Machiya are traditional timber townhouses found in many parts of Japan, but most typified in Kyoto, its historical capital. Machiya originated as early as the Heian period (794 – 1185 A.D.) when the influence of Buddhism and Taoism on Japanese culture, especially its poetry and literature, was at its height. The word machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町) meaning “town”, and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used to express it.


The typical Kyoto machiya is a long wooden home with narrow street frontage, containing one or more small courtyard gardens or tsuboniwa. The frame of the Machiya is made of timber beams and columns and often bounded externally by earthen walls and baked tile roofs, and rise to a height of one, one and a half, or two stories.

For the larger machiya, the house can stretch deep into the city block, and often has an internal central courtyard or tooriniwa, to provide light into the house and to promote air circulation within the long house.

A machiya’s plot width was traditionally an index of wealth; Matsu Sho An lies on a typical machiya plot of 6 metres wide and 20 metres deep.

Many machiya were used as shophouses, with the front of the house being used as the mise no ma (店の間 or “shop space”), adjacent to the tooriniwa (internal central courtyard), which provides light and air circulation to the house. At the rear of the house is the zashiki (座敷 or “reception room”) reserved for special guests, with a tokonoma set aside for tea ceremony, fronting a beautiful tsuboniwa (open courtyard garden).

Oftentimes, the family would be living on the upper floor, with a centrally located kitchen, which also serves as a passage to a storage area, and the bathroom, which is located towards the rear of the house, together with the storage of goods.

Traditional machiya are built by erecting wooden columns on top of a flat foundation made of stones and on packed earth. In order to avoid moisture from the ground, the floor rests on horizontal wooden floor beams elevated by about 40 centimeters from the ground.

The floor consists of wooden planks with tatami (畳), the traditional rice straw mat laid over the wooden floor in the living areas.

During the Meiji era (1868-1912), traditional houses used a method that encased the columns inside the walls to reduce the possibility of fire. Many roofs in the past were covered with shingles or straw, but these days most are covered with tiles called kawara. The roof is the part of the house most affected by rain, wind, snow, sunlight, and other natural conditions, and is always sloped instead of flat.


history-Floor-PlanMatsu Sho An is a 130 year-old machiya constructed during the end of the Meiji period (around 1880s), and was used primarily as a shop and warehouse.

Located prominently just south to the Imperial Palace, the machiya was probably a supplier of grain to the Imperial Court.

The machiya was renovated during the Taisho era (between 1916 – 1918), and except for the front of the house which was renovated in the 1970s, the house remained very much as is, until a full restoration of the house was carried out from June to December 2014, so that the form of the house was restored to the original design of the Meiji period.

history-House-FrontThe front of the building has been restored with latticework, symbolic of a window front of the Meiji era, which was used for the display and transport of goods and wares.

Except for the bathroom area on the ground floor and on the second floor, everything within the house was meticulously restored.

Over time, the original timber structure of the house had sagged and the existing beams needed to be strengthened during the renovation. Modern amenities such as heaters and air-conditioners were added to the house, without affecting the form of the house.

Even the light fittings are carefully selected antiques from the Meiji and the Taisho era. They were sourced specially from in and around Kyoto, to give Matsu Sho An the authentic atmosphere of a bygone era.




Matsu Sho An is restored for health and introspection.

At the entrance of the building is a stone tsukubai (蹲踞); a small basin to follow the custom of welcoming visitors and creating the right state of mind of leaving the outside world and entering the world of Matsu Sho An.

A bamboo scoop is lad across the tsukubai, ready for guests to purify themselves by the ritual washing of hands and rinsing of the mouth.

The supply of free flowing fresh natural spring water is fed via a bamboo pipe, and is provided for the neighbours and for the community to use as well.

On the north-east corner of the front entrance is planted a Nanten shrub. This is to present good fortune to all who enters the house.

The Nanten plant is a tough and adaptable plant with red berries. It is highly resilient to weather, and blooms even in the coldest winter. This plant is usually planted on the north-east or the south-west area, and is considered an auspicious plant as it blooms during the new year, giving good fortune and protection to the occupants of the house.



One characteristic of a Japanese home is the genkan, or entryway. It is here where arriving family members or guests remove their shoes.

In Japanese culture, there is a tendency to separate areas into clean and unclean, and the contact between these areas is minimized. For example, the inside of the house is considered a clean area, whereas the outside of the house is considered unclean. To keep the two areas separated, shoes are taken off before entering the house so that the unclean shoes do not touch the clean area inside of the house.

In a traditional machiya, people take their shoes off on a raised platform usually made of wood or granite. They point the tips of their shoes to the outside, before stepping onto the residence at the raised floor level.


In Matsu Sho An, tatami mats are used to cover the floor of entire rooms, but long ago, tatami was a luxury and areas like the kitchen and hallways only had wooden flooring. Rooms such as the living room where people would actually sit were covered with tatami mats, which provide a comfortable surface for sitting on the floor.

A tatami mat is made from rice straw and is very tightly woven. It is then covered with tightly woven rush grass that creates a very smooth surface. Each of the long sides is bound with cloth, and black, dark blue or brown cloth is often used in ordinary homes. However, in elegant mansions and in some temples, the binding is made of a type of damask. It is beautifully woven with gold, silver and other colored silk threads as in the case of Matsu Sho An.

Tatami are resilient when walked upon, and slippers or footwear are never worn on tatami. This is also why people take off their shoes when entering a Japanese house.

Tatami is also used as a standard measure of spaces. Traditional interiors are spacious and open, with few solid walls to allow cool drying breezes to pass freely through the entire house. These large spaces, broken only by timber columns used to support the roof, also allow larger spaces for large gatherings. Thus spaces were defined as a 6 tatami room for example, or a 12 tatami room and one would have an idea of how big the room is.


Traditional machiya design addressed climate concerns because Kyoto can be very cold in winter, and hot and humid in summer.

Multiple layers of sliding doors were historically used to moderate the temperature inside. Closing all the screen doors in winter offered some protection from the cold, while opening them all in the summer offered some respite from the heat and humidity.

A traditional Japanese house does not have a designated use for each room aside from the entrance area (genkan, 玄関), kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. Any room can be used as a living room, dining room, study, or bedroom. In Japan, the living room is expressed as ima, or living “space”.

This is because all the necessary furniture is portable, being stored in oshiire, (large closets) used for storage.

Machiya often have only one ima (living room/space), with the kitchen bathroom and toilet located at one side of the house. In the case of Matsu Sho An, the ima is also used as a zashiki (座敷 or “reception room”) reserved for special guests.

history-FusumaThe partitions within the house are created by fusuma (襖), sliding doors made from wood and paper, which are portable and easily removed and used to define space or to be used as doors. Fusuma can be used to create mini rooms by sealing each partitioned area from top to bottom.

The fusuma, which make up the walls in a house provide a great degree of versatility; doors can be opened and closed or removed entirely to alter the number, size, and shape of rooms to suit the needs of the moment.

In Matsu Sho An, the paper for the fusuma was specially commissioned, and done by Ko Kado of Kamisoe ( Each paper of the fusuma on the First Floor is individually woodblock-painted by hand, leaving an individual expression that is similar in theme, but left with different impressions.

Kado-san is a skilled artisan from Kyoto, and was trained in the karakami tradition. Karakami is an ancient art form using decorative hand-made using washi (和紙or traditional Japanese paper) to decorate fusuma during the Edo period about 1,000 years ago.

Kado-san has preserved this traditional art form even as he creates modern karakami with the century-old printing techniques.

history-Karakami-Another example of karakami art created by Ko Kado of Kamisoe, to represent snowflakes.

The fusuma of the Take Room (Bamboo Room) on the Second Floor

history-Fusuma-MatsuOn the second floor are the original fusuma found in the Machiya that have been carefully restored from the past, with the splendidly hand-painted fusuma of the Matsu (Pine) Room being an excellent example of a previous karakami art form, where landscape was used to express the private quarters of the house.


Partitioning the interior of the house from the outdoor are shōji (障子); sliding and portable doors that are also made from paper and wood. Unlike fusuma, paper used for shōji is very thin so that soft light from the outside can pass through to the house.


There is one area within the Japanese home that is developed for the specific purpose for the displaying of art. This area forms the focal point of the room.

Tokonoma (床の間) is a Japanese term generally referring to a built-in recessed space or alcove where a prized object can be exhibited and enjoyed. This special area is distinguished from the rest of the room by its raised, highly lacquered or polished wooden base.

The most common items displayed in a tokonoma is a hanging scroll (Kakemono) and an arrangement of flowers to decorate the tokonoma and these are changed frequently, reflecting the owner’s sensitivity to the season, occasion and the taste and artistic interests of his guests. This contributes to the distinctive character of Japanese interiors.

The tokonoma and its contents are essential elements of traditional Japanese interior decoration.

Stepping within the tokonoma is strictly forbidden, except to change the display when a strict etiquette must be followed.

When you gather in a traditional Japanese room, the correct etiquette is to seat the most honored guest in front of the tokonoma, with his or her back facing the tokonoma. This is because in traditional Japanese refinement and humility; the host should not be seen to be showing off the artistic contents of the tokonoma to the guest, and thus point the guest towards the tokonoma.


The pillar on one side of the tokonoma called the tokobashira (柱). This is the main symbol of the house and is the first upright to be placed when the house is built. However, it is not a pillar that bears weight.

In Matsu Sho An, the tokobashira follows the Shion style, a tradition that stretches back 600 years, and is chamfered at the base.

The tokobashira is usually made of wood specially prepared for the purpose, and is therefore chosen with special care.

It can range from a seemingly raw trunk with bark still attached, to a square piece of wood with very straight grain. The choice of tokobashira determines the level of formality for the tokonoma.


history-Tokonoma-1F-baseThe tokobashira on the first floor is expressed by the choice of kitayama murata (Kitayama sugi or cedar log), carefully stripped from its bark in hot steam and the wood’s natural structure is preserved.


There are two tokonoma in Matsu Sho An, each with a different choice of tokobashira to reflect the use and formality of the owner of the house. They have been faithfully restored with meticulous care.

Keep a look out for the 2 tokonoma at Matsu Sho An, and appreciate the history and culture of traditional Japanese aesthetics in a house built over 100 years ago.

history-Tokonoma-2F-baseOn the second floor, the tokobashira is red pine, with its bark left intact.

In its original condition, the tokobashira was probably chosen as the expression of the original owner’s aesthetic aspirations.


In the past, the practice of people gathering around a dining table began only during the Meiji era, when Western and Chinese food became common. In rooms with tatami, Japanese generally do not use chairs on top of tatami and so, a low table (zataku) with shorter legs is used for eating or working, and people sit directly on the tatami or on flat square cushions known as zabuton.

The practice of sitting on zabuton was a practice used in Buddhist temples. The zabuton was originally a mat made from beautiful cloth, but it came to take its current form in the latter half of the Edo period (1603-1868), when cotton was added.


The zabuton in Matsu Sho An are unique hand crafted traditional Japanese items specially made in Kyoto by the current third generation owner of Takaokaya; a company that has been making quality futon and zabuton since 1919.



As the traditional Japanese house does not have a designated use for each room, any room can be used as a living room, dining room, study, or bedroom. A futon (布団 or traditional Japanese style padded mattresses and quilts) is placed on tatami flooring for sleeping.

A futon is a pliable traditional Japanese bedding, and are traditionally folded away and stored in a closet during the day to allow the tatami to breathe, and to allow for flexibility in the use of the room to serve for purposes other than as a bedroom.


The futon in Matsu Sho An are unique hand crafted traditional Japanese items made by Takaokaya; a company that has been making quality futon and zabuton since 1919.

They consists of the top layer, which is hand-sewn and filled with down feathers, specially done in Kyoto. The bottom layer is also hand-sewn and filled with down feathers, with Egyptian cotton bed sheets provided. The pillow covers are also made from Egyptian cotton, hand-sewn in traditional style, with charcoal to absorb moisture, ensuring a healthy sleep.


Tsuboniwa (壺庭, 坪庭, 経穴庭) is a small garden contained within a small, enclosed space. In the machiya, they are found in the interior courtyards and were designed to give a glimpse of nature and some privacy to the residents at the rear side of the building. These gardens were meant to be seen, not entered, and usually had a stone lantern, a water basin, stepping stones and a few plants, bringing a distillation of nature into dwellings.

Unlike other machiya, Matsu Sho An has three tsuboniwa, separated into a Spring Garden, an Autumn Garden and a Courtyard Garden.

The traditional tsuboniwa in Matsu Sho An embodied the auspicious characteristics of the scholar-gentleman’s ideal of sho chiku bai (松竹梅); the Three Friends of Winter, represented by pine (matsu), bamboo (take) and plum (ume) to symbolise longevity (pine), resilience and flexibility (bamboo), and perseverance (plum).

The pine tree and the bamboo are evergreen and following in the tradition of tokiwa, they express longevity and happiness. The plum embodies the qualities of vigor and perseverance since it is the first to bloom after a severe winter.


The arrangement of the 2 gardens follows the tradition of seijaku for the attainment of stillness, quietness and tranquility where austerity, elegant simplicity, and tastefulness are expressed to maximum effect, with minimum means.


In the Spring Garden, the pine and plum trees are planted together with the cherry tree, to symbolise perseverance, rebirth and renewal.

The Autumn Garden is planted with a bamboo grove and a maple tree to symbolise resilience, balance and promise.

The Courtyard Garden is designed in two parts; one part where the bamboo symbol of resilience is held supreme and the other part is a miniature stylised dry garden, following the Zen Buddhist ideals of tranquility and contemplation.


history-Courtyard-Dry-GardenUnder Zen influence, the stone is the most important as a part of garden design.

The dry garden is to be viewed in contemplation, with the rocks of interesting shapes symbolising islands and the sea is symbolised by the gravel, and the lantern is used to lead the way to introspection and tranquility.


Historically, the toilet in a traditional machiya is usually located towards the rear of the house, away from the living areas.

During the Meiji period (1867–1912) the design of Japanese baths changed considerably, and bathtubs were sunk partially in the floor so that they could be entered more easily.

Following the traditional design of the Japanese bathroom, Matsu Sho An has the main bath area located at the rear of the house, with the two tsuboniwa or Spring and Autumn courtyard gardens located on either sides of the bath area.

The design follows the concept of miega kure; the hidden and the seen, to arouse the viewer’s imagination, making possible the expansion of the garden beyond its physical bounds. The gardens are thus designed for the viewer to achieve empathy with the garden, where the gardens are revealed as one walks around the bathroom.


Historically, the toilet in a traditional machiya is usually located towards the rear of the house, away from the living areas.

During the Meiji period (1867–1912) the design of Japanese baths changed considerably, and bathtubs were sunk partially in the floor so that they could be entered more easily.

Following the traditional design of the Japanese bathroom, Matsu Sho An has the main bath area located at the rear of the house, with the two tsuboniwa or Spring and Autumn courtyard gardens located on either sides of the bath area.

The Japanese ritual of bathing is centred on the ofuro (お風呂) following the Taisho sento tradition of making the ofuro out of granite instead of wood.

history-handshowerThe ofuro is not meant for washing in and is not soapy nor dirty but rather, for relaxing and warming oneself. The body must therefore be scrubbed clean before entering the ofuro. This is done by using the handshower located adjacent to the ofuro for cleaning and rinsing.


Matsu Sho An is privileged to be provided with natural spring water in the ofuro, much like in a natural hot spring (onsen). The water in the ofuro is kept warm by means of special heaters to a temperature of about 42 degrees, and the same water is used by all the members, and not discarded immediately after use.


The restoration of Matsu Sho An would not have been possible without the skill and dedication of the construction team.

The heroes of Matsu Sho An


  • 有限会社BOFアーキテクツ
  • Nohara Yoshihisa
  • 野原 義久
  • Ogata Hiroko
  • 緒方 裕子
  • in association with
    杜耀光䢖筑設計院, 新加坡


  • 株式会社 B-home
  • Tanimoto Hiroko
  • 谷本 弘子


  • 株式会社 クライメイト
  • Tokuoka Kenzo
  • 徳岡 健蔵


  • 三谷工務店
  • Mitani Taizoh
  • 三谷 泰三
  • Mitani Keisuke
  • 三谷 圭介


  • 矢野電気工業
  • Yano Masanobu
  • 矢野 雅信


  • 石破塗装
  • Ishiba Kazuo
  • 石破 一男


  • 明石工壁
  • Akashi Tomonori
  • 明石 友紀


  • 有限会社 エスワークス
  • Tanaka Shintaro
  • 田中 慎太朗


  • 有限会社コジマ
  • Kojima Masahiro
  • 小島 正弘


  • 池内和庭園資材
  • Ikeuchi Akihumi
  • 池内 昭文


  • 株式会社 キノシタ
  • Kinoshita Kouichi
  • 木下 浩一


  • かみ添
  • Kado Ko
  • 嘉戸 浩