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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wooden Buildings in Kyoto


The use of wood is one of the hallmarks of Japanese architecture, past and present. In Kyoto, in particular, wood retains a special place within the garish pantheon of modern Japanese building. Tucked in between pachinko and karaoke parlors, "game centers" and just plain ugly mass-produced homes and "mansions," many beautiful examples of the best of Japanese building can be found in Kyoto. These include the well-known temples and shrines, and the few remaining villas. Added to this list would also be machiya.

Kyoto Downtown CemeterySpared most of the bombing during World War II, Kyoto was left intact. Yet, in the go-go economic growth decades much of the city's architectural heritage was dismantled in pursuit of something more "modern" in the economic recovery that lasted until the late 1980s. Still, unlike Tokyo and Osaka--and nearly every major Japanese city--Kyoto was not bombed to the ground. Today there is even a boom in refurbishing older wooden buildings.

These are primarily but not limited to machiya, the wooden townhouses that were favored by Kyoto merchants in the pre-War period. Until quite recently, they were looked down on as kurai, which literally means dark. However, it has a negative connotation that to Kyotoites is equated with being poor, cold, uncomfortable--even primitive and embarrassing. From the post-War period until recently, these lovely, temple-influenced homes were routinely knocked down--by those who could afford to--and replaced by modern, plastic, soulless pseudo-Western structures. For those who could not, they were a mark of poverty and shame.

How times change.

Kyoto Oil FactoryThough downtown Kyoto has seen a repopulation thanks mainly to the number of "mansions"--ten- and twelve-story apartment buildings--and the convenience of living within walking distance of restaurants and subways and trains, there has been an accompanying reappraisal of machiya. The picture above shows a downtown temple's cemetery, and the cityscape behind it. As recently as forty-years ago, the rooftops would have all been tile; today it is a typical mishmash of styles. Visible on foot, though, are the many smaller homes that have survived--and the many restaurants and boutiques and galleries that are now in what were once private homes.

The stunning building pictured above at right is a cooking oil factory that survived one of the few wartime aerial raids in Kyoto. Bombs landed nearby and as many as 232 homes were destroyed and 30 people killed. Pieces of shard from the US Air Force's bombs are on display in the window, along with an explanation. It is located north of downtown, nor far from Kyoto's textile district, Nishijin.

Kyoto RestaurantAt left is Sarasa Kamogawa, a restaurant housed in what used to be a factory. One of three Sarasa eateries in Kyoto--all built in old wooden buildings--this one is located close to the Kamogawa River and just south of the Prefectural Hospital. Though once a factory, it has the feel of a machiya that was gutted and rebuilt with soft-tone wood. These types of restaurants and boutiques are all the rage among young women.

Japanese Goods


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