When I was still new to living in Kyoto, a couple of times other foreign residents asked me if I was interested in living in a Taisho Era machiya, meaning one of the traditional wooden houses in the ancient capital, the abundance of which helps make the city special. The question was always framed as a tremendous opportunity: They knew somebody, and could set it all up.

This made it all the harder to respond honestly. See, there are also Taisho (1912-26) houses where I grew up (Calgary, Canada), but nobody wants to live in them because they are broken-down dumps. Insulated dumps, mind you, but going out of your way to be deliberately uncomfortable was never as big back home as it seems to be here in Kyoto. (Come on down and we can discuss this after some zazen meditation — over an overpriced, unfulfilling meal in a cramped restaurant.) Anyway, the appeal of living in such a house — or just about any old house in Kyoto — has always escaped me.

The fact that a lot of houses here are long and narrow doesn't help. Last time I looked at a possible house here, it was on a lot that was basically the same size as an American mobile home. Architecturally it was also similar to a mobile home, with thin, uninsulated walls and single-pane windows. By removing the storage compartment in the kitchen floor you could even see the dirt below. Granted, it wasn't propped up on cinder blocks, but the real difference was that unlike most American mobile homes, it would have cost half a million bucks to buy.