in a 200-year-old traditional farmhouse seemed somewhat mad. But it was part of finding his roots. He grew up in Kyoto, just minutes away from some of the city’s most beautiful temples. Yet he barely noticed the architectural riches around him: “It was so close that you couldn’t see it,” he says.
It was only when Tanaka moved abroad that he valued history at home. His noka – or farmhouse, which, like machiya, is a “house of the people” – reopened as a family-run guesthouse in July.
An hour’s train ride from Kyoto, Ayabe Yohimizu nestles under idyllic green mountains inhabited by bears, monkeys and deer. Outside, a cooling pond sits in the shadow of its low-hanging thatched roof. Inside, beams are made from fermented persimmon. Communal meals are eaten around the irori or traditional sunken hearth, where skewers of chicken hearts, tofu, and eggplant are cooked on embers and tea is poured from a pot hanging on a hook over the flames.
The noka combines new and old: the family lives in a more modern extension but still uses firewood to heat up a traditional bath.
“We have no traffic life, no neon, but that’s our best selling point. You enjoy playing in the river, looking at fireflies and stars,” says Tanaka. With the erection of mock western buildings, he adds, “somehow we lost everything. For us, we want to live in a place like this.”
Photographs: Cristian Orton; Masatomo Moriyama; Anna Thomson; Julien Vandon