Machiya (Merchant House) (町屋 (商家))

Machiya is a house of common people in town. It is also referred to as Choka. The term 'machiya' specifically refers to the townscape consisting of merchant houses (houses of merchants and craftspeople that is a combination of family residence and shop) which was formed during the Edo period through the beginning of the Showa period. An area where a group of merchant houses were built up is referred to as a merchant town.

There were merchant houses in post-station towns, but they were often built in castle towns forming a contrast with samurai residences.

Merchant houses were built in a row on alleys and side streets. In castle towns in the Kansai District, merchant houses had been built since early times and had become common. In the major castle towns such as Kyoto and Kanazawa, those merchant houses that were built on deep and narrow lots were also referred to as eel's nest. In those merchant houses, rooms were placed one after the other to form a near single line filling the deep and narrow lots.


In the medieval and early-modern times, merchant houses were often built with the entrance on the side of the building. In the medieval period, merchant houses were usually one-storied with a gabled shingle-roof and clay walls, whereas, in the early Edo period, those with low-ceilinged second floor (tsushi nikai or loft) and sodeudatsu (extensions of the gable parapet walls that fill the trapezoidal space between the overhanging eaves of the main roof and the pent roof) became standard and houses with tile roofs and stucco walls appeared in the end of the 1600s. The loft was located on the front of a merchant house built along the big road. Since it was considered to be disrespectful to look down on processions of feudal lords, the loft was allowed to be built and used as a storage and not as a living space. Since the Meiji period, two-storey merchant houses with the ceiling height similar to that of modern houses began to be built along main streets, and three-storey merchant houses and kanban kenchiku (typically, a two-story frame building serving dual purposes as a merchant residence and shop) also appeared.

In cities where many merchant houses still remain, there has been a significant revaluation of these houses that seem to epitomize Japanese ingenuities and the idea of space. In recent years, in particular, instead of tearing them down, the trend to restore and renovate aging merchant houses to reuse as residences or lodging facilities has been on the rise.


The major difference between merchant houses and nagaya (row houses) is their size. Row houses were designed to have a doma (a dirt floor space that functions as a foyer and kitchen) directly inside the entrance and two rooms at most, whereas, although the frontage of merchant houses was no wider than approximately 12 to 18 feet, they were usually somewhere around 120 feet deep even in Edo (old Tokyo) where merchant houses were less common than in the Kansai District.

The typical floor plan of a merchant house included an earth floor space that ran the entire length of the house on one side and rooms lined up on the other side. In the center of the property, a courtyard (spot garden) was installed for the improved ventilation and lighting. The courtyard also functioned as a garden where rocks and plants were put in, providing the private space in the property as opposed to the public space facing the street.

[Original Japanese]