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Japan: Local Hero

Iori & Co. treats travelers to a real slice of life in Japan.

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WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008

Iori & Co. treats travelers to a real slice of life in Japan.

Tradition is revered in Japan, but it has taken an American to recognize the modern potential of some of the island nation’s ancient buildings.

This story first appeared in the September 29, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Over the past four years, Iori & Co. has been renovating machiya, or old wooden  town houses, into stunning rental properties in the heart of historic Kyoto. Its most recent effort dates back to the Meiji era and has the ink calligraphy on one of the pine ceiling beams to prove it.

Alex Kerr, a Maryland-born scholar and author who has lived in Asia for more than three decades, got his start in the renovation business in 1973 when he bought a 200-year-old farmhouse in Shikoku in the western part of Japan. Today, he is chairman of Iori, which has restored nine houses around Kyoto and runs Asian art and cultural programs.

“The big challenge—and this is our specialty and it’s what interests me in these houses—is how to make them modern. By that I mean, how can modern people live in them comfortably?” says Kerr.

The 56-year-old eschews the two pervading schools of Japanese restoration. “One is basically you restore it to perfection, to its original condition, and it becomes a museum and dies,” he says. “Or, you totally distort it and destroy what was of value in it by tricking it out with concrete and plastic and fluorescent light fittings.”

Typically, machiya were merchants’ homes with a store in the front and a residence behind. The part of the building that faces the street was the basis on which taxes were calculated, so the properties tend to be long and narrow.

Iori’s most recent renovation, a house called Sanbo Nishinotoin, fell into disrepair when its former inhabitant, a painter, died several years ago. Until recently, his family, who still owns the property, ran a textile business out of the front portion. Now, Marukyu-Koyamaen Co. Ltd., one of Kyoto’s most famous green tea producers, has converted that space into a cafe that serves up steaming cups of green tea, or matcha, as well as green tea roll cake, ice cream and other delicacies.

Iori spent four months restoring and renovating the back annex—the painter’s former abode—into an airy four-room space that is available for rent. “Honestly, it looked like it was going to fall down,” says Bodhi Fishman, a consultant with Iori. “The whole far side of the house was sagging and we had to jack it up.”
 
A stone walkway winds past a small, carefully manicured garden to the house’s entrance. A room with tatami mat flooring, traditionally used for the tea ceremony, greets visitors. Next door, an elegantly spare living room with floor cushions and a low table leads to one of the more unique and unexpected corners of the house—a Japanese cypress bathtub overlooking a private sliver of green garden, replete with its own miniature shrine. Flattened bamboo covers the walls of the stairwell leading up to the second floor. The main room has an Asian loft feel. Reed mats, usually found on the floor in Japan, are used to construct the ceiling, filling in the spaces between the rich brown pine beams. Renting out one of the machiya gives visitors insight into daily life in Japan. Most travelers are eager to experience everyday Japanese life and stay in traditional inns, or ryokan, replete with house matrons who employ regimented wake-up calls and enter rooms willy-nilly to brew tea and fluff pillows. But not all travelers are fans of such intrusions. “The thing about our houses is that, because it’s your own house, you can lay your futon wherever you like and  your children can run around and scream and yell,” Kerr says. “Because it’s a house, you’re living in a neighborhood. You’re not just a tourist that checks in—you actually live there.”

For more information and prices, go to kyoto-machiya.com. For reservations, call +81.07.5352.0211. Prices vary on the number of occupants in the house.

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