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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Businesses breathe new life into Kyoto tradition

Kyoko Tashiro

Mar. 5, 2018

Some businesses in Kyoto are getting creative about making things from the past much more accessible. Changes are enabling people to integrate traditional houses and clothing into a more modern style of life.

Old dwellings are getting a makeover in Japan's ancient capital. A home built nearly 90 years ago has been refurbished. The wall was removed, and its appearance has become simpler and brighter. The 'old-world' atmosphere was preserved by restoring many of the building's original features. The kitchen and bathroom have become more functional and classy.

Breathing new life into such houses is a firm headed by Kohei Nishimura. The company buys the properties, does the restoration work, and put them on the market. "For a start, we bought and refurbished one house. Then, we showed it to people who were interested. Our open house event attracted many people. I really felt there was a lot of potential in that kind of property," he says.

A survey a decade ago showed nearly 50,000 houses of this kind in the city. But that number has been steadily decreasing by about 800 units per year. Many old houses are simply too run-down to preserve. Some are too large for individuals to live in. Quite a few have been abandoned for a long time. Nishimura offers such properties as investment opportunities.

The rooms of a 7-bedroom dwelling with an inner garden are rented out separately, mostly to young people. There's rarely an opening. "I longed to live in a place where I could really appreciate Kyoto. So I chose this old townhouse," says a resident. "This building has various features that ordinary apartments do not have. I really enjoy living here,” says another.

In another unique case, what looks like a simple street-side structure extends far into the back. Nishimura's company bought all 4 units of the building and turned them into rental property. They're designed with families in mind. "The children play within eyeshot of us. I'm happy that my neighbors pay attention to my kid," says a resident.

With his extensive remodeling, Nishimura hopes to pass on his city’s legacy to the next generation. "We started as a real estate agency, but we’ve become more like housing constructors now. I believe the most important thing for us is to come up with a wide range of ideas and create things that cater to our customers' wishes," he says.

Another pillar of Kyoto culture is the kimono. The ancient capital is famous for its traditionally woven textiles and dyeing techniques. Kimonos made of silk or linen can cost several thousand dollars. They're hard to put on and difficult to take care of. Sales, understandably, have been on a steady decline.

One company in the city is hoping to change that. Hirohito Murai acknowledges the challenges the industry faces. "Kimono companies have had no choice but to raise prices because they have few customers. And that has made kimonos more unpopular. It’s a vicious cycle," he says.

Murai provides a lower-priced alternative: polyester kimonos. They're machine-washable and easier to maintain. His company also released a "kimono debut set" for under US$200. There are 18 items, including the necessary inner layers, a pair of sandals, and a bag.

For people who don't know how to put on a kimono, the firm produced an instructional video. In another promotional effort, the firm organizes special events. These include dinner parties and attending baseball games. The hope is that customers will post photos online of themselves and others wearing kimonos to further attract interest.

The company’s efforts have boosted sales. This young woman bought the debut set last year. Now, she's thinking of taking the next step. "I have worn polyester kimonos on casual occasions. But I want a silk kimono that I can wear to the theater or to a fine restaurant," she says.

"We believe that the practice of wearing kimonos will be passed down to the younger generations, if people realize how much fun it is. We will keep trying to encourage men and women to wear kimonos," says Murai.


Ryukoku University Professor Tadashi Shirasu joins NHK World's Kyoko Tashiro in the studio. He's a specialist in the promotion of local industries in Kyoto. Watch the video for the interview.