• Kyoto Charm in a Repurposed Flower Shop

    Toji Shrine in Kyoto at night.

Kyoto Is Changing

Being a long-term resident of Tokyo, Kyoto has seemed almost off-limits. Pre–pandemic, Kyoto was extremely popular with domestic and global tourists alike, so it did not seem like a destination where one could enjoy a quiet time.

Making matters worse, I first experienced Kyoto during my high school years with my mother, overwhelmed with a tight itinerary incompatible with my 16-year old self. My second experience in Kyoto was during peak tourist season in 2018. That cemented my feeling that it wasn’t possible to enjoy the city at a leisurely pace.

However, with travel restrictions making it impossible for foreign tourists to enter Japan, Kyoto is now in starkly different circumstances. 

My interest in Kyoto was renewed by this drastic change. A colleague invited me to stay at his renovated machiya in the central district, giving me an opportunity to properly explore for the first time.

Buying machiya in Kyoto is generally thought of as reserved for extremely wealthy people. However, talking to local experts, I was surprised to learn that machiya are more reasonably attainable.

My colleague – a finance professional based in Tokyo – began looking at machiya due to Kyoto‘s popularity and the resulting limited hotel availability.

One Way to Make Visiting Kyoto Easier

Generally, reservations must be made months in advance, especially for stays during cherry blossom season or in Autumn. Given this is practically impossible for a busy professional, my friend decided to beat the crowds by renovating a machiya. Also, by renovating the machiya with renting it out in mind, it also made business sense.

Upon consultation with Hachise Real Estate, a popular local real estate agent in Kyoto, my colleague was introduced to a machiya in the popular Miyagawasuji neighborhood.

Built over 100 years ago, this machiya that has a total floor space of 84 square meters split between 2 floors was later converted into a flower shop, and then sat vacant for over 10 years. Originally, my friend’s idea was to demolish the existing structure and build a new house, but he decided to keep the structure and renovate it to accentuate it’s historical elements.

The advising consultant, Naoko Okada of Hachise Real Estate, did an amazing job here. Even while the machiya had lost many of its traditional features due to its previous tenure as a flower shop, it was tastefully renovated to rejuvenate staple characteristics, preserving the traditional character. For example, special attention was paid to connecting the interior space with the tsuboniwa, a small garden at the rear of the building.

One Way to Make Visiting Kyoto Easier

Part of the vision of Ayame-an was to create a coordinated look and feel, while using local craftspeople to the extent possible. Most of the furniture was custom built by local carpenters, and the ceramic dishes were hand-crafted by local potters.

When you open the front door of Ayame-an, you are greeted by a spacious doma, or non-raised floor. This was the original commercial space of the flower shop, with an Ibushi kawara tile floor. In the middle of the doma is an antique table and chair set. To the right is a kitchenette with an induction cooktop for guests’ use.

Even within the limitations of the existing structure’s narrow frontage, the space was designed to bring the entire building together. The second floor lockable fusuma – traditional sliding doors –  were a very nice touch. Locked, they provide safety for children; unlocked, they connect the second floor with the first. You can also see the original rafters which have the unmatchable quality of century-old lumber.

Bedroom at Ayame-an in Kyoto

Another creative solution to fully utilizing the limited available space is in the bathroom, which at about 140 cm wide would not accommodate a spacious bathtub. The solution was to use a traditional Goemon-buro made with Shigaraki yaki pottery. It is smooth and made of sturdy and rough clay, and fit perfectly in the available space. The result is a fun and relaxing bathing experience with a nice view of the tsuboniwa garden that adds to the charm of staying at Ayame-an.

The architect carefully choose a color scheme to accentuate the traditional character of the building and surroundings. The name of the building – Ayame-an – references the traditional deep purple used tastefully throughout the building. Originally, the façade of the building was tile, but it was replaced by kuro-shikkui – black traditional plasterwork – painted to blend nicely with the local surroundings.

A Modern Take on a Classic

From start to finish, the renovation took about 18 months of planning and decision making, and another 6 months for builders and craftspeople to complete the job.

Staying at Ayame-an was a very charming and relaxing experience. Paired with my ability to explore the unusually quiet city for a few days, my eyes were finally opened to the true beauty of Kyoto.

It can be easy to forget you’re in Japan while in Tokyo, with its largely modern, Western surroundings. However, Kyoto retains Japan’s traditional character and history, full of temples, shrines, and other important sites which transport you to old Japan.

During my stay in Kyoto, I came across my now-favorite neighborhood, Miyagawacho, situated precisely between Gion and Ayame-an. This neighborhood embodies the Kyoto most people picture in their mind’s eye, but is often overlooked because of the tourists, attractions, and bustle of Gion.

A Nice Escape

While it is impossible to give an exhaustive list of all of the great dining establishments in Miyagawacho, our best meal of the trip was kaiseki at Suigentei. If a chicken sukiyaki feast, paired with a massive sake cellar and a full cocktail menu sounds like a good time to you, make sure to check this place out.

The star of the course meal is Shamo chicken, cooked in a shabu-shabu style with sukiyaki stock. The process is surprisingly complex, but thankfully the chef does it all right in front of you! The chicken is also served with beaten raw eggs and a selection of exotic salts. One thing to note, the chef and staff are not English speakers so I suggest including a Japanese speaker in your party.

Staying for three nights was not enough to satisfy my newfound curiosity to explore more of Kyoto’s backstreets. The seemingly endless rows of exclusive restaurants and bars in particular beckon to me like no other place in Japan.

Kyoto Has Much To Offer

I highly suggest staying in a traditional machiya like Ayame-an, and give yourself a few days to explore. Central Kyoto is definitely enjoyed best on foot, so make sure you bring a good pair of shoes!

Back to the subject of Kyoto real estate, one question I had was simple: is real estate still moving in central Kyoto during the pandemic?

Okada explained that less overseas buyers are actively purchasing properties, but some clients are viewing properties remotely via virtual walkthroughs and buying remotely. Currently, the Kyoto real estate market remains quite active even as the tourism economy has yet to recover, and most clients are Japanese nationals. In particular, high net worth individuals continue to purchase investment properties in Kyoto to minimize their tax burden and realize rental profit and/or enjoy them as a second home.