TOKYO – The historic former Nara Prison, the oldest in Japan and declared a cultural asset, is set to reopen in 2021 as a luxury hotel in a pioneer project seeking to change the area’s image of an express tourist destination.
The complex, situated in Nara city in the western island of Honshu – the largest in the Japanese archipelago – was constructed between 1901 and 1908, and officially opened in 1909.
The Romanesque red-brick construction is the only prison that remains intact of the five built by the Meiji government (1868-1912) with the aim of modernizing the country’s correctional facilities.
The government gave great importance to the prison and displayed a model of it at the British-Japanese Exhibition in London in 1910 to show the modernization of the country, which had remained virtually isolated for more than two centuries.
The prison, which has an area of some 106,000 square meters (1,140,975 square feet), was extended in later years up to its current size. It was used as a juvenile prison from 1946 until its closure in 2017, when the authorities began to look for operators to reinvent the complex.
Nara will be the first prison in Japan to be converted into a hotel, something popularized in western countries, said Catherine Peng of Hoshino Resorts – the hotel chain that will operate the complex.
The project was assigned to them in January this year, and much detail remains to be decided, although the concept is that of a luxury hotel, which will allow for the recovery of renovation costs and the generation of revenue.
Peng refused to provide any figures saying decisions were yet to be finalized. However, according to the project’s original estimations by the Ministry of Justice, renovation costs could exceed 15 billion yen (around $136.6 million).
“Although renovation is a must, we will try our best to maintain its special characteristics,” said the Hoshino Resorts spokesperson, adding that “the architect aims to preserve the facilities as it is such an iconic and precious building.”
An early draft of the renovation plan showed that the hotel will have a few dozen rooms, and the storage areas and rooms used by the guards will serve as common areas.
Hoshino Resorts said that although converting a prison with more than 100 years of history into a hotel could be a challenge in preserving its heritage value, they also see it as an opportunity “to improve Nara’s tourism.”
Nara, which served as the capital of Japan in the eighth century, is known for its deer that roam its streets and parks, attracting tourists who make just a day trip to see the animals and other attractions such as the bronze Buddha at Todaiji temple and Kasuga Taisha shrine.
In 2017, the number of visitors to the city increased by 4.96 percent year-on-year, exceeding 16.3 million people, of whom only 1.8 million stayed overnight, according to data from the cultural section of the Nara city government.
With this project, the local authorities seek to “effectively promote tourist attractions in Nara city and to generate more footfall” to “revitalize our regional industries,” an official from the city government told EFE.