Admire the Beauty of Shadows in Japanese Houses at the House of Light

  • One of the major decisions to make when planning a trip is choosing a place to stay at. With options between Western and traditional style and prices that range from budget-friendly to splurge-worthy, Japan certainly has an abundance of interesting accommodations. Adding to the number of guest houses that offer a memorable experience is the enchanting House of Light (光の館).

    Located in Tokamachi (十日町), a city in Niigata (新潟) Prefecture, is a traditional Japanese house with a modern feel. The House of Light is designed by 73-year-old American artist James Turrell, an expert in manipulating time and space. It was built for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (越後妻有アートトリエンナーレ), one of the largest art festivals in the world. This creation is a place of meditation inspired by the book entitled In Praise of Shadows (陰翳礼讃).

    In Praise of Shadows

    Published in 1933, In Praise of Shadows contains an essay about ancient Japanese aesthetics written by Japanese author and novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (谷崎潤一郎). The English translation by Thomas J. Harper, a Senior Lecturer of Japanese Literature at the Australian National University in Canberra, and Edward Seidensticker, a Professor of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, was released in 1977.

    The book consists of 16 sections where Tanizaki presents the virtues of Japanese architecture, the east versus west paradigms, and the integration of Western norms in the evolution of Japanese technology. He compared Western and Asian cultures with the contrast of light and darkness. According to him, the West is constantly and continuously in search for the light. A metaphor for its fundamental strive for progress. On the other hand, the Japanese follow the traditional concept of the appreciation of shadows. A metaphor for aesthetics through nuances in art and literature.

    According to Tanizaki, “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house… If the roof of a Japanese house is a parasol, the roof of a Western house is no more than a cap… A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us… The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows…” Turrell produced the design of his skyspaces after understanding the beauty of darkness in traditional Japanese houses.

    House of Light

    James Turrell explained that he wishes to realize the “world of shadows we are losing,” as Tanizaki wrote. The House of Light is a space where one can experience the connection of the light inside to the light outside.

    The bathroom he designed is lit by fiber optics that reflect glowing spots in the water inside. Meanwhile, the light from outside is experienced through a sliding roof that enables guests to look up to the sky through an open ceiling. It comes with a light program to change the viewer’s perception, allowing their eyes to see specific colors in the natural “white light” during sunrise and sunset.

    Niigata is a region that experiences heavy snowfall. Hence, Turrell designed the house with floors that are high enough to not get buried in snow.

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    Sunset program @ James Turrell’s House of Light

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    On the first floor, there is a tatami room that has an interesting design feature that allows the outside light to cast shadows on the wall. Lush greens from its line of sight give a refreshing feeling of being in the forest. The same feeling comes with the bathroom. The trees that appear with natural light allows a forest bath experience. At night, the optical fibers incorporated into the bathroom turn the traditional atmosphere into a more futuristic feel.

    On the second floor are two tatami rooms with a kitchenette. There is a wooden balcony that offers a great view of the Shinano River (信濃川), the longest and largest river in Japan flowing from Nagano (長野) to Niigata; as well as views of a valley and the peaks of Mt. Echigo (越後山). Here, you can experience the four seasons in the natural light, especially the vivid colors coming from the whiteness of snow in winter or the brightness of greens in summer.

    Three families can simultaneously enjoy the House of Light experience, but if they come in a small number, they may be asked to share the accommodation with another group. Meals and arrangement of futons are expected to be self-service. Since they do not offer free breakfast, guests are asked to bring in or cook their own with the basic kitchen utensils available for use. There are grocery stores around the vicinity where guests can shop for their necessary food items or cooking ingredients. Other utilities in the house include the essentials, such as air conditioning, refrigerator, electric cooker, dishwasher, bath products, and hairdryer.

    The House of Light is not only available for overnight stays but for day tours as well. Visiting hours are from 11:30 AM to 3:00 PM. The entrance costs 500 yen for adults and 250 yen for elementary students and younger. The venue is also an ideal place for gatherings. Meetings are allowed only at daytime for a maximum of 3 hours. It costs 10,000 yen but in the case of exceeding the time allowed, there will be an additional charge of 5,000 yen per hour.

    At 4:00 PM, the House of Light is closed to visitors so that the stay-in guests can fully enjoy their accommodation. It is becoming more and more popular among tourists, so it is recommended to book months in advance. It is even better to come in large groups and occupy the entire house.

    Getting There

    From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen (新幹線) to Echigo-Yuzawa (越後湯沢). There are several interesting museums to visit around Echigo-Yuzawa Station. There’s the Echigo Sake Museum (越後のお酒ミュージアムぽんしゅ館), the Shiro Shirahata Photo Museum (白籏史郎世界山岳写真美術館), and the Yuzawa Folklore History Museum (湯沢町歴史民俗資料館). From there, take the Hokuhoku Line (ほくほく線) and alight at Tokamachi Station. The House of Light is 15 minutes away by car or taxi from this station.

    There are many things to experience in and around the House of Light. The guests who have stayed here commented that though the area is quite a long ride from the capital city, the journey is worth it. It’s not every day you get to stay inside a literal work of art.

    House of Light Website

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