Staying in a Traditional Machiya

Visitors are often spoilt for choice when vacationing in Japan. The usual accommodation ranges from capsule hotels to luxury hotels and are available for all preferences and budget ranges (although your budget range needs to be higher in Japan). On the other end of the accommodation scale are the ryokans and machiyas which offer a more traditional experience.

While you are in Kyoto, you might have noticed the traditional Japanese houses called Machiya. These are wooden townhouses that were popular with Japanese merchants and craftsmen before World War 2. Many of these have survived the years until today, and if you’ve wondered how it is to stay in one, read on.

For our recent trip to Kyoto, I decided to try staying in a machiya instead of a hotel. You can look for machiya accomodation online, but I booked mine through Airbnb.

The traditional machiya is a wooden building, but many machiyas have been updated with modern materials for ease of maintenance and stability during earthquakes. Typically, machiyas have a narrow frontage but are long, with an indoor garden near the back. The closest thing to a machiya in Singapore would be our conservation shophouses which have an almost similar design concept. Although machiyas were used as residences, many of them have been converted into shops, galleries and guesthouses.

We found ourselves outside the doorstep of our machiya one afternoon after taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. This rather modern looking machiya is right smack on the main route to Kiyomizudera Temple which can be seen at the end of the road.
It is nicely decorated, retaining it’s traditional feel while still displaying a modern touch. The living area was a bit small, as you can see from our luggage which we had just moved inside.
The tatami mat covered living room which can be converted into a large bedroom by closing the wooden screen doors and rolling out the futons from the cupboards. There is a small garden at the back which we didn’t use as the weather was rather chilly when we were there.
The jacuzzi style bathtub where you can soak after a long day of sight seeing. The screen doors lead to the small garden, so it would be awesome on a summer’s day to soak and enjoy the garden, while sipping sake.
The little garden which never saw any use during our stay due to the cold weather.
Wooden stairs lead to the second floor with 3 bedrooms.
The main bedroom on the second floor with a small balcony overlooking the garden. I can imagine myself sitting there and sipping matcha.
Not much of a view from the second floor. Just the neighbours’ houses.
Bedroom #2, sleeping under the attic on tatami mats.
Bedroom #3 was rather small with a normal bed for those who can’t get used to sleeping on the floor.

Our machiya came with modern amenities like a washing machine with dryer function, refrigerator, electric stove and oven. It even had floor heating on the ground floor which is much welcomed in cold weather.

So should you stay in a machiya for your next visit? I would say yes, if you want to experience a home stay in a traditional way. Here are some tips and factors you may want to consider before making that decision:

  • Staying in a machiya is basically a home stay. Some may offer daily housekeeping or not at all. If you are the kind that craves things like room service and daily housekeeping, then maybe a hotel is a better choice.
  • A machiya stay is not exactly budget accommodation. I would put it in the mid to luxury budget range. Although, it is economical if you have a family or group and divide the cost by per person.
  • Most machiyas are located in residential neighbourhoods, so that means you can’t have noisy parties or loud music. This also means that sometimes the location of the machiya may not be conveniently near train stations and requires an additional transport option like bus or taxi to get there. Additionally, you will also want to check what amenities are nearby like restaurants, convenience stores, etc.
  • Most of the time, the main bedrooms are located on the second floor. And these are only accessible by a wooden staircase. Depending on machiya, some of these stairs can be narrow or steep and not friendly towards elderly or disabled visitors. Usually, the living room on the ground floor can be converted into a sleeping area for people who have difficulty climbing, so do check.
  • Probably due to space or construction limitations in old buildings, the machiyas that I’ve checked seem to have limited plumbing. Do note how many WC, showers, wash basins are listed. It would be frustrating for the whole family to wait for 1 person to finish using the only toilet in the morning. It’s ideal to have 2 WC’s, 2 showers and 2 wash basins for a family of 4 or more people, but usually there is less, or some option in between (like the photo below).

    Things that I needed to get used to were like this second floor bathroom which had no wash basin except the one above the WC. It only worked when you flushed the toilet. A nice concept for eco-consciousness, but not something that I would want to use.
  • Do check what kind of amenities come with the machiya. Is there a kitchen where you can cook? Does it come with a washer/dryer? Does it come with good heating/air-conditioning? Does it come with free wifi (very important for many people)?
  • Read reviews of the machiya that you intend to stay at. We booked ours through Airbnb and could rely on past reviews to make an informed choice.

So, if you are game for trying out a new experience, do consider staying at a machiya on your next trip. The machiya that I’ve stayed at in this blog post can be found here at Airbnb. The host was also able to communicate in English which made booking our stay much easier.

Notice: As of June 2018 Japan has implemented a new law which makes it quite restrictive for owners of guesthouses and Airbnb to rent out their places. So please check if the machiya you want complies with the new law before you book ahead.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post or endorsement of the particular machiya that I stayed at. The views expressed here are my own based on my personal experience.

7 thoughts on “Staying in a Traditional Machiya

  1. This is so interesting, Edwin. I have wondered what it was like to stay in a machiya and your post makes it very clear. From the wide-angle shots of each room I can tell just how small they were! With space limitations like that it really makes sense to be minimal in the use of furniture and decor. Looking at the picture of the bathroom, I can’t help but wonder if the toilet should have been turned 45 degrees and placed against the far wall instead.

    1. The buildings tend to be narrow on their frontage but are quite long on their depth. So yes, though the rooms appear small, but they are still spacious. Even then you can’t clutter up the space with lots of furniture. Regarding the toilets, it can be really strange to us who don’t live in Japan. I stayed at another Airbnb in Tokyo and they had the same toilet/sink combo. And sometimes the toilet is so close to the door or bath it’s almost impractical.

  2. We missed out this opportunity! Most accommodation options (including hotels) we re booked when we visited. We had to travel from Ishiyama (a neighbouring subway station) to visit Kyoto every day. 🙂

  3. Wow! This must have been a unique and memorable experience, Edwin! Thank you for bringing such an experience closer to us and causing the travel bug to itch me!

    1. Thank you Lydia! Yes, try staying in a Machiya or Ryokan next time you are in Japan. It’s a completely different experience from staying in a hotel.

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