Home Sweet Machiya

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Matthias Ley

SOUL OF KYOTO: Machiya offer a connection to the city's past

Think of Kyoto and you think of ryokan. But for visitors who want an alternative to the traditional inns, while still retaining a sense of the city's celebrated history, refurbished local machiya hold plenty of promise. Most of these simple wooden merchant homes, dating back to Japan's Meiji period (1868-1912), have been demolished or become dilapidated, but Iori, a conservation company founded by author and Japanologist Alex Kerr, is working to save those that remain. It currently has 10 fully refurbished properties available, ranging from a tiny intimate house sleeping two to a rambling mansion for 14.

Each renovation has preserved the integrity of the original structure while giving the interior a five-star makeover. Well-chosen art and antiques from Kerr's own impressive collection are displayed in settings of tatami matting and cream walls. Some homes include stylish Japanese gardens, others offer decking that overlooks the gently flowing Kamo River. Comfort is never compromised — there are fluffy futons and under-floor heating, deep cedar baths, broadband wi-fi and small but well-equipped kitchens. And each house has a story to tell: one was a former artist's atelier; another used to be a geisha's home. (See 10 things to do in Hong Kong.)

Iori's English-language concierge service (free to machiya guests) and arts program (teaching everything from calligraphy to Noh drama in courses that last from a half-day to two days or more) will steep you even further in Kyoto culture. You'll be stepping from your latticed front door onto the quiet street and feeling like you belong — even if it is just for the weekend. See www.kyoto-machiya.com for details.

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