photos by Masashi Mizowaki and Takaharu Yagi courtesy The Asahi

Spending the night in jail is usually not a good thing. Unless of course you’re staying in Japan’s Nara Prison, a historic red-brick structure built in 1908 with western archways and onion domes that lend an air of castle more than incarceration. The prison shut down last year but is being preserved for its architectural and historic significance. The renovated structure will reopen in 2020 as a hotel.

Nara Prison was built in 1908 and was designed by architect Keijiro Yamashita, the grandfather of prison architecture and the architect behind what are known as The Five Great Prisons of Meiji (located in Chiba, Kanazawa, Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Nara). In 1946 it changed names to Nara Juvenile Prison and housed juvenile criminals but with a strong emphasis on rehabilitation.

But with beautiful gardens and eye-catching architectural details, it’s only natural to wonder why so much care and attention went into the design of a prison. History, of course, has an explanation. When the prison was built in Meiji-era Japan, the country had recently been forced out of isolation by the West. Japan was grappling with what sort of rules should apply to foreigners who were now free to roam their land. Westerners were legally immune to the Japanese criminal justice system, which they regarded as barbaric. So Japan was scrambling to develop “civilized” laws and institutions that they could show off to the West and their prisons served as an ideal example.

Moving beyond the façade, the prison is set up with five elongated buildings that radiate out of the center where guards can easily monitor all hallways. From the air it almost resembles an outstretched palm and fingers. Contrary to its elegant façade, the interior of Nara Juvenile Prison is cold and utilitarian. Small rooms are behind the heavily bolted doors and the hallways have openings throughout their center to assist the guards. It will be interesting to see how much is preserved and how these interiors will be translated into lodging.

Three separate hotels are being planned – one is even being managed by MUJI – with close to 300 rooms. It’s set to open sometime in 2020.

the main watchtower where guards have views down the hallways of all 5 buildings

openings extended throughout the middle of the hallways to allow guards to monitor both floors

heavily bolted wooden doors and small cells where the prisoners lived

the cell doors had small windows used for communicating

prisoners had a pool for exercise