When you travel, you might be the type of traveler who enjoys the convenience of what a hotel can offer; however over time, those hotel lobbies, elevators and rooms seem indistinguishably the same. We found ourselves wanting more.
The idea of owning and restoring a local Japanese home arose during our travels. We found better alternatives to hotels, places where we could experience and enjoy our new environment on a much deeper level. Staying in vacation rental homes, always offered us rare experiences. Waking up in a cozy home, having breakfast in a typical neighborhood, greeting the locals as they go about their day – these simple yet fascinating scenes helped us find a deeper understanding of a new culture.
We wanted to share these unique Japanese experiences with the world. And after discovering Kyoto we wanted to show what made Kyoto special, and in particular Gion. We wanted our friends and guests to be able to soak up that street-level atmosphere of Kyoto, to wake up in the neighborhood renowned for the geisha. We wanted to share the experience of what makes Kyoto, and Japan as a whole, tick.
Japan is the ultimate cultural travel experience. While Tokyo is the largest and most modern city in Japan, the former capital Kyoto is still its historic and cultural heart.
Kyoto is home to more than 1,600 temples and shrines, making it the ultimate destination on anyone’s itinerary. Gion is perhaps Kyoto’s most well-preserved neighborhood, and also a short walking distance to many of Kyoto’s top visitor attractions.
Today, Geisha and their trainees called Maiko, are still spotted hurrying along narrow cobble-stone lanes. Known by many as the set of ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, Gion’s historically preserved hanamikoji district is still lined with the machiya and discreet ochaya (tea houses) that Sayuri frequented in her day.
A unique type of housing was developing for over 1200 years in Kyoto. The Machiya are wooden two storey merchant townhouses found all over Gion. The very narrow facades and long buildings earned machiya the nickname - ‘the beds for eels’. This long and narrow design was a result of property taxes based on the size of the home’s street-facing frontage.
Unfortunately, today there is a strong financial incentive to destroy rather than preserve these homes in favor of modern apartment. It is estimated that 80% of Kyoto's machiya have been demolished. When an opportunity arose to preserve one of these historic homes, we felt very lucky to make a contribution."
We saw other opportunities to purchase a machiya in Kyoto, yet we remained patient. The idea that you could live in a historic neighborhood such as Gion, within walking-distance of main attractions encouraged us to wait until the right property presented itself.
We were simply shocked when Machiya Maya came along. It was in the perfect location – a short walk to the historic streets of Gion, and countless shrines and temples, such as the scenic Kiyomizu-dera.
We also felt incredibly fortunate to find such a well-lit townhouse. Most machiya’s long and narrow design produces a rather dark dwelling, as the natural light enters only from the narrow facade or the rear.
We knew we had found the perfect machiya when we saw the immediate neighbors. The entire side of Machiya Maya faces the private gardens of a 1000-year-old Kenninji temple reputed to be Kyoto’s oldest zen temple. This offered our townhouse not only windows filled with natural light, but also a unique view of nature and Japanese culture.
We felt thrilled that such a place could become the home base from which our guests could come and enjoy Kyoto’s culture. The location, light and layout of this machiya was perfect. Yet it was in need of serious love and care, after suffering years of neglect. To help breathe new life into this machiya, we decided to enlist the help of a world-class expert."
Geoffrey Moussas is an New York-born architect and interior designer, who authored the book titled “Engawa-no-Shisou” and has been featured on CNN, NHK, Newsweek Japan, and scores of other publications.
Geoffrey became the obvious choice for us, with over ten years’ experience in renovating and restoring the traditional machiya of Kyoto. Above all, Geoff has a deep understanding and knowledge of traditional Japanese architecture, having been a Kyoto resident and a university lecturer for over 17 years.
Before he could design practical renovation plans, Geoffrey first had to learn the special skills needed to build machiya from carpenters and traditional craftsmen.
"There is an unbelievable amount of culture in these houses," Geoffrey said in an interview on a CNN documentary. "There is a great satisfaction in taking something that was going to be thrown away and creating something that people admire, something that people appreciate."
We now had the perfect project and the ideal architect. Next we enlisted the help of Yamanaka Co. Ltd. — a family-run business, who have been crafting homes and temples throughout Kyoto for over a century. They were certified to perform the restorations on the historical Daitoku-Ji temple. And thus were able to assemble a team of master craftsmen, including miyadaiku — the carpenters who specialize in restoring Kyoto's shrines and temples using traditional techniques and tools.
When restoring the machiya, Geoffrey's approach was to keep the old and preserve it. But one simply cannot continue to live in the past. An element of art resides in the delicate balance of combining the traditional with the modern. Rather than recreating only museum pieces, Geoffrey seeks to create a living fusion between the old and new. "That balance is very important," he says.
Under Geoffrey's masterful supervision, Yamanaka’s team produced something that we were simply delighted with. The design provides modern comforts such as western kitchens, appliances and luxury washrooms, while offering the most important features of a traditional Japanese home. The miyadaiku quality workmanship has you frequently pausing to admire every detail.
Machiya Maya Gion is the perfect home in the perfect location. A place where your Japanese cultural experience continues, even after the day’s sightseeing has come to an end. Your discoveries continue in the sanctity of your private machiya in the heart of Kyoto, Japan’s true capital.