The ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations in Japan for foreign and Japanese travelers alike, and with good reason — there’s a whole lot to see, feel and eat in this beautiful, historic city. Yes, Kyoto is a city that definitely provides a feast for the senses. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit the city recently, and while you’re sure to find an abundance of tourist information on Kyoto from numerous sources in a multitude of languages, I thought I’d share some interesting aspects of the city I experienced during my trip that may not necessarily be part of a typical visit to Kyoto. Here’s the first article in our three-part series on some new and original ways to enjoy this picturesque city that is full of magnificent temples, gardens, works of art and, of course, exquisite foods.
But first things first. Once you have your plane and train tickets to Kyoto booked, you’ll need to think about where you will be staying. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of accommodation options in Kyoto, but if you’re tired of staying in a regular hotel, why not try staying in a restored old machiya house that combines history and function?
Machiya houses are traditional wooden townhouses with a distinctive design that usually combine living and working quarters. It is an old architectural style that has been around in Kyoto for centuries, and also in other areas of Japan as well, but the machiya in Kyoto, sometimes referred to as kyo-machiya, are particularly well-known, with the style often being associated with the city. In Kyoto, only wooden houses built in 1950 or earlier using a particular type of traditional framework structure are recognized by the city as authentic machiya. There are currently an estimated 50,000 machiya houses in Kyoto, most of which were built after 1864, when a great fire swept through the city, destroying many of the older buildings.
As attractive as these machiya houses are, they wouldn’t be suitable in their original condition as a place to accommodate travelers. Fortunately for us, there are some machiya houses in Kyoto that have been restored as accommodation facilities and fitted with modern luxuries including air-conditioning, Wi-Fi access and (ahhh … bliss!) temperature regulated baths. I rented one of these machiya through Iori Co. during my stay in Kyoto and had a delightful experience.
Iori offers nine rental machiya houses to choose from, and the one I stayed in was located in the Nishijin area of Kyoto. The house had a lovely entrance hall and a nice little Japanese-style terrace in the back as well, all with a very traditional and antique look.
▼ The machiya house seen from the front
▼ The entrance hall had a lovely, welcoming atmosphere
▼ Looking up at the second floor from the entrance hall
▼ A quaint antique chest displayed near the entrance
▼ The attractive small terrace in the back
This particular machiya house was large enough to accommodate up to five guests. There were guest rooms on both the first and second floors, where you would sleep on Japanese-style futons laid out by the staff each evening. The house also had a spacious living room on the second floor where you can relax and maybe read a book or pour over your travel guide to plan your activities for the day. Connected to the living room was also a small kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, microwave and coffee maker, which was quite convenient for preparing a simple breakfast, although I have to say the facilities wouldn’t really be suited to heavy-duty cooking.
▼ Some views of the living room on the second floor
A particularly enjoyable part of staying in this machiya was its gorgeous cedar bathtub. Like many modern Japanese bathtubs, this luxurious wooden creation is computer regulated, ensuring that you always have the exact water temperature you want with the push of a button. (Yes, some modern comforts are truly worth having — but the staff did say it took a lot of care to keep the wood in good condition!) When the tub was filled with hot water, the cedar gave off a pleasant natural aroma, which made the bath an even more heavenly experience. Taking a soak in this bathtub after hours of walking and sightseeing could actually even be the highlight of your day!
▼ Absolutely beautiful (and apparently high-maintenance) bathtub made from cedar wood
And quite possibly the most interesting aspect of staying in this machiya was the fact that it was connected to an actual working studio that produces exquisite Nishijin textiles that the area is famous for. Nishijin weaving is known throughout Japan as a highly valuable and specialized craft that creates colorful (and, yes, expensive) fabrics used for a wide range of purposes from kimonos and obi (kimono belts) to decorative cloths for ornamentation. From the window in the second-floor living room, guests are able to see the workings of the Nishijin weaving studio, and you can even enter the studio itself and take an up-close look at the complex machines that produce the amazing cloths.
▼ The studio seen through the second-floor window
▼ Some up-close looks at the studio and the intricate machinery
▼ Samples of the delicate Nishijin weaving displayed in the studio
Guests are able to buy pieces of this precious fabric right at the machiya. When I stayed at the house, there were beautiful Nishijin pieces being sold in basically two sizes, the smaller ones priced at about US$50 and the larger ones at about $150, both available in a variety of designs. Being able to see the studio and all these fabrics certainly was an unexpected treat.
▼The Nishijin fabrics that were for sale at the machiya
There are also optional traditional arts and crafts programs guests at the Iori machiya can participate in, including activities such as calligraphy, Japanese tea ceremony, traditional Japanese dance and martial arts, but as these are offered on a private basis, you’ll need to inquire with the Iori office regarding the schedule and pricing if you’re interested.
So, if you’re staying in Kyoto and looking for something different from an ordinary hotel, one of these machiya houses may be an option for you! You can enjoy the traditional architecture without sacrificing comfort and even feel like you’re living in Kyoto, if only for a short while. Prices vary depending on the time of your stay and the house you rent, but Iori offers houses ranging from as low as 30,000 yen ($300) per night for two people to 195,000 yen ($1,950) for 8 people. It’s not exactly cheap, but not exceedingly expensive either for accommodation in Kyoto when divided between everyone who is staying. Not all the Iori rental machiya houses have the same facilities (like the cedar bathtub), so you may want to check the details of each house before making a reservation. Now, excuse me while I try to find out if there’s any place nearby that I can visit to take a relaxing bath in a nice cedar tub…
Reference and top image: Iori Kyoto townhouse Stays
All inset photos: RocketNews24