Visiting James Turrell’s ‘House of Light’ in Japan


Crowds crammed into artist James Turrell‘s shows at the Guggenheim Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this year, but the 70-year-old, MacArthur Grant-certified genius’s masterwork is tucked into the rice fields of rural western Japan. The “House of Light,” designed top to bottom by the Los Angeles-born artist, who specializes in manipulating light, is both stunning and open to tourists. Art lovers who plan ahead can even book the spot for an unforgettable (and unforgettably surreal) night’s stay.

The house is heavily inspired by traditional Japanese architecture, complete with shoji screens and tatami mat floors. Amid the tradition are Turrell’s puzzling light installations. Hallways offer slivers of color. Is it neon? Is it warm or cold? A bath large enough to hold a half dozen bathers is lit dimly by fiber optics that paint glowing spots on the water and accent the shadows. But the highlight is the “Outside In” room, which features one of Turrell’s signature “skyspaces,” a retractable roof accompanied by a light program that runs automatically during sunrise and sunset. 

As dusk approaches, the lone staff member at the house, a sort of butler-cum-curator, offers instructions on how to operate the light switches, shows where to find futons, and then drives off, leaving visitors alone. The only interruption after that is the food delivery, which is done in silence. A multi-course, locally sourced meal is laid out with exquisite care. After dinner and a soak, the quiet and darkness brings deep sleep.

Then, in the morning, the show arrives with dawn. Lay on the straw floor and watch the dark square patch of the ceiling burn into a swirl of morning light. When black turns to yellow and yellow turns to blue, take in a view of the rural valley below and watch the shadows swing in their corners. English support is spotty on the website and at the house, but the caretakers get something right in the instructional material, which offers the follow advice: “We hope you will pass some time facing the light.” Do that.

More information: The entire house can be reserved or can be shared by small groups at an incredible bargain. There is an accommodation charge of 20,000 yen ($195) shared by all guests and an additional 4,000 yen ($39) per guest. From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa and then the Hokuhoku line to Tokamachi station. The House of Light is a 15-minute taxi ride from the station. Make sure to allot time in transit to visit the massive, coin-operated sake (nihonshu) tasting room within Echigo-Yuzawa station.