The term “Kyoto Machiya” evokes images of historical houses in Kyoto. These houses were popularly referred to as “eel beds” because of their long, rectangular shape. But what exactly is a machiya?
Merchants and craftsman used to reside in machiyas. Commoners who lived in the city and who made their living from trading, as opposed to farming, called these townhouses home. Not only were these houses their residential areas, but they also served as their work space and housed shops, where merchandise could be sold, or workshops, where various products would be crafted.
Even today, when you visit the city of Kyoto, you can see many stores that you can’t see anywhere else. The design and style of the Kyoto machiya came into existence about 1,200 years ago during the Heian period. People from different social classes lived in the city and commerce was flourishing. The Imperial Court, aristocrats and Buddhist temples needed the highest quality tools for their daily lives and ceremonies, so they sought out the skilled craftsmen of Kyoto. Over its long history, Kyoto has become the birthplace for many goods that have become a brand of their own
For example, popular souvenirs like the Kyoto folding fan and the Nishijin silk fabrics appeared during the Heian period, while Kyoto dolls, the Yuzen dying technique and Kyoto pottery appeared during the Edo period. All of these items are considered “Kyoto brands.” During the Edo period, feudal lords set up mansions in Kyoto for the sole purpose of using it as a base for which they could purchase goods from Kyoto that could then be sent as gifts to people in other regions of the country.
In today’s modern age, it is perhaps difficult to see a connection between art and commerce. However, the most skilled artists of Japan have historically always been the ones designing and crafting the residential areas of high ranking officials and politicians. They have designed everything from the walls, sliding doors and folding screens of houses, to dishware and painting and calligraphy brushes and tools. Handmade goods and art have always been intricately connected with each other. For example, one of the largest schools of art in Japan known as the “Kano School” has its headquarters in Kyoto’s Ogiya ward. Korin Ogata, a painter from the Rimpa School of painting and who is widely popular abroad also originated from Kyoto.
Kyoto machiya are historical buildings, where ordinary citizens had once lived and worked. At the same time, they are embodiment of multiple generations’ yearning for beauty and abundance.