Living in a kyo-machiya

Sae Cardonnel

28th August, 2022

©️Paul Maurer 1998

I had friends when I was a student who shared a machiya and I envied them very much. I was studying Japanese painting (nihonga) in the art department of Kyōto University of Education at the time.

The kyo-machiya (literally "capital city house") are the traditional dwellings of Kyōto. Their facade is often narrow. They consist of three tatami-covered rooms, arranged in a row from the street to the inner garden at the far end, bordered on one side by a space called a doma, originally made of clay, located at street level and sheltered under a wide roof. With the three rooms separated by movable partitions, a machiya provides a rare depth of space not found in modern houses. Such a space is precious for the distance it allows to paint large paintings. This was a luxury difficult to obtain outside the studio provided by the university.  

After graduation, my first wish was to have my first solo exhibition in a machiya. I canvassed for a long time before I stumbled upon a gallery on Sakaimachi Street, not far from where my current office is. I plucked up my courage and pressed the doorbell. I asked to use this space. The gallery is closed," I was told at first. But on insisting, and perhaps overcome by my enthusiasm, I was allowed to exhibit my sketches and paintings that I had made after a stay in the French Pyrenees. I sold everything. 

©️Paul Maurer 1998

It was on my return from France, after a period of study, that the opportunity to live in a machiya arose. The boy who was to become my husband lived in a "townhouse" in the Kamigyo district, north of the Imperial Palace. It is a more spacious house than the ordinary machiya because its facade is wider than those in the city centre. It was built in 1923, the year of the great Kantō earthquake. I began by occupying a room in the house and making it my studio. At that time, I drew during the day and worked at night as a maths teacher at a cram school (juku). 

My husband, Sylvain, had been living in Kyōto since 1990. At the time, he was the editor-in-chief of the French-Japanese cultural magazine Les Voix. He frequently met with artists living at Villa Kujoyama (a sort of Villa Medici in Kyōto) for interviews. This is how he met the writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who came back several times to sleep in this house after his residence. The character of Bernard in the novel Faire l'amour is said to be inspired by him, and several scenes take place in this machiya, including one depicting Bernard and the main character moving from the doma to the central tatami room, climbing the two steps separating the two spaces. A photo of the room where Jean-Philippe slept appears on the cover of the Japanese translation of the novel.

"Bernard lived in a traditional Japanese one-story wooden house. Past a courtyard outside, where a bicycle rested against a wall in the half-light of a flower bed, we entered the kitchen, a large room with a concrete floor adjoining the main room. After taking off our shoes, we climbed two steps, still in our coats, lowering our heads to pass the sliding partitions that opened onto the living room, and we progressed in our socks onto the tatami mats, our bodies slightly inclined." (Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Faire l'amour, éditions de Minuit, p.140)

Hundreds of machiya are demolished every year in Kyōto.
The street we live on was once lined with these townhouses, now only one remains.
If nothing is done, Kyōto's charm will disappear. The municipality, aware of the ongoing disaster, did issue a decree requiring owners to notify the city hall of their intention to raze a machiya to prevent further indiscriminate destruction. But given the number of houses demolished each year (about 6000), I wonder if this measure has ever been effective. It is said that a machiya has many disadvantages to live in, especially for the elderly. They are difficult to heat in winter, drafty, there are steps and stairs to climb. In addition, living in a machiya was until recently a source of a complex because to admit it was to say that one was unable to afford a modern environment... 

In recent years, however, the machiya has become the object of a new craze. Many people are buying and renovating them. Some properties are being reborn for resale or rental. It is often said that foreigners value them more than the Japanese and that they are even the subject of successful real estate transactions on their part. Knowing that all non-Kyōto people are considered foreigners (including people from Tōkyō), I wonder who will protect these facade alignments (machinami) that make the city beautiful in the future?

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Sae Cardonnel

Art director

Artiste peintre (nihonga), réalisatrice cinéma, enseignante en arts plastiques. Elle a travaillé en galerie et pour plusieurs institutions culturelles françaises au Japon. Elle a été membre organisateur d’un festival de musique et d’un festival de photographie. Fondatrice de la société MUZ ART PRODUCE spécialisée le conseil et la production dans le domaine des arts et de la culture .