Rediscover Japan, Revisit Kyoto

In recent years, demand for tourism in Japan has been driven by Asia’s emerging middle classes—most notably from China—while, on the supply side, Japan’s unique attractions cater to a broad market ranging from snowboarders to anime fans, hikers to culture vultures, shopaholics, foodies, and those seeking spiritual enlightenment.

And demand has boomed: the number of foreign visitors to Japan rose from about five million in 2003 to 31.9 million last year. Yet, Japan’s tourism boom has not been uniformly welcomed, with some pointing to the pressures of overtourism or—more pejoratively—“tourism pollution” in recent years.

Kyoto has exemplified the problem, its streets choked with tour groups, overcrowded local buses, and long queues to enter any of the city’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sights, such as the Golden Pavilion. Tensions with local communities concerned about the impact of factors such as unfettered home rentals have also been on the rise.

It’s a reality far removed from the tranquil images conjured up by Zen gardens, bamboo groves, or the glimpse of a geisha disap­pearing through the noren (entrance curtain) of an unnamed—but very exclusive—restaurant.

Machiya Momiji

Change of Plans

Expecting a boost from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Japanese government set a target of 40 million inbound tourists for this year—a number that seemed within reach. And then, well, we all know what happened. The latest data from the Japan National Tourist Organization show a 99.9-percent drop in April 2020 (2,900 visitors) compared with April 2019 (2,927,000). The global tourism sector has screeched to a virtual halt and will take years to recover.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying lock­downs, many expats in Japan have had to shelve their foreign travel plans indefinitely. But as one door closes, another opens. Quite simply, there has never been a better time to travel domestically in Japan.

Consider, for example, that Japan is now a far easier place for the foreign visitor or resident to navigate compared with even five years ago. English is more widely spoken, is more easily found on menus and maps, and credit cards are more widely accepted. Supporting tools, such as guides and apps, have emerged, and tourists have a broader range of accommodation choices than just high-end ryokan and decidedly midrange business hotels.

Put another way, the tourism-supporting infrastructure has been built, but the crowds have evaporated. With the rollback of emergency measures, a window of opportunity is emerging to rediscover Japan—and perhaps nowhere is this more applicable than the nation’s cultural capital. So, grab an ekiben (station lunchbox), jump on the Shinkansen, and head down to Kyoto!

Prime Property

If you’re looking to make the experience more memorable, consider a stay in a traditional wooden townhouse or Kyo-machiya. Andrew and Naoko Staples are the owners of just such a property in the popular Higashiyama part of Kyoto. The famous Gion entertainment district and numerous attractions, including the charming streets of Nineizaka and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kiyomizu-dera, are all close by, as is the Kamo River, which offers a wonderful route along which to stroll on your way to the traditional downtown shopping heart of the city, Kawaramachi.

The couple acquired the property back in 2012, when Andrew was a professor at nearby Doshisha University. They worked with a local architect and team of craftsmen specializing in the renovation of traditional buildings to breathe new life into the property.

“We’d been looking for a machiya to renovate and live in for some time. I’d been interested in taking on such a project after learning more about these lovely buildings and the efforts to preserve Kyoto’s architectural heritage,” Andrew explained. “The house was in a pretty sorry state when we took it on, and it needed a full scheme of work. There was no bathroom, for example, although the neighborhood sento (public bath) is just along the street. We also discovered a well in the kitchen area. This called for the services of a Shinto priest who came and performed a purification rite—all part of the amazing experience of buying and building in Japan!

Machiya Momiji

Maintaining Tradition

“From the outset, we wanted to retain some of the key features of the house, such as the intricate woodwork that had been hidden by a suspended ceiling, and the light fittings from the Taisho or early Showa Periods,” Andrew said.

“But we also wanted to make this a comfortable and contem­porary living space that blended Japanese aesthetics with modern comforts. I think we were able to achieve this throughout, but the newly installed bathroom, sunken seating in the tatami room, and the en-suite Western bedroom, in particular, exemplify the ambience that we were aiming for. Accents such as framed wood­block prints by a local artist provide a modern twist on this tradi­tional artform, while broadband internet and AppleTV bring the house into the 21st century.”

Machiya Momiji, as the property is called, is recognized by the Kyoto local government as an authentic Kyo-machiya. Fully licensed under Japanese law, the property can sleep five guests in two second-floor bedrooms: one Western with beds, the other a tatami room with futons.

Momiji sits on a quiet residential street just 10 minutes by taxi from the Shinkansen Line at Kyoto Station. “I know the journey to Tokyo very well,” said Andrew. “I had a career change which meant a year of commuting to the capital, leaving Kyoto early on a Monday morning and returning on Friday evening. It was something of a pleasure to take my seat on the 5:30 p.m. train from Tokyo Station each Friday knowing that, two-and-a-half hours (plus a bento and a beer or two) later, I’d be back to relax at home and enjoy everything Kyoto has to offer.”

Welcoming Guests

The following year, Andrew’s family joined him in Tokyo, and with the shift in home base they began to run Momiji as a holiday let for discerning guests.

“It’s been a pleasure to welcome guests to our house and to help them enjoy their stay in Kyoto. Many have come from overseas, and we’ve always made a point of providing something of a concierge service when it comes to things such as booking restaurants, offering suggestions on where to go and what to do in the city and beyond, as well as finding independent shops or specialized tour guides, for instance. We are grateful to our guests for the glowing reviews they have provided.”

The property is entered from the street through a fabulous genkan that features a thick wooden bench, flagstone floor, and subtle lighting. A circular feature in the internal wall offers a glimpse of the downstairs rooms, which include a fully equipped kitchen, dining area with table and chairs, and sofa. There are also a combo washer-dryer and a flat screen TV, both recessed behind sliding doors so they can be hidden when not in use.

This area leads into the featured tatami room, which offers sunken seating, table and floor cushions, and a wonderful view of the tsuboniwa (courtyard garden), which is home to a Japanese maple tree—the momiji after which the house is named. Another door leads to the downstairs toilet, bright sink area, and wonderful tiled bathroom featuring a deep soaker bath and secluded view of the garden.

All in all, Machiya Momiji is a charming house in a wonderful location, offering comfortable and contemporary accommodation and a chance to experience life in a traditional Kyoto machiya. What further reason do you need to revisit Kyoto?

Offer on Connect

To enjoy the rich tradition of Kyoto at Machiya Momiji, take advantage of their offer on Connect! They have a special discount for Connect Members.

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