Forward, to a Better Past


It’s a promise made by a million and one tourist brochures in Japan’s ancient capital. Perhaps that’s why so many first-time visitors are surprised to discover, soon after arriving at the city’s steel-latticed, anything-BUT-traditional train station, that genuine evidence of traditional Kyoto is hard to track down. Although the city’s more famous shrines and temples have been preserved, hundreds of heritage houses are demolished every year, and antique districts are increasingly walled in by tenements and neon, power lines and telecommunications towers. If this trend continues, all of Kyoto’s traditional neighborhoods will succumb to sterile cityscaping and residents will wake one day to discover that their beloved home has become an Urban Anywhere.

For now, thankfully, traditional architecture is not yet entirely gone in Kyoto, and an expanding community of Japanese and foreigners is committed to making sure that a better-than-piecemeal preservation of old Kyoto remains a priority. Many old townhouses, called machiya, have been restored and converted into storefronts, cafes, and art galleries, but few are used as they once were: as homes. Furthermore, while the restorations provide a historically authentic visual ambience, there is little that allows visitors access to the artistic or cultural traditions that once formed the warp and weave of these homes.

Enter Iori, a company founded in 2004 which rents out gorgeously restored machiya to guests and offers them, in addition, hands-on training under local masters of Japanese traditional arts: calligraphy, tea ceremony, Noh drama, flower arrangement, martial arts, and more. In short, Iori promises visitors the opportunity to, well… in the words of its marketing leaflet: “experience Kyoto’s traditional lifestyle.”

In Iori’s case, that promise is more than just a whiff of marketing hype. “Actually living in these houses is almost an art in itself,” explains Bodhi Fishman, an Iori consultant and director of its Origin arts program. “Even if it’s something as simple as having a room with a tokonoma, and the way that the tokonoma is decorated in tea ceremony style, with flowers and so forth…. Living in that kind of environment, in a sense, is traditional Kyoto living. There’s a certain amount of wisdom that’s come down in the houses.”

The Iori concept is the brainchild of author and artist Alex Kerr, a longtime American expat in Asia whose two books on Japan, Lost Japan (1996) and Dogs and Demons (2001), are already recognized classics. Lost Japan, originally written in Japanese as Utsukushiki Nippon no Zanzo, was an equal parts love letter and lament which celebrated the beauty of traditional Japanese culture even as it mourned that culture’s apparent decline.

Perhaps the most poignantly ironic scene in the book describes when Kerr is sent to Nagasaki by a Japanese magazine to write a story about Huis ten Bosch, a tourist-oriented reconstruction of a Dutch village. Kerr arrived expecting to expose Huis ten Bosch as the kitschy pseudo-cultural farce he imagined it would be. Instead he was shocked: “It is perhaps the single most beautiful place I have seen in Japan in ten years.”

Astonished at the lack of garish plastic and obnoxious public address systems, and impressed by the lovely aesthetics of the place, Kerr wrote, “Huis ten Bosch was everything the new Kyoto is not – namely, peaceful and beautiful. To my great embarrassment as a lover of Japanese art, I could hardly bear to leave the place.” The future of Japan, he concluded glumly, “is going to be theme parks.”

The theme park mentality has led to, among other things, the creation of open-air museums posing as showcases of historical Japanese architecture: the jumbled collection of Meiji-era buildings at Meiji-mura in Aichi, for example, or the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in Koganei, just outside of Tokyo. Taken out of their original context and mostly robbed of their interior furnishings, the buildings at these parks can be appreciated only in the most passive way, as relics: seen but not touched, admired but unused.

Iori provides a welcome antidote to this passivity, since both its accommodations and its arts program prize and promote authenticity, artistry, and active participation above all else. Art and architecture are not museum pieces but living arts to be experienced and enjoyed. “The big picture is really creating experiences, with nothing passive,” says Fishman.

Let’s start with the machiya themselves. In Dogs and Demons, Kerr wrote that a heritage home does not have to feel like a museum: “You don’t need to go back in time, fold yourself into a kimono, and have your hair styled in a chonmage in order to live in an old house.” Rather, “it is eminently possible to restore Asia’s old houses in harmony with the needs of a modern society.” Iori’s machiya are good cases in point. The company currently manages the rental of ten different restored residences in central Kyoto, from a tiny one-bedroom house to a rambling mansion with multiple gardens which can accommodate up to fourteen. Essentially they’re all vacation rental homes that marry cultural authenticity to modern technology. Each machiya features 21st-century amenities like air conditioners, radiant in-floor heating, and broadband Internet. The detailed check-in orientation necessarily straddles a number of centuries at once, from explanations of a tokonoma alcove to cautions about fire safety (uncountable old homes in Kyoto have succumbed to fire) to instructions about “how to work the ridiculous toilets,” Fishman grins, “with their space-age control panels.”

Many traditional ryokan offer much of the same, of course, along with bustling kimono-clad staff waiting on a guest’s every need, but all that hyper-attentive service comes with a price, according to Fishman. At Iori’s machiya, “what you really have is space and privacy more than anything.” If guests want sightseeing recommendations, restaurant bookings, transportation arrangements, all that can be provided, but “if they just want to be left alone with the key and they want their own space, we suss that out. We leave people to their own devices.”

Part of Iori’s draw is the chance to participate in its Origin Arts programs, based in a hall next to Iori’s main office. The hall offers two floors of activity spaces, including a full-scale Noh drama stage upstairs which doubles as a martial arts practice area. On a typical day, according to Fishman, half a group of visitors will be downstairs practicing, say, calligraphy. The other half of the group will practice Noh drama upstairs, including an incredibly rare chance to wear and handle Noh theatre masks. Halfway through the program the two groups will switch, and at the end, the arts masters who taught the classes give a final performance that synthesizes and integrates the day’s arts learning.

Ultimately, Fishman says, “we’re in the business of trying to share or introduce or give people access to the best of what has come out of this country, whether that means architecturally in terms of staying in one of these houses, or culturally in terms of studying with these masters and having access to some really, really wonderful things.”

Japanese guests have made up 60% of Iori’s clientele so far, and for some of them a machiya stay is as exotic as it is for foreign tourists. Foreigners, particularly Europeans, are accustomed to arriving in a city and renting an entire house to stay in. “For our Japanese guests,” Fishman says, “I think that staying this way is more unusual. We’ve also had a lot of people who’ve said it’s the first time they’ve ever stayed in a tatami room… it’s kind of amazing that for some Japanese, it’s as unusual as it is for foreigners.”

It’s the same with the arts programs. “Sometimes with our Japanese groups,” Fishman says, “it almost seems like what the masters are teaching is more alien to them than it is to people from abroad who have read a bit or studied these things or have come with an interest and know a bit about martial arts or traditional theatre.”

Asked if he ever feels like he’s teaching Japanese culture to Japanese people, Fishman smiles and says, “I don’t feel like I am.” He insists that his role is an intermediary one, helping guide the arts masters themselves, “introducing them to a teaching style that they’re not necessarily used to, getting them to reveal things that their regular Japanese deshi wouldn’t encounter in ten years or more.”

The Origin Arts program developed from the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts, founded in 1976 by art collector David Kidd and Madame Naohi Deguchi. After the school closed in 1997, Alex Kerr helped revive it in the mid-2000’s in its current incarnation as Origin. Bodhi Fishman is now the director. According to Fishman, Origin’s guiding principle is “a mastery of many of the arts. Rather than coming here and just experiencing tea ceremony or just calligraphy or just martial arts, if you do or three or four of these things even in a one-day program, you get an entirely different perception of what the culture is.” A master who teaches at Origin, therefore, is an embodiment of a Renaissance ideal, “in the sense that he is really a master of different, almost separate traditions. That’s something that you don’t see so commonly here.”

Fishman says that the artistic community in Japan may be rarefied but it is certainly not rare. “It’s very much alive. It’s more a question of access and actually making sense of it… Noh drama or kyogen or calligraphy are all very healthy in the sense that there are large numbers of Japanese who practice them very seriously and have systems to hand them down. But I think that what’s been lacking is a way for people who aren’t part of that to actually get some access in a meaningful way and in a relatively short time. Most of us don’t have time to apprentice ourselves to a master to study these things.”


Alex Kerr’s passion for preserving and restoring traditional Japanese houses didn’t begin with Kyoto machiya. It began far earlier, in 1973, when as a twenty-year-old Keio University student he purchased a thatched farmhouse he discovered while hiking through Shikoku’s Iya Valley. The story of that house, a labor of love he called Chiiori (“House of the Flute”), forms the backbone of Lost Japan, and the efforts of Kerr and others to keep it in good repair and ready for visitors have become the stuff of legend.

But the Iori community continues to expand beyond the borders of both Kyoto and Iya. Fishman explains that Iori’s overarching goal is to take the model from Kyoto (the restoration of the machiya and the teaching of classical arts that developed in Kyoto) and apply it to places like Iya, “to villages around the country which are suffering from depopulation and concrete addiction and all of the things that we talked about in Dogs and Demons. We’re trying to use the model here to help those villages in some ways come back to life.” Much of the behind-the-scenes work to garner support for these projects in sustainable tourism is done by Kerr and his Iori co-founders Hideki Kajiura and Yoshiko Negishi, who are in contact with about twenty different municipalities around Japan. “A few projects are really going to start coming alive this year, finally,” Fishman says.

One case in point is Ojika, a “beyond beautiful fishing and farming island” off the Nagasaki coast. Kerr and Fishman stumbled across it almost by chance, through a young Nagasaki native who had helped out at Iya. The current restoration project at Ojika started with four old large farmhouses as well as one old whaling mansion, which is being restored as a restaurant featuring local cuisine; a Tokyo chef was hired to come down to Ojika and help the locals develop the restaurant and its menu.

Unlike Kyoto, a place like Ojika may be off the average tourist’s radar, but Fishman says that marketing it as a travel destination is actually fairly easy. Last December Fishman and Iori manager Nemo Glassman attended an international luxury travel market meeting in Cannes, where they found a very receptive audience. “We have a kind of nonprofit mentality,” Fishman says, “and our ideals are very easy to share with people, because it’s something that people want to support. And I think this is a product that well-to-do travelers are looking for. People who have been to Japan a few times, who have been to Kyoto and Tokyo and Hiroshima… these people actually want to get out to places that are off the beaten track but that also have the kind of services and amenities that they expect. So that’s what we’re trying to create.”

High-end tourists who seek out Iori’s travel services often want to see traditional village life that they can’t experience otherwise. “People go to Shirakawa-go or Hida Takayama where there’s traditional architecture,” Fishman says, “but a lot of what’s happened in those places is that they’ve been taken over by the package bus tours and vending machines and I think a lot of the magic gets lost in the process.” What Iori is trying to do with its destinations is quite different. “We don’t want to get a bunch of package tours of 40 people on a bus who come and have lunch and buy omiyage and dump their trash and leave, but people who come and stay for three or four nights and who study the local culture and eat in the local restaurants. Economically speaking, they’ll leave a fair amount of money behind, but they’ll also have a more meaningful interaction with the locals.”

In its efforts at building a sustainable tourism model for rural communities, Iori is just getting started; its additional, grander hope is that others will copy its business model. “The idea has always been that if the restoration of these homes and the rental of them could work financially,” Fishman says, “than any homeowner could see that as a real option as opposed to just tearing their house down and putting up an apartment block.”

Like Iori’s restoration projects, Origin is also constantly expanding. Alex Kerr has already started an Origin program in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, where he is working with the top masters of traditional Thai arts. He’s made contacts in Bali, in Bhutan, in China, in Tibet. And why stop with the Far East? “I’d like to see it go beyond Asia,” Fishman says, “as a model for teaching the arts and bringing people together with masters of the traditional arts. This is something that really makes sense in any country.”

On the second floor of Origin’s arts hall, backing the Noh stage, is a long folding screen splashed with beautiful Japanese calligraphy written by Alex Kerr. The message relates to Origin’s logo, the houju, a spiritual symbol resembling a globe-shaped jewel with flames billowing out of the top half. The calligraphy message says, according to Fishman’s translation, “the bright jewel is in the palm of your hand. The idea is that you’re already holding it: the key to your wishes.”

Whether long-term fulfillment of Iori’s goals is possible remains uncertain, and its dreams of preservation and restoration encounter roadblocks daily. Standing outside the Iori rental office, Fishman points out the company’s first machiya restoration, a beautiful late Edo-era townhouse named Sujiya-cho. “There was another house that looked exactly like it, just right out front, next to us,” Fishman says.

That other house is now gone. What’s in its place? A coin parking lot. Fishman sighs, but an ironic smile tugs at the corners of his mouth as he looks at the neon parking sign lighting the roadway in front of the Iori entrance. “Well, we’re easier to find now.”

Alex Kerr’s website:




京都のモデル事業を行なう「庵」という会社を訪れた。町家をきれいに整備し貸し家としてレンタルしているこの会社は2004年創業、伝統文化体験として書道、茶道、能、華道、武道などを、実践を中心に専門の先生に習う「オリジン・アートプログラム」も好評だ。リーフレットの言葉を借りて言えば「京都 町家で過ごす・学ぶ」というのが「庵」の魅力。










最後にフィッシャーマンが端的に説明してくれた。「私たちがやっているのは、お客さんに日本の魅力を肌で感じてもらうということです。町家に実際に滞在してその素晴らしさを体感しながら、日本の伝統文化も実践を通して学び、その魅力を知って頂く、ということです」。 今のところ60%が日本人客だというが、日本人客にとっても町家に宿泊することはとても異次元的な感覚らしい。しかし外国人、特にヨーロッパ人にとっては目的地に着いたら家を丸ごと借りるというのはよくあること。「日本人にとっては海外からのお客様が感じる以上に町家に泊ることが非日常に感じられるようです。畳の部屋で初めて寝たという日本人のお客様もたくさんいらっしゃるのはちょっとびっくりですが」。
















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