Kyoto’s Machiya — Priceless Places with Affordable Dining

I’m sitting in a cafe called Flowing, just north of Shijo in Kyoto. Housed in a brick building that is a former bank, customers can still see the fittings of finance in the architecture: the vault (now a mini gallery space), the wooden counter where the tellers sat, a tiled floor, and more. The popular cafe’s building dates from 1918 and is a rare example in Kyoto of a building with awnings.

The reason I know all this is because I’m talking to Judith Clancy and I’ve been reading her book, ‘Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide’, which came out last year with photographs by Ben Simmons.

PingMag sat down for lunch with Judith Clancy to talk food, machiya and Japan’s most elegant city.

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A machiya near Nishiki in Kawaramachi, Kyoto, with a nakaniwa courtyard garden
Photo: Ben Simmons

Judith Clancy, you’ve been in Kyoto since 1970 and you have previously authored ‘Kyoto City of Zen’ (2013) and ‘Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital’ (1997). Now you are looking at machiya townhouses and affordable food culture in Kyoto. For the uninitiated, in brief, what are machiya?

Machiya are the houses where commoners lived. They are often row houses and wooden structures. They became codified in about the seventeen, eighteenth century. There are certain identifying features, like the lattice frontage and of course the raised tatami floors, but they are basically people’s homes.

There were large fires so they had to be rebuilt fast. There was no time for distinguishing features. The carpenters had to rebuild large swathes so a lot of it became really uniform. They were just city homes that started to look alike because they had to be rebuilt after fires. The air needed to be ventilated so the floors were raised. The toilet and the bath were outside, if there was a bath. And next to the bath or the toilet was a little garden space. Sometimes there was a nakaniwa (courtyard) and this was an opportunity for lighting, because the rooms were dark. If there was no garden at all, they would be considered hovels or shacks. You needed air so almost every machiya had a garden. The structure needed it.

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‘Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide’ (Stone Bridge Press) (2012) by Judith Clancy, with photographs by Ben Simmons

And is there anything specific or idiosyncratic about the machiya in Kyoto?

​ There are different lattices. Dealing with natural pigments for dyes, in Kyoto they needed natural light. And that’s where the lattices came in. They didn’t work under lamps. In the Nishijin district, where they all have skylights, the lattice fronts in Kyoto allowed them to design as they please. So it is a little different, a little more codified.

​Kyoto is special because it wasn’t bombed in the war. So there are pockets of houses that go back two hundred years, most go back between eighty and a hundred years. Not a lot more because of fires. Architecturally wise this place was saved, but not only did they save the structures but the families were saved, so you can go back fifteen or sixteen generations. All of the instruments and utensils that feed into that society and that business, those families are still here, whether they are iron makers or bamboo scoop makers or tea producers, which adds another layer of sophistication to the city besides the architecture.

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Wooden beams inside Takara, a traditional machiya townhouse restaurant, located in the Kamigyo district of central Kyoto.
Photo: Ben Simmons

Something we’re always conscious of at PingMag is the danger of presenting “Japan” in this exotic and alien way. Were you worried about writing the guide with “foreign eyes”?

​ Actually, having been here forty-two years I don’t feel so American!

That’s fair enough! But are there things that overseas residents or visitors to Kyoto may find tough to understand? Of course, we don’t just mean the obvious differences in taste that they will encounter.

​ The “Today’s Lunch” — this is a hard thing for foreigners who are picky. In Japan they trust. If you’re vegetarian, some places will accommodate you. There are two places recommended in the book. But most people just go in and order “Today’s Lunch”. They can’t alter things on the menu. They ask now if you have food allergies, which is nice, but there aren’t a lot of food allergies here like the States. The reason why the server might not even know exactly what’s in a dish on the menu is because it’s arrived that day. It just came that morning. You have to educate foreign people how to eat in Japan. It’s fun but not if you’re a real picky eater.

Well, you certainly try to be as helpful as possible, organising your recommendations by area, and giving addresses in Japanese to show taxi drivers. Plus you include a “top twenty” list for people with less time. Your subtitle is “affordable dining in traditional townhouse spaces” and the emphasis is on modest budgets and lunches. It’s a very functional book.

​ I hope my book serves visiting foreigners better than fast food. There may be a chalkboard outside. Often it says “lunch” in English and then under it, you can’t decipher anything. This is one of the things I hope my book demystifies. It identifies which places are cafes or restaurants.

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The signature signs of a machiya wooden lattice doors and battari shogi folding bench at a machiya restaurant near Oike-dori Avenue in central Kyoto.
Photo: Ben Simmons

Yes, you even include pictures of the entrances so people can find what they are looking for. The history of the Kyoto machiya is really interesting in terms of the geography of the city too. You can learn a lot by looking at which zones which machiya are in.

​ Right downtown it’s business. Between Oike and Gojo, and Horikawa and Kawaramachi, there are about eighty-four restaurants in the book. There are a lot of places right down here and there have to be out of necessity. Historically, Kyoto City went to the Kamo River. So I have in the book very few places in south Kyoto on the other side of the river, outside of Gion and the Maruyama Park area. Miko and Very Berry Cafe were lumber shops because of the area: Marutamachi — “maruta” means a log. The logs are brought from Kitayama, and over the bridge and down the canal. So lots of lumber shops congregated around there and Kiyamachi, which is “wood street”. So that kind of background is also in the book.

They are unique environments to enjoy a lunch or dinner. There is something very special here with the relationship between the architecture and the cuisine culture, no?
​ Machiya seat fifteen to thirty people. There is a nice intimacy about it. Most of places are tiny. The food is not frozen, it’s freshly prepared. There’s a big emphasis on Kyoyasai, Kyoto vegetables grown locally. Since it’s small you have a kind of playfulness with the menu. Bigger places might change their menu once a month, because nobody’s going to go every day. But the smaller places will change it on a much more frequent basis. There are not only food tastes to distinguish in Japanese cuisine, there are texture tastes. This is a big part of Japanese food, even if it’s just “Today’s Lunch”. It goes into the architecture as well.

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The tori-niwa inner corridor of a traditional machiya townhouse, located in the Kamigyo district in central Kyoto.
Photo: Ben Simmons

And the photography by Ben Simmons is great. How did the collaboration with him come about?

​ He called me and wanted to do a book with me. I said, “If I do ‘Kyoto City of Zen’ with you, will you do pictures for this?”

We’re glad he did! The choice of places in the guide is broad and sometimes surprising too, with the cuisine ranging from Japanese, of course, to Italian, French, Chinese and even American food. Plus some of the places themselves are not what you might expect. Are they all “machiya“?

​ I have retro buildings in there as well, mainly banks and the NTT building. They were never people’s homes, they were places of business. I go up to Taisho (1912–1926). It was all wood but at one point in Meiji (1868-1912), bricks started to be used. They couldn’t make arches out of wood so other materials were necessary. In the book I also have ochaya (tea rooms) and yashiki-tei, old estates, one farmhouse, and then we have the banks, the retro buildings. There are 144 restaurants in this guide, 136 or 137 of which are wooden structures.

How does the future look for machiya?

​​ Machiya are disappearing. Now you see a lot more preservation taking place. There’s a big site called the Machiya Machizukuri Fund. Most people who are contacting the center are childless couples who have no one to leave their really beautiful houses to.

Let’s hope they stay around for more generations to come! Thank you, Judith Clancy.

‘Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide’

Ben Simmons