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Hideki Kajiura, President of Iori Co., came up with the idea of restoring empty machiya, or traditional Kyoto townhouses, and providing visitors with an experience completely different from staying at a typical hotel or Japanese inn.
We asked him about the story behind that effort.
Learning the art of travel from co-workers
After college, I joined the Japanese National Railways, and it wasn’t long before I found myself assigned to work in Kanazawa. This was the first time I’d lived there, so naturally I spent time learning my way around. That was when I first experienced the generosity of the local people, as co-workers showed me around their city.
In spring, we’d head to the mountains to pick wild vegetables and dig for bamboo shoots. Stopping at a friend’s house on the way back, his mother would cook what we’d gathered, crowding the table with dish after dish, which would fuel the drinking that followed. Those were really fun times. In the summer, we’d go to the home of a friend in Noto who ran a guesthouse, and take early-morning trips on local fishing boats. No sooner would we bring back our catch, when it would appear on the breakfast table as fresh sashimi, accompanied by hot rice. Kanazawa also has hot springs, and every cherry blossom viewing or farewell party provided an excuse to visit them. It was surprising to see how the hot springs were really just an extension of everyday life for people in Kanazawa. One of my bosses even took me to the old entertainment quarters in Higashiyama, where we had fun carousing with the geisha. All of these things I experienced while I was young left me with the sense that every place in Japan has its own idea of a good time, usually something you won’t find in the course of an ordinary trip, or in the pages of any travel guide.
The luxury of relaxing in an elegant machiya
These pleasures were no longer available once I returned to Tokyo, and I left JNR around the time of its breakup and privatization. In my mid-40s, I finally decided to do what I most enjoy, and set up my own travel business.
In my two years in Kanazawa, I learned what it’s like to travel where I lived, and that gave me a hint: Why couldn’t I turn an ordinary home somewhere into accommodations for visitors, rather than having them stay in hotels or inns? That was when I came to Kyoto, and first encountered Kyoto-style machiya.
Kyoto really provides the ultimate stage for creating a new concept for tourism. For one thing, it is Japan’s greatest sightseeing destination, with over 50 million visitors a year, 20 million of whom stay in the city. If tourism in Kyoto changes, it has the potential to change the entire country.
Across Japan, about 100 sites have been designated by the government as important traditional architecture preservation districts, including beautiful old castle and temple districts, merchant and port towns, and farming and fishing villages. Unfortunately, many of these areas also suffer from depopulation, as people age and families continue to move away. I also learned that even some of the most wonderful, cultural asset-class homes now stand empty. I thought that if there were a way to make use of these machiya and other old private homes, it would not only give these regions a boost, but perhaps could even attract visitors from abroad. I decided to give the idea a try first with the machiya of Kyoto, turning them into places to stay.
No end of trouble gets me my first decrepit machiya
My decision made, I set up a company in December of 2003. That summer, I started talking with people about the concept of “staying in a machiya as you would your own home,” and began looking for properties, but early reaction was less than positive. No matter how I explained the idea of reusing these old traditional townhouses, real estate agents just wouldn’t work with me. “No tourist is going to want to stay in a filthy old house, no matter how you fix it up,”
they’d say, or “Machiya are cold, dark, and cheerless̶no wonder they’re disappearing!” And of course, seeing as I was from Tokyo, I couldn’t get anyone to trust me.
The days stretched on as I suffered in obscurity before finally, one day, I made the acquaintance of a real estate agent who was actually trying to preserve Kyoto’s traditional machiya.
I was so happy the day I finally got hold of my first usable machiya, but I knew one alone wouldn’t make a business, so I waited until I’d lined up three of them before I started renovations. That effort began with basic repairs to these abandoned and damaged properties.
I had pictured creating comfortable living spaces and using quality materials. And yet, the carpenters didn’t get it̶we just didn’t connect. I’d spend a few days staying in each machiya as it was completed, trying things out, and I’d always find something that need fixing, something else that should’ve been done differently, more work to be done to give the rooms a better flow. The renovations weren’t cheap, of course, and in no time a few rounds of “just fix this” or “let’s do that” would turn into a shocking pile of bills.
This being a tourist business, I wanted to find machiya that were conveniently located. Land in Kyoto proper is expensive, though, and since we can’t afford to buy them, we lease all of our machiya instead.
Banks, too, are tight with their money when it comes to investing in other peoples’ homes. Even with a clear business model and a detailed budget it was difficult; finding investment capital was a real challenge.
And then someone introduced me to the Kyoto City Venture Business Evaluating Committee.
At the time, Masao Horiba, founder of Horiba Ltd., was chairman of the committee. With Kazuo Inamori of Kyocera and Yasutaka Murata of Murata Manufacturing serving as vice-chairmen, the committee include an impressive lineup of members. The committee gave my presentation the green light, and I was finally able to borrow funds under their financing scheme. Things finally got off the ground once we were able to apply those funds to the renovation effort.
The attractions of living in a traditional Japanese home
Once the work was done, the media took up our story, and people who saw the reports started getting in touch, some of them individuals living in condominiums who happened to own vacant machiya they hoped we would use. Unfortunately, because we were operating in a limited area, we had to turn down offers for homes in other districts, but all of this eventually led to a system by which the owners of the homes would put up the funds for their restoration.
Because the properties remain in the hands of their owners, banks will lend them money for renovations. Once the work is done using those funds, we sit down with the owners to discuss the rent we’ll pay. The rate of return we can offer isn’t all that great, but the deals get done because these owners are truly intent on preserving their traditional homes. They really think about our business, and that helps us arrive at a reasonable rent together. I suppose property owners who are more interested in making a profit off of real estate would knock their houses down and put up buildings that would max out their floor-area ratio and serve as an investment, so I’m always grateful to those owners whose desire to preserve the machiya make it possible for us to do business.
Getting a taste of everyday living, While experiencing Japanese culture
Our hope is that we can help visitors not only experience Kyoto’s charms, but get a taste of the depth and refinement of traditional life here. It goes beyond looking for an inexpensive place to stay, or simple curiosity about Kyoto’s machiya; we hope to welcome visitors from overseas who respect Japan’s culture, and who appreciate the finer things in their own lives.
In Kyoto, the noh and kyogen theater, tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, and traditional Japanese dance are all close at hand. Thanks to introductions to some of Kyoto’s most distinguished instructors, we’ve been fortunate to have their cooperation in developing an arts program that enables visitors to experience some of these cultural activities for themselves. Our aim is to ensure that visitors to Kyoto enjoy themselves, and for our visitors from abroad in particular, that they return home with an even greater love for Japan. We work to put forth a new approach to travel, something completely different from the old sightseeing regimen, and we hope people will be happy with our efforts.
He is also working on rural revitalization efforts.
Going forward, we will continue to build on the appeal of these old traditional townhomes. In doing so, we hope to approach these projects not from a designer’s ideal, but instead in terms of the comfort and ease of use of those who will stay in the homes. While Iori’s architect is responsible for giving shape to the plans, what’s really interesting and most rewarding about this work is the time we spend on-site, working out the details with our carpenters, plasterers, and other craftsmen.
This is why I’m always so happy to hear from visitors who may have come for Kyoto’s shrines and temples, but ended up spending their time lying around at home, or conversely, those who came specifically for the chance to lounge around in one of our machiya. Some visitors tell us they came to sample Kyoto’s wonderful cuisine, but spent the rest of their time just relaxing. That tells me we’re on the right track.
There are even a few parties who have stayed at all of our properties. Over the course of repeat visits, they seem to find their favorites. They may all light on one particular machiya, while some may stay in one place in the summer, and another in the fall.
Since the events of 3.11, in hopes of spreading the word among the Japanese as well, we’ve also provided more opportunities for people in our neighborhoods and other residents of Kyoto to visit our machiya. They can participate in our art project, and several times a month we hold tours of our machiya for local residents. Through these efforts, we’ve heard from several people who said they might not have torn down their old homes if they’d known they could be preserved so nicely. Nothing pleases us more than providing the motivation those currently still living in their traditional homes need to fix them up and continue living in them.
Text/JQR Editorial Staff