‘Machiya’ morphs into IT incubator

Kyoto town house embraces technology while preserving tradition

by Catherine Pawasarat

KYOTO — What do traditional Kyoto and broadband Internet access have in common? Not much, which is the problem. The solution is the Kyoto Nishijin Machiya Studio.

This traditional “machiya,” a two-story wooden town house with some 500 sq. meters of floor space as well as outdoor gardens, is the birthplace of an ambitious endeavor: to wield information technology as a magic carpet transporting traditional Kyoto industries into the digital era.

As its name indicates, the Machiya Studio is located in the heart of Nishijin, the Kyoto neighborhood long famed for kimono-related weaving and dyeing. This area has been hit hard by the dual blow of a limp economy and ever fewer Japanese donning kimono. No one wants Kyoto’s wealth of textile arts to die out, but few have realistic ideas about how to revitalize them.

Enter the Nishijin Machiya Studio, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this month.

The studio grew out of a 2001 program run by Kyoto Prefecture, which commissioned two university teachers to teach elementary school students about computers and IT. As part of the program, the kids created their own Web site about Kyoto’s famous machiya. The project’s success inspired the prefecture to join up with local universities and private industry to craft a matrix to wed IT with lifelong learning, while also invigorating traditional culture.

Having won the backing of major broadband and TV content provider @NetHome Japan and the lifelong-learning specialists at Bennesse Corporation, the Nishijin Machiya Studio is off to a promising start.

One of the Machiya Studio’s pilot projects this year was to create content for an online classroom about traditional Kyoto cuisine, engineered for @NetHome Japan, which in turn sells it to regional clients.

“We’re focusing on knowledge and techniques particular to Kyoto, like medicinal uses of food, and how different foods are prepared according to the season,” explains Yoshihiko Tanaka, an IT designer who is vice president of the Machiya Studio. The site uses RealPlayer streaming video, featuring an expert old hand demonstrating how to prepare the traditional foods.

“We’ve got 40 recipes online now, but we’re working on 365 — one for each day of the year,” Tanaka explains.

The studio’s also created an online market for “Kyo-yasai” — vegetables unique to Kyoto and sought after for fine Japanese cuisine. The Web site will enable local Kyoto producers to tap the large Tokyo restaurant market in real time.

Although the Machiya Studio receives some support from local universities and its home municipality — Kyoto Prefecture put up half of the 10 million yen cost of refurbishing the machiya for the endeavor — like any IT venture, profitability is key for both itself and its clients.

They don’t just have a business to run, they have a point to prove: that the old doesn’t have to be wiped out to make way for the new.

And the threat of being wiped out is more than a metaphor. Though the unique architecture and design of Kyoto’s machiya are well-loved by tourists, filmmakers, and the aesthetically inclined, scores face the wrecking ball every year to make way for more profitable properties — parking lots and pre-fab housing projects.

In fact, the Machiya Studio’s beautiful and ultra-cool wooden abode itself narrowly escaped a parking-lot fate — a specter that continues to have repercussions.

“The owners set the rent according to what they’d make on a full parking lot,” sighs Tanaka. “It’s expensive.”

And although projects are under way to increase revenues, for the time being profitability remains out of reach for the young entity. As a nonprofit organization, any eventual profits would be poured back into research projects or bettering the facility.

While the staff is busy working on Internet content for various projects, college vocational courses are held at the Machiya Studio on subjects relating to Web site design, taught by teachers at partner institutions including the Kyoto University of Art and Design. Apple Japan, IBM Japan and Hewlett-Packard Japan are also lending support, in the form of rooms full of high-spec computer equipment. Other rooms are available for low rent to small startup companies or individuals.

“We want this to be an incubator. It’s a space where people can do their own work, learn more about IT and design, and have opportunities for joint projects,” Tanaka explains.

Forging cooperative ties with more of Kyoto’s traditional industries will take time and skillful strategy.

Earlier this month saw one step in this direction with the launch of a gallery space, in the machiya’s former kitchen. “We want to show that you can use machiya in a variety of ways, change it and modernize it without destroying the traditional design,” Tanaka explains.

The first exhibit is part of an ongoing collaboration with the Kyoto Design Association, which gives annual awards for the best examples of Kyoto design. A selection of these, ranging from incense and green tea to environmentally friendly tatami mats, are on display until the end of January.

“Some people in traditional industries who like weaving and dyeing are considering how they can use the Internet for their work. We want to encourage this, and still value handmade crafts at the same time,” said Kazuo Furukawa, KDA vice-director.

The Machiya Studio staff is now laying the groundwork for its next project, an @NetCity focus on Kyoto. It will showcase the traditional Kyoto notion that each year is divided into not four, but 24, seasons, each lasting about two weeks. Each of the 24 segments will focus on the particular seasonal events in Kyoto at that time.

“It’s basically a real-time Internet magazine. Why is it so local? We want to focus on the micro. For the macro, people have guidebooks. We’ll have real-time updates and delivery,” says Sadahiko Hirose, president of @NetHome Japan.

This is going to dovetail with a joint project between the Machiya Studio and Bennesse Corporation, focusing on junior high school field trips.

“Kyoto is the Mecca for these school trips. We want to provide an educational interface so the kids can study about Kyoto ahead of time and create their own projects to make their visit more interesting,” says Tanaka. “Then they aren’t just walking around, but spending their time here finding out all sorts of things about, for example, what happened in Kyoto during the Momoyama period, or what Toyotomi Hideyoshi did in Kyoto. The possibilities are limitless.”

Kyoto is rich in culture, but culture on its own has no meaning, asserts Hirose. To be complete or alive, culture must be linked somehow with industry.

“The purpose of a city or town has to produce new industry, or it dies. Nishijin was a weaving and dyeing center in the past. Digital creative work is the present. Products need to change accordingly,” he says.

The Machiya Studio’s success as a digital creative studio will plant a seed for similar entrepreneurial businesses in other machiya through- out Kyoto, Hirose suggests. “We don’t need more industrial parks. Digital industry can work in-house in machiya.”