Karigane: The Art Of Sensitive Renovation
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Rika and Shimo, the owners of a beautiful and thoughtfully converted machiya guest house called Karigane. The neighbourhood which I also call home, Murasakino, has been revealing its character to me in great swathes.
Much of the beauty of this historic district, dotted with myriad temples, food producers and bathhouses, lies in the strong community ties and the enthusiasm people have for preserving the past.
During their travels, Rika and Shimo had originally conjured up the idea of running a hostel-style guest house, as both of them had previously worked in such an environment. That plan changed when they found a great opportunity in a local machiya (wooden town house) available for use. When I first looked around the place I assumed they’d done a ground up renno, but Rika explained that they were quite lucky in that the place was in very solid condition when they bought it. It had existed as a tea ceremony teacher’s home for many decades, with a recent history of a cafe operating on the first floor. Working within the building’s constraints actually allowed them to focus their time and expertise on subtle details, traditional methods and sustainable, locally-sourced materials.
Mud, glorious mud! If you’ve ever been inside an old machiya, you’ll be familiar with the inviting array of textures that seek to envelop and soothe. Junichiro Tanizaki talks about this extensively in In Praise of Shadows; the way light glistens like obsidian on a lacquerware table or seeps with a warm glow through a shoji screen. Earthen walls are a classic feature of Kyomachiya, and these guys went deep into the mud zone to research and produce a beautiful variety of colours and textures. Their lower floor walls are smooth, with a tint of cool grey drawn from soil sourced from the Fushimi area of Kyoto.
Upstairs in the guest room, different combinations of materials interplay to achieve wonderful results. The main walls are a rich brown with a thin crackle throughout, an effect produced from modifying the balance of soil, mud and water in the rendering. In the tokonoma, straw mixed into the mud creates a textural surface pattern that almost makes it look alive. Apparently, some kind of chemical reaction between the straw and the mud affects the area it touches, causing it to blacken over time. I can only imagine how interesting this wall will look in a few decades.
Whilst the thoughtful use of traditional methods and materials – wood, stone, mud and grass – is evident throughout Karigane, as a bathing tragic I have got to talk for a minute about their incredible bathroom.
After first considering the idea of a tiled Mt Fuji, this glorious splash-friendly fresco ended up instead depicting a 360 of Kyoto’s highest peaks and modest city dwellings – Gozan, the famous five character mountains, Kyoto Tower and scattered wooden machiya are dotted amongst the hexagonal artwork. Rika and their builder laboured away on this interior in the bare bones, lightless room through the middle of an icy Kyoto winter (you can see photos of this in their website gallery), and I imagine a hot bath must have felt like the perfect reward at the end. The walls are delicately fragrant hinoki, a responsibly farmed Japanese cedar, and warm light from an old ship’s lamp complete the ambient scene.
All around Karigane you notice modest handmade details; the washi paper moon window on the stairwell, the range of woven bamboo ceilings, antique light shades or a branch that arcs over the entrance to a hidden vaulted gallery. The personal touches and effortless styling from Rika and Shimo make it very easy to linger in this gorgeous machiya – indeed, if the city had any fewer cultural attractions I doubt their guests would leave at all.