Machiya café have been sprouting up in Kyoto over the last 20-30 years, but over the last 5-10 years machiya café have grown radically in number, and are now an icon of the city for the young generation of Japanese. Machiya, or traditional wooden city houses, especially the Kyoto versions, known generally as Kyo-machiya, are themselves symbols of Kyoto. The Kyo-machiya are famously narrow and long, hence the nickname of ‘eels bed’, and generally feature a cool inner garden, with koshi wooden lattices on the front, and are typically two floors in height. Sometimes they also feature roji alleyways, often decorated with stone paths or plants, which lead visitors to the entrance.
As well as embodying a sense of beauty and craftsmanship, these houses are also excellent examples of Japanese ingenuity. The lattice work on the front allows a great deal of privacy, while also allowing people on the inside a clear view of the outside. In Kyoto’s notoriously hot summer they allow the breeze to enter through this lattice, pass through removable and summer-style sliding doors and flow through to the inner-garden. Sadly, prompted by the devastation caused by the firebombing of Japanese cities during WWII, laws were introduced soon after, that have severely limited the construction of wooden houses. In addition, the popularity of western-style houses and apartments has grown considerably over the years, therefore wooden houses have fallen out of fashion. As a result, most of the remaining buildings are from the pre-war era.
Luckily however, there has been somewhat of a re-discovery of machiya, and while they are still not as popular to live in as old houses in many western countries, there has been an explosion in machiya cafes, restaurants, guest houses and even community spaces. This gives visitors to Kyoto a great opportunity to experience these buildings themselves at a very low cost. Also, some of these conversions have left Kyoto with some of its most modern and interesting architecture, the best of which strike an excellent balance between respecting the traditional elements of the building while incorporating modern architectural features, such as removing ceilings to expose ceiling beams and creating a greater sense of space and light. In this article I will focus on cafes, while I hope to also introduce guesthouses in the future, which have also become widespread over the last 5-10 years.
As the number of machiya café in Kyoto now is mindboggling, it is almost impossible to just choose a small selection to recommend. So I will introduce a couple that are established and well-known cafes, and a couple that are a little less well known and recently established. I hope that you can discover some more yourself, and can get to know some of the interesting people that work there or visit them as customers.
Machiya Café- Sarasa
One of the first machiya cafés in Kyoto was Sarasa, which began in the 1980s. Whilst the building of the original café was pulled down about 5 years ago, they have now grown into a series of five cafes across the city. The menu typically has a mix of Japanese, Western and other foods and is very reasonably priced, while the atmosphere is usually pretty lively and the service is of a high standard. With many previous employees from Sarasa opening shops themselves, this café has been at the center of the city’s café, bar and music culture for at least the last decade. The main café is Sarasa Kayukoji and is in the middle of the shopping and café area of the city and used to be a soba noodle shop. It is very well renovated, has a good menu and has become well established in the area. Another Sarasa worth visiting is Sarasa Nishijin, on the west side of the city just south of the Zen temple Daitokuji and a few doors down from one of Kyoto’s best public baths (Funaoka Onsen). The café itself is in a converted traditional-style bath.
Location: Sarasa Kayukoji
Sarasa Kayukoji is on an old shopping arcade (called Kayukoji) just north of Shijo street and between Kawaramachi and Teramachi streets. You can enter the arcade from the Shinkyogoku shopping arcade. Look for a café about half way along the arcade that has a wood-carved sign above a narrow and long entrance. Closed the last Wednesday of the month.
Location: Sarasa Nishijin
It is about a 5 minute walk from the Daitoku-ji bus stop, which you can get to by taking bus 206 from Kyoto Station.
Address: 11-1 Higashi-fujinomori-cho, Murasakino, Kita-ku, Kyoto
Telephone: 075-432-5075. Closed Wednesdays.
Mayu is a café in the middle of a series of beautiful machiya shops, which are owned by Marumasu-Nishimuraya, a company that has been dying and producing traditional yuzen fabric (mainly for kimono) for over 100 years. Actually, in the building at the very back of this complex, which itself is a workshop for fabric dying, visitors can experience yuzen dying themselves. Much of the information is also available in English, and is very popular with foreign visitors. There is also a shop selling clothes, bags and other items dyed on premises, as well as a small gallery. The café itself is a beautiful little place, perfect for a short break from sightseeing and specializes in sandwiches, pasta, waffles and coffee and tea. See photos. Closed Tuesdays.
457 Tsuboya-cho, Ogawa-dori, Oike-sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8276
Access by Subway:
Get off Karasuma Oike Station, then walk to the west (takes about 10 min. walking).
While Iyasaka is a little difficult to find and removed from the city center, it is worth making the trip to in order to experience an excellent example of the Kyoto machiya café style. In addition to having a beautiful building, it has excellent Japanese-style lunch sets and features a stunning roji entrance, lovely garden and even a traditional bath in the back.
On Ichijo street (one street north of Nakadachiuri street), between Marutamachi and Imadegawa streets. Just west of Omiya street (between Horikawa and Senbon streets). It is on the south side of the narrow Ichijo street. Look for a sign out the front of the roji alleyway that looks like a lighthouse. Also, see photos. Closed Tuesdays.