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Experience a “Machiya Stay”, the “Iori” way

The true pleasure of travel is the fun of blending in.
By Staff Writer
March 23, 2015
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.
Hideki Kajiura
Graduated from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law. Joined the Japanese National Railways (JNR) in 1980. After leaving JNR in 1987, served as director and advisor to several companies before establishing Iori Co. in 2003. Serves on a number of committees for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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.

Hideki Kajiura, President and founder of the Machiya Stay program.
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.
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