Traditional wooden townhouses called machiya could once be found throughout Japan and were especially common in cities such as Kyoto and Nara in Kansai, as well as Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture.

More recently, however, their days appear to be numbered, and, as anyone who has spent any time in one can attest, they are incredibly difficult to maintain. We’ll get to this shortly but, first, let’s examine what made these townhouses so popular in the first place.

A typical machiya features earthen walls and tile roofs, with a retail space located at the front of the building separated from a living space and a palm-sized courtyard garden called a tsuboniwa.

The front of a typical building is surprisingly narrow, with an entrance no bigger than a bathmat. A sliding door is all that separates residents from the street, and, beyond that, an urban community where everything is — or, at least, was — close by.

From schools and clinics to bookstores and movie theaters, cafes and restaurants to temples and markets, all of life’s essentials were within walking distance and almost instantly accessible.

As a result, machiya residents of the past essentially lived in a wider community with their neighbors, making it imperative to maintain relationships with those around them.

In the mornings, women would all come out with their dustpans and brooms to clean up their little street. In the afternoons, the same women gathered on the corner for a bit of gossip before heading to the market to do their shopping. In the evenings, the husbands came home and everyone knew from the smells wafting from everyone else’s kitchen what each family was having for dinner.

Machiya life was historically nonchalant, trusting and open, if totally lacking in privacy. Children grew up in the community with a sense of belonging and there was little of the incessant bullying that appears to be prevalent in schools today.

I was struck by such nostalgia for these townhouses during a recent weeklong stay in Kanazawa, during which I stayed in an authentic machiya located in the back alley of a large temple.

My grandparents used to reside in similar living quarters in downtown Tokyo, and when their grandchildren visited them on weekends and over the new year, they seemed to be savoring life in a way that now eludes many elderly folk in Japan.

I was reminded of just how tough life in a machiya really is — there’s a whole lot of work involved in the upkeep that never lets up.

Meals must be cooked in a tiny kitchen and the dishes washed by hand, because there’s no storage space for the latest appliances. Vegetables must be pickled and packed away, because there’s only a small wedge of countertop available. Residents must shop regularly, as there’s no room in the kitchen for a large-sized refrigerator.

Laundry must be done daily, since closet space for clothing is minimal. Windows need to be polished, and floors and tatami mats to constantly be cleaned with a wet cloth, because these townhouses are made of wood and paper, which easily lets in dust and grime.

Morning to night, machiya residents are planning, plotting and mapping out strategies to deal with the intricate demands of townhouse life. In other words, they’re always on their toes and rarely have time to relax, which I suspect was the secret to my grandparents’ incredible fitness and alertness.

Historic charm

The machiya in Kanazawa where I was graciously allowed to stay during my visit, is almost a century old. A married couple in their early 50s had bought and renovated it with a view to using it after retirement.

It possesses all the classical features of a traditional townhouse, but it also includes fully updated amenities of a small but systemized kitchen, full modern bathroom and toilet, and three air conditioners.

And although the interior has been modernized, it retains much of its historic charm.

The smell of old Japanese wood and new tatami permeates the air. It’s an aroma that’s not quite fragrant but redolent of the Showa Era (1926-89).

Many will know this smell, as well as the particular ambience of a traditional wood-and-paper dwelling. They will also be familiar with the hushed darkness of the first-floor living area, where sunlight reaches only a narrow portion of the main room, which in my case measures 10 tatami mats, including a kitchen, a space for a washing machine and a bath.

The light comes courtesy of the courtyard garden, which includes a potted tree and is confined from the street by a wooden fence.

The courtyard garden has always been one of the best things about a machiya — a morsel of nature that’s visible to the people living in the house, but not to the rest of the world.

Such gardens typically require very little maintenance. I was instructed to water the tree every morning during my stay, and that was about it.

The bath also looks out on this garden, which means the bathroom space also has natural light and air — a dream scenario for Tokyoites engaged in a constant battle with mold and grime.

On another level, you can see why such traditional townhouses went out of style.

The lack of privacy means there is a lack of personal space. Families of four and five used to live in houses such as this, but just as the Japanese physique has changed, so, too, has the Japanese psyche.

Children are taller, larger and require individual spaces with doors that lock. Parents are much busier, more harried and less inclined to take the time to pickle vegetables or be home in time to talk with the kids over dinner.

“Admittedly, it’s not for everyone,” says Kanazawa architect Kumiko Okumura.

Okumura has lived in Kanazawa most of her life, residing in the historic Higashiyama district that features the city’s oldest teahouses, merchant shops and townhouses.

Okumura presently shares a machiya with her parents, and has an adjacent office for work.

“Many Kanazawa people are entrepreneurs, with offices or shops right next to or actually inside their own houses,” she says. “This is a big part of the reason traditional townhouses are still around. Houses are often two generational (with elderly parents and grown children living together), and old customs and daily rituals are revered.”

Okumura is part of a local movement that has been founded to preserve the traditional machiya, which she sees as imperative in keeping Kanazawa’s unique personality intact.

Like Kyoto, the city was not firebombed during World War II, which accounts for an atmosphere that exudes prosperity and abundance. In the center of the city resides Kanazawa Castle, home of the Maeda family that headed the Kaga clan, one of the richest and most powerful during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The Maeda family also had exclusive rights over a gold mine, which accounts for the city’s penchant for gold — sake flecked with gold flakes, cakes and sweets with gold coating, and so on.

“Kanazawa is a wealthy city, but also progressive,” Okumura says. “It takes a little effort to make the municipal government see that preserving old things is actually in everyone’s interest, and that filling up the city with buildings and condominiums isn’t the answer.”

Okumura believes that small-scale architecture is the solution to reviving the country’s regional landscapes, especially the area around major JR train stations.

“In Kanazawa, fortunately, many of the original old houses and streets are still intact,” Okumura says. “What we need now are motivated architects and artisanal carpenters willing to work on old structures, and who know how to preserve the atmosphere and history of a machiya while updating the functions.”

Besides Kanazawa, cities that have expressed an interest in preserving the machiya legacy include Kyoto, Nara, Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, and parts of Gifu Prefecture, with local governments creating homeowner subsidy programs and maintenance committees.

Kanazawa, for example, has established an artisanal school called Shokunin Daigaku for young architects wanting to learn how to preserve traditional wooden houses.

“Every machiya has a tremendous backlog of history,” Okumura says. “The first thing we do is to look at the walls and peel back the layers from different eras — examine the various families, the stories behind their lives, what happened on that street — because it’s all there. Then we work out what to do from that point.”

Comfort versus cost

Despite the modern touches that can be incorporated into any townhouse renovation, Okumura says not everyone will be satisfied.

“Some people say they just can’t take on the maintenance work, or that they’re not interested in living in a museum,” she says. “Others ask questions like, ‘Where does the sofa go?’ or ‘How am I going to stretch my legs?'”

Comfort is definitely not the main advantage of living in a machiya — or Japanese housing in general. Indeed, the issue of living space in Japan remains a unique and frustrating facet of life here.

Take your typical suburban home — where tradition co-exists uneasily in a sort of Cold War state with Western functionality — or your typical Tokyo condo, where the walls are thin, the floors flimsy and the ceilings way too low. The layout of the rooms in these residences are questionable or, sometimes, just plain ridiculous.

Still, if you turn a blind eye to cramped bathrooms, miniscule rooms, relentless noise from the street and other banes, apartments in Tokyo can actually be cheaper than New York or San Francisco, where the average rent for a studio apartment tops $3,200 (¥386,000) a month. In inner-city Tokyo, it’s possible to rent a 20-23 sq. meter place for less than ¥100,000, and if you’re ready to endure a 20-minute walk from the nearest train station, the rent can drop to ¥70,000 or less.

In the United States, however, demand for large properties appears to be changing. In the so-called land of the free and home of super-sized homes, a new movement called Tiny House has gained support that aims, among other things, to downsize a person’s living space, reduce their carbon footprint and rethink the whole American Dream to the tune of 20 sq. meters or so resting on wheels (in most American states, the smallest legal dwelling is 30 sq. meters and anything smaller has to be mobile).

In Japan, younger generations are now investing in smaller, older living spaces in central locations.

Many of these people watched their parents work themselves to the bone to pay off a 35-year mortgage for a home in a distant suburb. By the time that loan was finally paid off, the parents were in the early stages of retirement, the children had left the nest and the house was, by now, too large and full of things nobody wanted anymore.

It makes sense that younger homeowners would want to live lighter, work less hours and not need to commute three hours a day on a crowded train. A tiny place in the city could just be real estate’s new black.

Indeed, the cost is arguably the biggest reason to choose life in a townhouse over a house in the suburbs, Okumura says.

“A top-to-bottom machiya renovation in Kanazawa can now be done for a little over ¥10 million,” Okumura says. “That’s a fraction of the cost of what it would take to build a house from scratch, on a plot of land located two hours from a workplace in Tokyo.”

She also believes the cost of housing in ratio to the overall cost of living is too high in Japan.

“I guess the saddest part of buying a house in Japan is that we’re told this is going to be for life, and that’s why it’s so expensive,” she says. “However, a house doesn’t last a lifetime, not by a long shot. After a decade or two, things such as baths, toilets and air conditioners will have to be replaced.

“Everyone’s too caught up in paying off a mortgage that they can’t afford to pay for the maintenance of the house as well. They don’t have the energy left to beautify their homes or enjoy their house.

“With a traditional townhouse, however, maintenance comes with the territory. Since the initial fee is quite affordable you have the resources left to replace things, redo the walls, buy good furniture and so on. When you renovate a machiya, there’s a lot of wriggle room to do things cheaply and, consequently, you begin to develop a real affection for your living space.”

With the number of vacant homes in Japan — 8.2 million, or more than 13 percent of the total number of homes in the country — on the rise, the machiya renovation plan more than just makes sense, it sounds like the only viable option.

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