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.
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.