Traditional touches, room to spare in Japan's machiyas

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The view from the balcony of the Izumiya-cho Machiya in Kyoto on the Kamo River.
The view from the balcony of the Izumiya-cho Machiya in Kyoto on the Kamo River. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

When I told friends I would be staying in machiyas (traditional Japanese houses) on my next trip to Japan, more than a few responded, "You mean a ryokan?"

No, a machiya.

Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, usually with tatami mat floors, futons, baths and an unmistakably Japanese aesthetic. A machiya has all of the above but is an entire standalone house, which may be fully serviced but without other guests or resident staff.

And if my experiences in machiyas in Kyoto and Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, were representative, they are going to be my preferred option for future leisure trips to Japan. For space, atmosphere and location, they're hard to beat.

While one can find individual machiyas of varying quality on Airbnb, I stayed in professionally managed machiyas with impressive furnishings, service levels and personal attention.

And, significantly, impressive square footage. Japanese accommodations are notoriously small -- one doesn't need to be staying in a capsule hotel in a train station to feel a bit claustrophobic. My first machiya experience was in Izumiya-cho Machiya in Kyoto, where my family and I had a two-level, three-bedroom, three-bathroom house with a large living area all to ourselves. Though the structure was more than 100 years old, the traditional furnishings were in excellent shape, with a classic, minimalist design but modern fixtures and a small kitchen with a microwave and refrigerator. (Its uncluttered appearance did mean we had to open every discreetly placed box in order to find utensils, towels, etc.) It had a separate area with a deep wooden bath, in addition to modern showers.

The location, right on the Kamo River, would be hard to beat. We spent mornings sipping tea on a small balcony, watching herons and hawks glide above and people strolling or jogging along a path just below. It was only a 15-minute walk from downtown and within walking distance to important shrines and historic areas.

The lower level of the Kyoto machiya has a living and dining room with a blend of modern and traditional furnishings.
The lower level of the Kyoto machiya has a living and dining room with a blend of modern and traditional furnishings. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

The management company, Iori Machiya Stay, runs 14 properties in Kyoto. Upon arrival in Kyoto, instructions were to first go to their central office for tea and orientation and then, depending on the location of the machiya, either be escorted on foot or taken in a taxi to the accommodation.

Its owner, Mitsuhiro Miura, was a soy sauce salesman who had decided to return to school for an MBA and was subsequently hired to market the machiyas. Ten years later, he bought the management company and began expanding its inventory.

The one I stayed in was one of his five in the "premium" category (the company also has five "standard" machiyas and, in its lowest category, four classified as "original"). Premium guests enjoy what Miura characterized as "concierge" service, with local recommendations and daily housekeeping to remake the futons, service the kitchen and straighten up.

"Unlike a ryokan, you have privacy," he said. "We respect the personal space of guests. We're not too close and not too far."

Prices vary depending on the season, property and the number of guests staying there. Our three-bedroom house could be shared, for instance, by three couples traveling together. It also represents excellent value for families, though the steep stairways would make it unsuitable for small children or those with physical challenges.

Iori Machiya Stay pays 10% travel agent commissions; contact [email protected] to book.

In Takayama, unique add-ons

After a beautiful train ride through mountainous national parks, we were greeted at the Takayama train station by Shingo Matsuba, owner of Iori Takayama. Another entrepreneur with an MBA, Matsuba studied in the U.S. and U.K., and his English is excellent, as is his awareness of the expectations of Western travelers.

Which is not to say that staying in one of the 11 machiyas he owns or seven he manages is anything other than a thoroughly Japanese experience.

Matsuba doesn't consider himself in the machiya business; his focus is on supporting Takayama, a city of 89,000 that draws 4 million visitors annually, about 80% of them Japanese. Most come for skiing, snowboarding and snow-scooting (the last of these features a hybrid scooter/ski).

Although he also owns, for instance, a company offering bicycle tours, 114% Localization Tour, he provides information on competitors and supports complementary businesses and residents in ways that bring them not only to the attention of his guests but, sometimes, into their machiya.

Shigene Sumitake, a 12th-generation chef, prepares dinner for guests at the Iori Takayama machiya.
Shigene Sumitake, a 12th-generation chef, prepares dinner for guests at the Iori Takayama machiya. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Primary among those is chef Shigene Sumitake. His family has produced 12 generations of chefs over 250 years, and Sumitake left a Michelin-starred restaurant in Kyoto to open a small restaurant, Kanoya, a few doors down from the machiya where we stayed. Traditional Japanese breakfasts there were included with our stay, but the highlight of our visit was a traditional kaiseki dinner prepared and served in the machiya by Sumitake, his wife and a Japanese tea ceremony master.

When the chef was in Kyoto, he was frequently called upon to prepare private kaiseki dinners for VIP guests. The price tag for these multicourse, gourmet meals was around $460 per person. At Matsuba's machiya, a comparative multicourse dinner can be arranged for $120 per person.

My family and I opted for this add-on, and it was not only the best meal I had in Japan, it was one of the best meals I've had in my life: Extraordinary sashimi, soup, local conger eel and duck were among the courses, enhanced by a variety of sakes, selected and explained by Matsuba (who also offers, separately, sake seminars for, among others, tour operator Contiki). Among the sakes was a fizzy one and an unfiltered variety that had, traditionally, included a step in which women chewed the rice grains to break them down (the practice is skipped in modern commercial production).

The machiya we stayed at was one of the four he offers in the premium category; the others are "standard." Matsuba prices on seasonality and works with travel advisors. For bookings, contact him at [email protected].

My stays were, in part, subsidized by my machiya hosts and the Japan National Tourism Organization.

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