The first Machiya reportedly grew out of architecture in the Heian period, but they continued to see developments through the Edo period. There were even developments in Machiya craft during the Meiji era. Regular cho-nin, or townspeople, lived in these homes and made up a class of craftsmen and merchants. The word itself is written with the kanji for town (machi). The kanji used for ya can mean either shop or house, and this bit of a spelling lesson is an easy way to illustrate just how integral these buildings were to Japanese villages.
Many traditional structures in Kyoto were designed to stand up as a long wooden house with a narrow frontage. This could stretch into the city block for quite a was, and might have a courtyard garden or something similar. They could be up to three stories high, and usually featured walls made of earth and tile roofs. While most people might think of residential and commercial space as something different, many of the inhabitants these homes actually used the space in the front of their buildings as a place of business. There were often folding shutters that helped to display whatever goods their owners were selling.
The remainder of the structure would be divided into a kyoshitsubu, which was a living space. The kyoshitsubu might have several rooms that have raised timber floors along with tatami mats. The doma, also called a toriniwa, was a less glamorous room that had no floor. It usually worked as a service space that featured a kitchen. The hibukuro made up the chimney to carry away smoke from cooking. Interestingly enough, a hibukuro in a traditional Japanese home can also be used like a skylight.
Since many of these traditional Japanese homes stood on a plot that was narrow but very long, people called them unagi no nedoko. That translates to eel bed. Interestingly enough, the use of these plots was actually quite efficient, and even the courtyards and gardens could help with air circulation. They also served to bring natural lighting into the homes.