Atmosphere: Tucked away off a quiet little side street in Kyoto City’s Higashiyma District, Shimaya Stays consist of two service-apartments – BenTen East and BenTen West – housed in a Meiji era restored Machiya townhouse that’s more than a hundred years old. Though equipped with modern comforts, Shimaya Stays’ authentic historical architecture and Japanese-style, minimalist interiors will, with a good stretch of the imagination, transport you back to the time of shoguns and samurais.
Close enough to the heritage district of Gion, yet removed from the bustling tourist crowds, the two apartments, which are located in a quaint residential neighbourhood of Japanese-style houses, allow for a full immersion into a local, Kyotoan heritage environment.
Within, refined Japan aesthetics come through in high, wood-beamed ceilings, bamboo details, tatami-floored rooms, “fusumi” sliding doors, and small Zen, landscaped courtyards.
Houses: A form of Japanese vernacular architecture that originated in the Heian period and developed through to the Edo and the Meiji periods, Machiyas are traditional wooden two-story townhouses found in Kyoto.
Once the homes of Japanese merchants and craftsmen, these heritage homes are sadly being demolished at a rapid pace, with close to two percent of Kyoto’s Machiyas being destroyed each year.
When four friends from Malaysia and Singapore discovered this Machiya in Kamibenten-cho was up for sale, they quickly purchased it and began extensive renovations, transforming it into two peaceful holiday sanctuaries, where guests can begin their explorations of Kyoto’s many temples, shrines and Michelin-starred restaurants, then unwind after a day of sightseeing.
The fours friends worked with skilled Japanese craftsmen and a Japanese architect who specialises in Machiya restorations. The building’s original structure – wooden “koshi” or latticework front doors, “mushiko mado” – insect cage style windows, timber floors, clay partitions and baked tile roofs were retained. Brand new, contemporary furniture items, finishings and fittings were installed, and all the beds and dining tables were handmade by Kyotoan artisans.
In November 2015, Shimaya Stays – two serviced apartments of about 900 square feet each, were completed.
Upon entering a narrow corridor, one enters a living, dining and kitchen area with a sitting lounge that’s looks out to a small outdoor courtyard. On the street-facing side is another sitting area that’s ideal for meditation or a light meal. The screens on this street-side sitting area can be opened for views of the street or closed for privacy. Also on the ground level is a bathroom with a deep bathtub that looks out to the courtyard.
A staircase leads to the second level, where there is a second bathroom with a shower and toilet, and two bedrooms – one with western-style beds and a dressing area, and another with tatami floors and Japanese style futon beds. In the larger unit – BenTen East, there is also a resting nook with cushions along the stairwell.
In place of walls, sliding screen doors allow for spaces to be easily opened to let in more light, or shut for a dimmer more cloistered atmosphere. The screens also allow for the internal configuration of the spaces to be customised for different occasions and moods.
Amenities: There are two single beds with firm and comfortable mattresses and pillows in the western-style bedroom and two futons available in the tatami bedroom. There is a clean, modern kitchen with electric stoves, a sink, espresso machine, kettle and thermos flask, a refrigerator with a freezer compartment, washing machine, pots, pans, cooking utensils, dinnerware and cutlery. Towels, toiletries, cotton swabs and hairdryers are available in both the ground floor and upper floor bathrooms. The toilets are equipped with state-of-the-art bidets and the showers have wonderful water pressure. There is a discreet, wall-mounted television in the living room, artisan green teas sachets from Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms, four umbrellas in each apartment, and books on Kyoto’s culture, history and sights.
Location: Shimaya Stays is located in an area known as Kamibenten-cho in the Higashiyama District – one of the city’s best preserved historic districts along the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. It takes about ten minutes to walk from the property to the dining and shopping district of Gion. The apartments are also close enough to a number of temples such as the famous Kiyomizu-dera, the Kamo River, Pontocho Alley, and Nishiki Market, so you can make your way to these popular destinations on foot from the apartment.
Service: Shimaya Stays has an eConcierge service with staff that will help you arrange everything from transport to dinner reservations, private tea ceremonies to museum visits and much more.
Things to do while here: In the morning, take a walk to Kiyomizo-dera temple, then slowly explore the pottery, pickle, incense, dessert, tea and gift shops along Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka before visiting Yasaka Shrine and exploring the streets of Gion. If you can manage more walking, head a little further west across the Kamo River towards Nishiki Market and the Pontocho dining and nightlife area. In the evenings, dine in at least one kaiseiki restaurant in the Gion area to experience Kyoto cuisine and hospitality.
Room rate at time of review: Prices for the apartments start at ¥42,000 (US$385) per night. Each apartment can comfortably accommodate up to four guests.