Photo by Jeremy Saum
The Nobu Ryokan Malibu is an oasis where every detail is designed to soothe. These days, that might take some getting used to.
Let’s get something straight right from the start. If you are thinking about staying at the Nobu Ryokan Malibu, whatever your financial worries may be, they are the kind that most people in the world would kill for. Rates at the oceanfront 16-room hotel just north of Los Angeles start at around $2,000, which ensures that the guests are not struggling to feed themselves. So, there are problems, there are first-world problems, and then there are Nobu Ryokan problems. Here are some you might encounter.
The hotel’s exterior sets the tone with its smooth teak walls. You walk through the entrance gate into a garden where water flows over honey-colored rocks into a pond, and palm trees shade stone paths lined with black Japanese grass. Your room has a Japanese name, and when you enter it, a rustic ceramic pot of green tea steeps, awaiting you. You see no exposed nails or screws, just smooth surfaces of teak and Jerusalem limestone and linen. The art on the walls is original—a watercolor of sparrows in muted tones, a panel of delicately carved black lacquer depicting waves and leaves. The furniture is oak, all right angles and brass fittings, the bedside lamps look like lanterns, and the minibar is the minibar you would find in a Zen monastery. Everything about the space says, “Relax. Be calm. This harmonious flower arrangement is here to help.”
Nobu has partnered with Surf Air to transport guests from various cities in California and Texas. Surf Air flies small planes out of small airports, which is a very different experience from flying in a big plane from a big airport. There are no lines. No long walks through terminal concourses. No TSA checkpoints. You show up—not two hours early, just 15 minutes early—show your ID, and hand over your bag. Pretty soon the pilot walks you out onto the tarmac, and you step up into the plane and claim one of the eight or so seats. It’s like getting in a really nice van. If you’re coming from the Bay Area, you fly for about 90 minutes. A car awaits you on the tarmac in L.A. You ride 40 minutes or so north on the Pacific Coast Highway past the beaches that California dreams are made of until you reach Japan. I mean Malibu.
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The waves of the Pacific end their journey a few steps away from the hotel. They crash gently, politely, rhythmically, a steady reminder that whatever schedule you’re on, it is not the planet’s. Apparently some people have a hard time sleeping with Mother Nature continuously whispering to them. There are earplugs in the drawer of your bedside table. I recommend leaving them there.
If you book a yoga session with Tom Morley from Nobu’s partner yoga studio ALO, you will be led by a disturbingly fit guy who looks like Matthew McConaughey and laughs like Jack Nicholson. And he laughs frequently. This is not intimidating yoga. He might come over while you’re awkwardly stretching your unlimber body and, because he’s also a massage therapist, rub the tension out of a spot that you didn’t even know you had tension in. While he’s at it, he may also massage your ego, complimenting you on your flexibility or strength. Tom has been teaching yoga for many years. He is wise.
Malibu has long been a destination for those who want to feel healthy. For those people who want to hike or lift weights, or hike to a plateau where they lift weights, or swim out into the ocean and then retrieve kettlebells from the seafloor, Nobu partners with Malibu Fit Concierge. The owner, Peter Deacy, is an easygoing Malibu native who will push you as hard as you want to be pushed. The women in my traveling party were also curious when he was going to take off his shirt.
As a guest at Nobu, you get first dibs on reservations at Nobu restaurant, just two doors down. If that seems too far away, you can get Nobu food delivered to your room. Then you’ll have to decide if you liked the scallop tiradito more than the salmon sashimi or the smoked duck with cherry and hibiscus, and, well, good luck with that. Five minutes away, on Malibu Pier, is the Malibu Farm restaurant, run by local farmer and chef Helene Henderson, which serves spaghetti squash lasagna, cauliflower-crust pizza, and tacos piled high with chicken and brussels sprouts, with many ingredients from Henderson’s farm just up the road.
The bathroom in your room—with the skylights in the high ceiling, the wall-less rain shower in one corner, the friendly toilet (we’ll return to that in a moment) in another, a sink along the wall, and finally, a deep, teak soaking tub—brings its own set of problems. You’ll want to take as many showers and as many baths as you can. It may become a way to reward yourself. You may find yourself saying things like, “I just read three more pages of my book. I think I’m due for another shower.”
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You’ve been floating in your teak soaking tub for quite a while now, breathing in the lavender from your dissolved bath salts. You think you might want to get out, so you lift your arm out of the water, and then you think, oh, how good would it feel to put my slightly cool arm back in this water, which is still nice and hot. So you put it back in the water. And it does feel good. So you do it with your other arm, and your feet. You lift just your hand and put it back in the water and notice the little waves that radiate from it, and you remember eighth-grade physics class when you had that little motor which made waves in a blue plastic tray and you remember words like frequency and amplitude and realize that you must be pretty damn relaxed if your mind just took you back to eighth grade. And you care nothing about the wrinkles that are forming on your fingers.
Also, you may not know how to orient yourself in the soaking tub. You might think that the slightly slanted end is perfect for reclining, and you probably don’t want to put your head by the faucet, but then you realize if you put your head by the faucet, you’ll have a better view of the raindrops skating down the skylight, so maybe you should try both orientations. This can also lead to pruniness.
I’m not saying you’ll start addressing your toilet as Mr. Roboto because who would do that? But if you’ve ever had the pleasure of using a high-tech Japanese toilet, you know how nice to you they are. They offer a warm seat, a gentle cleanse, an air dry. Mine at Nobu did all that, but it also opened its lid, like a friend waving hello, when it sensed that I was nearby. I found myself saying, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Roboto,” and “That’s OK, Mr. Roboto, I’m just on my way to the shower. Again.” I couldn’t help but think Mr. Roboto was a little disappointed as it closed its lid a few moments later.
In an age of online booking, this might throw you. Because you didn’t book your room online. You can’t. You didn’t call to make a reservation. The Nobu doesn’t publish its phone number. You emailed the hotel first, and then a human being contacted you. And you talked to that human being. And a human being greeted you when you arrived and showed you to your room. At Nobu, they believe that connecting with an actual person who wants to make sure you are comfortable and happy is a luxury in itself. Now if you can just deal with all of those other problems . . .
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