photos by Masashi Mizowaki and Takaharu Yagi
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 in 2017 but is being preserved for its architectural and historic significance. The renovated structure will reopen in 2026 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.
Japan incarcerates its citizens at a far lower rate than most developed countries: 37 per 100,000 people compared with 132 in Britain and 629 in America. And the inmate population in Japan has seen a steady decline over the past decade, which helps explain why Nara Prison was shut down in 2017.
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.
After being postponed during the pandemic, new plans have been finalized for the prison hotel to open in the spring of 2026. It will be operated by Hoshino Resorts.
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
A version of this article previously appeared in July 2018 citing plans to open the hotel by 2020.