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A look inside the elegant, minimalistic rooms that were designed to channel a traditional Japanese inn


Zen Palace

By Meg McGuire

Photography by Barbara Kraft


Nobu Ryokan brings understated luxury to Malibu.

IT TOOK ME three attempts to find the valet entrance to Nobu Ryokan. At first pass, I knew exactly where the property was, but that valet stand with the ubiquitous black umbrella was nowhere to be found. I made a U-turn, passed the hotel again, made no advances at getting in and pulled over again to do what any tech-savvy individual would do—Google Nobu Ryokan’s phone number. But, alas, the hotel does not publicize its number. I started to panic, thinking, check in is at 1pm; this is the hottest reservation in town, and I don’t know how to valet. Third time’s the charm, right? As luck would have it, the property’s oversize wooden gate slowly rolled open—the house Range Rover was transporting guests to Geoffrey’s—and I was lucky enough to flag down a valet staff member to let me in. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. Once you find out how to enter (which I am unable to reveal due to privacy reasons), it’s truly comical.

That gate, though, perfectly embodies what Nobu Ryokan is all about: privacy, security and tranquility. “The Ryokan is a very private and protected luxury retreat,” says Janelle Eng, the hotel’s general manager. “We say retreat because you come here and immediately recognize that you’re not on the PCH [anymore]. All you hear is the ocean and there’s nothing else to distract you—it allows everyone to decompress.”

The ocean is indeed the star of the show, and Nobu Ryokan’s Japanese-inspired minimalistic design allows for it to be so. Yes, it’s perched above one of the most coveted strips of Carbon Beach, but the hotel’s 17 suites, expansive relaxation deck and even fitness center ensure that the Pacific is the center of attention. You can’t escape the sound of the waves crashing, and if you’re lucky enough to snag a room with an ocean-hovering balcony, you’ll likely get a nonstop spritz of sea spray—which is completely welcome.

Nobu Ryokan’s backyard includes stunning landscaping, water features and the popular relaxation deck.

“People come here to rejuvenate,” says Eng. “Hence, why we require a minimum two-night stay—we find that’s what it takes to experience this place. I tell people that when they come here, they can’t work because when you work, Nobu Ryokan doesn’t work.”

I must admit, at first glance, I was a bit concerned if this place would be for me. There wasn’t a traditional lobby bar; while Nobu Malibu is next door—guests get preferential reservations—there was no full-service on-site restaurant, only room service within your suite or on the relaxation deck; and that spa we all treat ourselves to on vacay... that was nowhere to be found either.

What I quickly noticed was that none of that even mattered. Maybe that’s all fluff anyways... I just had yet to realize it. This was minimalist luxury at its finest. When I ordered a bottle of rosé from the high-tech iPad system, the staff brought it in two minutes or less. Booking a massage in your room? No problem. The masseuse will be there in an hour. A sushi dinner on the deck? Done deal. When there’s stunning views, well-appointed suites, teak soaking tubs, top-notch service and award-winning fare from Nobu Malibu (that’s finished at Nobu Ryokan), what else do you really need? A longer stay, is the right answer.

“We often find that most of our guests end up extending their stay or booking their next visit before they leave,” says Eng. “I’ve already had repeat guests, and we’ve only been open [a few] months.”

Extending my stay was exactly what I wanted to do, but, unfortunately, it was time to exit that gate and head back into the real world. Nobu Ryokan is special—unlike anywhere that I’ve ever stayed—and at the end of the day, I must admit that the ocean and the staff are co-stars. Without each other, Nobu Ryokan wouldn’t exist. Rooms from $2,000 per night