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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Preserving Kyoto's Charm

Mar. 29, 2016

Concerned citizens in Kyoto are taking the initiative to make sure the city's old wooden homes, called "machiya," are preserved for generations to come.

The ancient Japanese capital is famous for its picturesque streetscape and traditional atmosphere. Part of this charm comes from the old machiya that line the streets.

A survey taken 6 years ago found that only 48,000 of the buildings remain. A tourism boom in Kyoto is focusing more attention on these traditional homes. Local government officials estimate that hundreds are being torn down every year.

Simon Baumer is an American who runs an information-technology company. He moved to Kyoto last year and bought a machiya house built about 100 years ago. He likes how the home allows him to feel the seasons.

"Every day, we spend time in different rooms experiencing what’s great about each one," Baumer says. "In the spring and summer we open up the windows and enjoy the weather outside. We love it."

Baumer bought the house from a local real-estate firm. An executive from the company says that as Kyoto becomes a more popular destination, more customers are expressing interest in buying machiya. This includes people who wish to move from overseas, and those wanting to turn a machiya house into an inn.

"We get inquiries from Taiwan, Singapore and the US," says Naoki Nishimura, who is executive director at real-estate firm Hachise. "Some people come and say they have about $9 million to spend."

But despite their increasing popularity, the homes continue to disappear.

One such residence located in the heart of Kyoto was used as a Japanese-style luxury restaurant. But it was demolished last year, and a hotel is being built on the site.

Another machiya built more than 100 years ago was torn down. The owner sold it last year because of the high cost of maintenance and real-estate taxes. There are plans to build an apartment complex where it once stood. It's just one of the 600 to 700 machiya in Kyoto torn down every year.

Fusae Kojima is the chairman of an NPO that is trying to reverse this trend. The group promotes the preservation and restoration of machiya. She started the work 24 years ago, after marrying into a family that owns a machiya.

"For Kyoto to remain Kyoto, I believe the culture of machiya must be passed down to future generations," says Kojima, who is president of Kyo-machiya Revitalization Study Group.

She's seen machiya she admired suddenly demolished.

"We won't find out about a negotiation to sell if it's conducted privately," she says. "And one day, all of a sudden, I'll walk by a house and it's being torn down. It's very shocking to see a building you feel attached to getting destroyed."

Kojima and others are working to help machiya owners recognize the true value of their property.

One traditional residence has been under renovation since last year. It was built in 1939 to house 5 families. But the number of vacancies has increased as Japan's society has aged.

The landlady of the house considered selling the property. She was contacted by a company planning to build an apartment building next door.

"Paying real estate tax is a burden," the building owner says. "And if I just leave the house, the roof might fall in. It could become dangerous."

Kojima knew the landlady. Her group looked at the house and saw it had Kyoto machiya characteristics, such as a dirt floor.

"When I first looked at the house, I remember telling the landlady it would be a waste to tear it down," Kojima says. "I thought it was a good example of a residence from before World War 2."

Kojima and her team explained to the owner that Kyoto's recent tourism boom had created high demand for machiya. As a result, the landlady decided to restore the house and rent it out.

"I was told the house was built before World War 2, and that the tiles and door fittings were valuable," the landlady says. "So I thought people might want to live in the house, and I decided to rent it out."

A family and a couple have since decided to move in, and there are negotiations with other potential tenants. Kojima's efforts are about to bear fruit.

"Instead of just getting rid of something old, we are playing a part in passing it on to people, while carefully maintaining it," Kojima says. "If everyone gets involved, I think there will be a change in the town."

Machiya houses are a distinctive feature of Kyoto's cityscape. Local efforts are underway to make sure they're passed on to future generations.


Emiko Yamanaka, director of the Kyoto Machiya Center, joined anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Welcome, Emiko. Beautiful kimono. And you live in a machiya yourself. Can you tell us more about the machiya-style homes.

Yamanaka: Yes, I live in a machiya. I like the natural materials such as wood, and also like the atmosphere. With the current trend, they are an environmentally-conscious structure. Most of Kyoto's machiya were built before World War 2. They're typically constructed of wood, with earthen walls and tile roofs.

Shibuya: So, why are they being knocked down?

Yamanaka: There are several reasons: aging of the buildings, expensive cost of the maintenance, few successors, and concern about earthquake consciousness.

Shibuya: And what can be done to preserve them?

Yamanaka: They are a personal matter but I think it's important to share information about the management and maintenance among the owners, public officers and proper advisors.

Shibuya: What is the city doing so that machiya can be preserved?

Yamanaka: The City of Kyoto provides money for restoration. Since 2006, 76 machiya have been restored with the help of that fund. Here's an example of using this fund. A young couple wanted to restore a machya. They also needed a car parking space. They decided to widen the traditional lattice structure and adjust it to make way for a parking space. Keeping the traditional atmosphere, this renovation suited the need of modern life.

Shibuya: That's a very clever renovation. So the streetscape of Kyoto is very attractive, and it makes Kyoto, Kyoto. What's being done to preserve that?

Yamanaka: There are several systems in place that promote conservation: a reduction in inheritance tax. And buildings, once designated, cannot be demolished without permission from the mayor of Kyoto. Buildings should be preserved in this way. But starting from one renovated structure, the improvement extends along the street, and from there to the whole district. Hopefully these small steps will help to preserve our city's character.