Meeting my machiya – a stay in a traditional Kyoto house

Kyoto in the summer is horrible, apparently even to Japanese people. Stepping off the metropolitan train and out of the air conditioned station, the heat punches us in the face. I stagger sideways through the thirty-six degree heat, managing to slide some coins into a vending machine and acquire a bottle of cold tea that I promptly neck. The sun is high above and there is not a cloud in the sky – because all the moisture is down here at ground level, giving us eighty-five percent humidity.

Entrance. Hit my head three times!

Within a minute the heat has caused the wheels on my suitcase to expand and jam. I’m too hot, too sweaty to care, so I resort to brute force to keep the case moving, dragging it over the cambered asphalt at the edge of the road. The friction melts the wheels and grinds them down, leaving a pair of grey plasticky streaks on the pavement in my wake.

This is a bog-standard Japanese suburban street. There’s a convenience store on one corner, cars parked in little concrete lots and thousands and thousands of miles of wires overhead. I’m too concerned about the sweat from my chest – which is now percolating through my ill-chosen orange t-shirt – to care about the surroundings in any greater detail than that. Now the wheels have ground down so much that the suitcase belly too is dragging on the ground, periodically leaving Jackson Pollock-esque pink splodges on the ground as it scrapes and bumps.

Machiyado Matsumura

“This is it I think” calls my wife, who is ostensibly in charge of the map but has already made three phone calls and been into two shops to ask for directions. We are in front of a long, low, windowless building, constructed largely out of dark wooden beams. My wife raps on a wood panel and the door promptly slides open. On the other side is Matsumura-san, the house proprietor and a man so cool even the sight of a guest with a five-inch diameter sweat stain on his chest and a molten suitcase cannot faze him.

Matsumura-san gestures for us to come inside and we heave our suitcases over the high wooden threshold of the machiya (literally ‘town house’, but in essence a bed and breakfast). So proud of myself am I for successfully ducking through the five-foot high entrance that I completely fail to spot the equally low second door and clock myself spectacularly.

With the bang to the head temporarily knocking out my sense of touch and sight (my head hurts and my glasses have fallen off), the first thing that strikes me is the smell of wood in the machiya. Not the kind of overpowering pitch pine smell you’d get in a new-build or a log cabin, but a much more subtle kind – sort of like the inside of an empty whisky bottle. This smells like wood with experience. “I was born in this house,” Matsumura-san explains. “It is nearly two hundred years old.” That would be why the fabric of the building has such a mature aroma, then.

The landlord fires up the air conditioning – he seems so chilled that the air conditioners need him to cool them down – and prepares a couple of steel flasks of iced tea for us. One guest room leads off either side of the machiya, with a central reception area. The reception room has an amazingly high ceiling, the dark brown timbers reaching a good ten or so metres up to the roof. On the right is a small raised platform that leads to one of the guest rooms, and on the left is a discreet staircase climbing up to the other bedroom. There’s a small kitchen area at the end where breakfast is prepared, and a long cream leather sofa for the purpose of chilling out.

The first bedroom is, if I’m being honest, pretty much identical to all the other traditional Japanese rooms I’ve stayed in. Tatami mats. Pastel green walls. A long wall hanging. Futons in a cupboard. But what puts this in a completely different class is the scene that unfolds when Matsumura-san pulls back the screens at the far end. For this is a traditional Kyoto house with internal gardens.

Machiya garden

The room looks out onto a seven metre square courtyard, in the middle of which is a small yet perfectly formed garden. Stones, moss and a small tree combine to create a scene I’d only previously seen in computer games and Quentin Tarantino films. Round the edge is a covered wooden walkway leading to the toilet and bathroom.

The garden also provokes different cultural responses. The five Brits are stunned into whoops of joy and excitement. I’ve been to Japan lots of times before, but the combination of wood, mats and garden is too much for me and I find myself wanting to have a martial arts fight with someone. But my wife (who is Japanese) immediately shudders when she sees the greenery. She is terrified of insects, and this is high season for the shrieking beasts. Matsumura-san likewise cautions us, warning us to keep the doors closed as he lights an incense burner to keep the beasties away. Scots are no stranger to insects, having grown up with midges, but Japanese insects are altogether bigger and nastier – if admittedly less annoying – creatures.

The other room is equally well turned out, with a smart little bathroom-shower combo off to the side furnished with utilitarian Muji goods. It too has its own private garden, and I disgrace myself by bowing before what I think is a shrine but actually turns out to be a tool store.

The machiya may be a good few hundred years old, but its fixtures and fittings are spotless. The deep dark wood has been preserved beautifully, and is complemented with newer fittings made out of equally subtle timber. The bathrooms and associated furnishings are basic but brand new, giving the overall effect of an old, well looked after and respectfully updated building. There’s wireless internet too, not that it can really have any effect on the aesthetics of the place.

After a brief look around the house, we drop our luggage, I bang my head on the door again and we head out for a day’s sightseeing.

Kirin Heartland, jazz and old wood

It is night by the time we return, and the street is dark – partly as a result of setsuden electricity saving measures and partly because there just aren’t a lot of streetlamps in this area. The door next to the machiya entrance is ajar, jazz music floating out from inside and carrying some low light out onto the street with it. Intrigued, I poke my head round the door to find the coolest bar I have ever seen. Eight empty stools are lined up against a long, low table, beer mats and candles liberally scattered along them. There’s a drinks trolley at one end, a stereo at the other, and – dwarfed by the twenty foot high wall behind him – a smart barman in the middle.

His name is Ryo, and he is the owner’s son. Delighted to have some guests – the bar is open to anyone, but nobody ever comes in off the street, he tells us – he’s just graduated from university and is working here for the summer until he starts his main job in the autumn. By training he’s a jewellery designer, and his work is on display on a table by the door – lovely, simple shapes with colourful patterns laminated with thick bits of Perspex.

Ryo furnishes us with some glasses and magics four ice-cold green bottles of Kirin Heartland up from underneath the bar. “We completely re-did the house a few years ago,” he tells us. “My father used to work in graphic design, and everything in the re-design was his idea.” The artistic gene seems to run through the Matsumuras, as the remarkable work inside this machiya attests. Latin jazz, the whiff of well-treated wood and some rare beer. Right now, for me this is the best bar in the universe.

Room with a view. And yes, those are my shorts on the drying rack. Sorry for forgetting to remove them from the shot. Also note the ‘shrine’ I accidentally bowed at.

Seven hours and one Heartland and heat-fuelled sleep later we are back at the same bar, lined up in the same order, being served our breakfast. No breakfast menu was needed, because half an hour before I knew it was going to be fabulous – the scent of fresh fish being grilled wafted up through the rafters as I was rolling out of my futon. The breakfast is simple, delicious Japanese fayre, including the most awesome tofu I have ever tasted (the fish I smelled was pretty damn good as well).

Despite this being a little family-run place in a secluded part of Kyoto, we are far from the first foreigners to come here. “We’ve had French, Spanish, and are having a group of Bulgarians next month,” another of the family tells us as she pours out some inexplicably delicious coffee. “There’s also a remarkable American gentleman who lives nearby and knows everything there is to know about sake!”

I like to think I’ve spent enough time in Japan over the last few years to be past the tourist stage. Shrines, castles and, indeed, inns long ago lost their appeal for me. But that’s what makes the Matsumura machiya all the more remarkable, because – when you take away all the exoticism and all the novelty – it’s quite simply a really cool building. No matter which country you’re in, class like this is hard to come by.

Machiyado Matsumura is located in the Fushimi area of Kyoto, five minutes’ walk from Tanbabashi station. Their website is www.machiyado-matsumura.jp/

You can read some glowing English/European-language reviews here

Ryo’s jewellery is sold under the Plying brand – www.facebook.com/ply.plying 

*In case anybody from the Fushimi Roads Department is reading, the effect of my suitcase on the pavement has been exaggerated for dramatic effect.

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