What's new

Kyoto: empty ryokan, vanishing machiya townhouses


Unswerving cyclist
14 Mar 2002
Annual visitors to Kyoto skyrocketed until the beginning of 2020. When the pandemic hit, the city and its disquieted inhabitants saw a well-deserved respite from mass tourism and its uglier effects. Now, hotel and shop owners sound the alarm: without tourists, they cannot survive for another year.

It's the small hotels and the travel and transport that are most exposed. The economy can not take it." Small businesses in Japan have received state handouts during the pandemic and there has been a limited furlough in place. But the economic slide continues. Owing to a domino effect, says Mr Takimoto, the Lexuses have vanished from the once cramped Kyoto streets and the once well-stacked shelves in the shopping malls now look sad and denuded. With ramshackle charm to burn, Japan's ancient capital had long been a tourist magnet. They thronged to its world heritage temples, shrines and for a glimpse of geisha amidst the wooden buildings. Badly bruised by the urban blight that scars most Japanese towns, Kyoto retained enough heritage to be the only game worth the tourist candle after Tokyo, despite bulldozing much of its past.

While Kyoto, a city that faces bankruptcy, protects and preserves parts of its cultural heritage, much of it is demolished, as mentioned in the article above. Most of the affected structures are old wooden townhouses (町家 machiya).

A recent attempt by Kyoto City to save its historic machiya townhouses has only resulted in 5 out of 170 properties avoiding demolition. Back in 2016, a survey found that as many as 800 traditional machiya townhouses in Kyoto were being demolished each year. With an estimated 40,000 machiya in the city, they could vanish within the next 50 years, leaving no trace of the city's merchant past. In May 2018, Kyoto City introduced an ordinance that requires owners of traditional buildings in specified districts or with their own individual designations to provide the city with one year's notice prior to demolition. The idea is that it would give the city a window to help the current owner either preserve the existing building themselves or find a buyer who can. Once the time limit has passed, however, the owner would be free to demolish the historic building without penalty. Approximately 6,000 properties have been given this designation so far. [...] The penalty for ignoring the city's notification requirement is a maximum fine of just 50,000 Yen (US$375). Only three property owners have been subjected to fines to date.

Alex Kerr's "Lost Japan" comes to mind.
Top Bottom