Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over ten centuries. The wooden dwellings that remain in Kyoto are nearly all that is left of pre-war urban Japan.
The community unit upon which Kyoto is historically built is the O-cho-nai which consists, in general, of a group of about ten houses, or in other words, five houses on each side of a shared street. O-cho-nai developed after the fifteenth century as self governing bodies organized by Kyoto townspeople to defend their lives. As Kyoto descended into political chaos, merchants used their economic power to create their own institutions to save their neighborhoods in the city. The central area of the capital was a place of merchant activity, unlike in Edo [Tokyo], which was a town of samurai. The merchant roots of central Kyoto can be seen in the very structure of kyo-machiya: each has space for a shop in the front room of the house.
From five years ago, the Kyoto government has named old wooden houses surviving World War Ⅱ, kyo-machiya 京町家. The Chinese characters of this word differ from the architectural term kyo-machiya 京町屋, but the pronunciation is the same. The character 家 also pronounced ie, means “house.” Meanwhile, the character 屋, means “shop”, “roof” or “vocation.” A more general term, machiya, usually written with the characters 町家, is used to describe traditional wooden town houses throughout Japan. It is generally agreed that the machiya architectural type originated in Kyoto, but there are many regional variations. The word kyo-machiya is used to describe the style of machiya unique to Kyoto. “Kyo-machiya” refers to traditional wooden town houses in the central district of Kyoto, while “machiya” describes traditional wooden town houses in general.
Wandering down the backstreets is how one can begin to experience traditional Kyoto. It is still to be found there in the old rows of houses, the machinami or machiya. Many are now gone, but there are several areas of Kyoto that still offer the opportunity to enjoy these structures.
The Kyo-Machiya, the traditional family dwelling, are long and narrow buildings (26 x130 feet) and often referred to as unagi no nedoko, or “the bedroom for eels.” Taxes were once levied based on the amount of street frontage of each dwelling, so the narrow frontage.
Each neighborhood of forty machiya was the primary social and political unit for each person. Each family was responsible for its actions to the families on either side as well as to the two families whose homes faced them across the street.
Unified elements of style like roof tiles, depth of eaves, the pattern and number of slats in the windows were dictated largely by the guilds of specific crafts and areas. Also strict edicts were issued during the Edo period forbidding any extravagant displays in merchant’s houses.
The machinami districts of Kyoto are symbols of a way of life, evolving over the centuries; in which people learned to survive in tight quarters harmoniously.
Recovering from repeated fires brought people of a community together. That feeling is what many want now to preserve as well as the architecture. That is why the urban-preservation movement has always placed emphasis on preserving an entire quarter of the city, rather than individual buildings.
The “Kyo-machiya Community Development Survey” which was carried out in 2008-2010 stated that approximately 48,000 machiya in the categories shown below are to be found with in Kyoto City: