This stunning work of century-old architecture has given its last tour allowing people access to never-before-seen parts of the facility.
During the Meiji period, when Japan was going through a series of cultural upheavals, the Five Big Prisons of Meiji were constructed in various locations around Japan. Perhaps the most famous is Nara Juvenile Prison, a sprawling red-brick complex in one of Japan’s most historic cities.
However, after 109 years in service, Nara Juvenile Prison officially closed completely in March of this year. And starting this month is a plan to convert the correctional facility into a hotel by 2020.
As one last hurrah, the prison opened to the public one last time on 16 July. And unlike other tours of the security complex, this one offers a look at the never before seen prisoners’ quarters, seeing as the prisoners aren’t around any more.
Our reporter K. Masami braved the heat to get a first-time look at these secretive areas. It proved not to be easy, however. Although Nara is famous for its historical sites, it usually doesn’t draw the types of crowds you might find in Disneyland.
But this time that was definitely not the case.
Our writer estimated about 10,000 people visited Nara Juvenile Prison on that day, making it one of the very few times that people were flocking to get inside a prison. Not only that, but it was a scorching hot day as well, poor conditions for Masami to have a grueling three-hour wait in line.
Luckily, inside the prison wasn’t nearly as hot, but the air felt very heavy there. Masami assumed this to be from the distinct lack of sunlight let inside.
However, some of the cells offer nice enough vistas.
Even from the outside, guards could get a good look at which cell was which because they painted their numbers on the wall.
Some of the dark parts of the prison’s past could be seen with these buildings once used to isolate prisoners who had mental illnesses.
But there were also brighter moments like this monument to self-reformation and the fact the inmates had a swimming pool.
Getting access to the cell blocks for the first time, Masami could see the wire grating that allowed guards to watch what was going on both floors at the same time.
It also surrounded the central jailers’ office. She could imagine that this design must have been state-of-the-art back in 1908.
The 10-centimeter (four-inch) thick wooden doors kept inmates in their cells. They looked heavily aged but strong as ever and had tiny holes for the food to go in.
In the near future these cells will become the guest rooms for the hotel that would occupy this former correctional facility. Some might see this as exploiting the past, but with a structure this large, ornate, and old, maintenance costs had become unbearable.
▼ Probably no one will miss the authentic urinals anyway.
It also solves a major issue with the tourist economy of Nara: Although the city is full of historical sites, accommodation is seriously lacking. Developing in the area is also a nightmare because of the high chance of accidentally digging up something of historic value, thus making new hotels extremely difficult to build.
So, as crass as it may seem, converting these architectural masterpieces into viable businesses – if done right – is probably the best solution for Nara to preserve the past and stay afloat in the future.
[ Read in Japanese ]