井の中の蛙大海を知らず, I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu: A frog in a well does not know the great sea. Or, people are satisfied to judge things by their own narrow experience, never knowing of the wide world outside.
Wanting to avoid being narrow American frogs overseas , and equally desiring a more authentic stay in Kyoto, Jody and I elected to stay in a traditional Japanese machiya called Seuin-An, “Blue Cloud Hut.” Seuin-An is a historic Kyoto townhouse were the essence of the Japanese tradition of Geisha was taught: dance, music, tea ceremony, flower arrangement and more were handed down here for generations from teacher to the young ladies who chose this mysterious world as their way of life. While it has been renovated to provide more comfortable quarters to guests, it still retains a cozy machiya’s spirit, esthetic, and beauty of these wonderful traditional Japanese townhouses.
Machiya (町屋/町家) are traditional wooden townhouses found throughout Japan, but typified in the historical capital of Kyoto. Kyoto, largely spared the devastating fire-bombing campaigns of World War II, retains many old and quite historic wooden buildings, including many machiya. These townhouses, along with Japanese nōka (farm dwellings) constitute Japanese minka architecture of “folk dwellings.” Machiya have a long history spanning many hundreds of years, and traditionally housed chōnin (townspeople), primarily consisting of urban merchants and craftsmen. The plot’s linear footage along the street was in the past a visible index of wealth, and typical machiya plots were only 15-20 feet wide but over 60 feet deep, leading to the nickname “eel bed.” Machiya is written using two kanji: machi (町, “town”), and ya (家 or 屋) meaning “house” (家) or “shop” (屋) depending on the kanji used.
The typical Kyoto machiya is a long, narrow wooden home, often containing a small courtyard garden. Machiya of the past incorporated earthen walls behind wood lattice works and baked tile roofs, and were usually two stories high. If used as a shop, the front of the structure served as the retail space. The remainder of the building is then divided into the kyoshitsubu (居室部, “living space)” composed of divided rooms with raised timber floors and tatami mats, and the doma (土間), an earthen-floored space that contained the kitchen and passage to storehouses.
Multiple layers of sliding doors are used to moderate the temperature inside; closing in the winter offers some protection from cold, while opening in the summer offers some respite from heat and humidity. Machiya homes traditionally also used different types of screens, using woven bamboo screens in summer to enhance airflow but block sun, while solid screens were used in winter to retain more heat.
On a sad note, between 1993 and 2003, over 13% of the machiya in Kyoto were demolished. Roughly 40% of these were replaced with new modern houses, and another 40% were replaced with high-rise apartment buildings, parking lots, or modern-style commercial shops. Of those machiya remaining, over 80% have suffered significant losses to the traditional appearance of their facades in a process called kanban kenchiku (看板建築, “signboard architecture”); they retain their basic machiya shape, but their facades have been completely covered over in cement, which replaces the wooden lattices of the first story and earthwork walls of the second, along with losing their tile roofs.
Jody and I were lucky enough to be able to experience this corner of a quickly disappearing tradition in Kyoto. Stay at Seuin-An was an experience neither of us will soon forget; imaging who may have passed through its doors and contemplating the full range of Far Eastern humanity that the structure encompasses allowed us to make a much stronger connection to not just Japan, but to our collective and shared pasts. In a phrase, we Western frogs managed to jump from the well of our narrow experience to see the wider world of Kyoto beyond.
I ended up writing a review for Trip Advisor, which is included here for your review. You may note my sensitivity to the owners, who seemed to be quite insulted with any type of less than good review online. It’s interesting to note that my review did not solicit any response, which I am pleased about, as anyone wanting to stay at Seiun-an. Read on…if you’d like.
I’m going to try and write this review without having the owner get overly defensive while hopefully portraying our stay accurately. After all, that is the point of Trip Advisor.
This home COULD easily be 4 stars…with just a little bit of work. If I could on this site I would have rated the home as 3.5 or even 3.75 stars (instead of the 3 I did rate it). We enjoyed our stay, and the location of the home is excellent. And, it does give one a personal, authentic experience of living in Japan. Let me explain.
This is an old home, in mostly original style and layout, and that should be clear to anyone renting or staying. That was exactly our point in renting this type of accommodation – for a more authentic experience while traveling and staying in Japan. Expect the home to be cold and drafty in the wintertime, with the bathroom floor being VERY cold. The heat on the 2nd floor sleeping area works well (one wall unit and one floor electric radiator), and is very comfortable at night. Only one pair of slippers is provided in the home, but no robes, which would be a very nice touch since one has to go downstairs at night to use the only toilet in the home. The toilet is a modern Japanese one, with a welcomed heated seat!
The tub is fantastic, a deep-soak iron barrel sunk into the floor. However, the small plastic-framed bathroom mirror is much too small and is miss-hung for it to be of any use at all. My wife ended up using her iPad camera on herself, turning her iPad into a de facto mirror at the living room table. The sink installation is rather haphazard and lacks any sort of refinement; there is no medicine cabinet or other storage areas in the bathing room (sink & shower being separate from the toilet).
The lighting takes a few moments to figure out, and while adequate, we had numerous lights that were burnt out, including the outside light, two hallway lights (we replaced one with the over-the-stove hood light), one accent light in an art/panel area, and there was a broken and missing light fixture in the living area that resulted in quite an eye-sore. We only asked for the outside light to be fixed, since we are not fans of having people enter our living spaces while absent, but it is also not much to ask that lights be operable before we take residence. And there was no explanation for the broken fixture, which really detracted from the appeal, look and feel of the living room.
The living area furniture is not dark wood like in the website photos, nor is it located where it is as pictured there. It is however very functional, and there is plenty of room downstairs for eating and socializing.
While I understand the sliding doors are old and fragile in the home, the sliding door to the kitchen is very tough to use, and constantly was getting jammed. It is not really on a track, and is heavy to move, lacking any type of handle. We kept it closed most of the time though since heat downstairs was a constant issue in the middle of winter. The kitchen is functional.
There is really no weather-sealing or insulation at any of the doors, and this causes the draftiness of the downstairs area. The heater downstairs (one wall-mount and one electric floor radiator) both ran on high full-time; they simply couldn’t keep up with the cold. If the entryway bamboo vented screens were backed with Plexiglas (or glass), and if the door to the outside mechanical area were sealed properly, this would be a much warmer residence.
Finally, there are some aesthetic flaws that interfere with the charm of the machiya. The patches in the rice paper doors are too numerous and visible, along with the damaged bamboo entry sliding doors. The bathroom sink area really needs some updating, which could be accomplished while keeping the experience “authentic.” The bamboo water “garden” in the entryway would, if functional, provide some terrific ambiance to the entire structure, as well as some soothing water sounds….
The owner-recommended café “Yamamoto” around the corner is an excellent choice, and was much easier for the taxis to find than the house’s address!
Like I said, this home is a GEM, but with some pretty rough edges. With some much needed attention, it would easily be a 4-star home, and with some further investment, much higher rents could be charged given the potential charm of the residence and its location. It’s a recommended place to stay, but be forewarned: if you are looking for western style kitchens and bathrooms, and if you want to be pampered with warmth, look elsewhere.