Travel

James Turrell’s ‘House of Light’: A modern art house in old snow country

by Emma Riley

Contributing Writer

I watch the world transform from gray Tokyo cityscape to blinding-white, snow-covered mountains from my shinkansen window. This Niigata Prefecture scene was once famously described in Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country,” but I’m not trying to retrace his steps — instead I’m heading to the town of Tokamachi to spend my birthday visiting contemporary artist James Turrell’s “Hikari no Yakata” or “House of Light.”

Yōkoso! Welcome!” a townsman greets my friends and I with a cup of local amazake (a sweet, fermented rice drink) almost immediately upon exiting the train station, as if he expected us. I reach out a frozen, ungloved hand to accept the cup, which cools before even reaching my mouth.

The townsman guides us through a small tunnel carved through a pyramidal snow sculpture that opens up into a snow-walled maze. Encouraged onward by the sounds of J-pop, the icy labyrinth leads to a plaza — a winter wonderland complete with giant snow sculptures and a snow stage upon which dancers are throwing packets of rice and sweets to children below. Asking around, I discover my visit fortuitously coincides with Tokamachi’s 69th annual yuki matsuri (snow festival).

The man-made snow walls of the festival pale in comparison to the natural snow banks piling alongside the steep road to the sequestered “House of Light.” Perched on a hillock, the wooden house features washitsu (traditional Japanese-style rooms), where guests can sleep below large windows overlooking a rural Japanese landscape.

Primarily, the house is a piece of art: What makes it so unique are the fiber optic light programs at sunrise and sunset, choreographed by Turrell. The “Outside In” room also has a retractable roof — activating it can open the ceiling to reveal the changing sky, or release a torrent of snow into the room, depending on the season. The house’s guardians warn me sternly not to touch its control panel.

Turrell is known for experiential artwork that manipulates his primary medium: light. While music fans may recognize his aesthetic in Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video, Turrell took his inspiration from Junichiro Tanizaki’s book “In Praise of Shadows.”

Beyond the visual spectacle, this artwork is meant to instill a sense of community among guests that share the house for a night. Tonight, I am sharing the space with a couple and their 8-year-old son. Before unfolding our futons, I join the family in a game of babanuki (old maid). It truly feels like I am at camp, and I don’t ever want to leave.

The light show begins at dusk. Looking around at the turtleneck-clad houseguests as the lights fade from deep purple, to light blue, to vibrant green, the scene really does start to resemble Drake’s video — if it were not for the tatami and absolute serenity. The following morning begins in silence, our wooden home insulated from all sounds of outside life by the snow that threatens to bury the entire structure, before the light show begins again.

Although the “House of Light” can be enjoyed year-round and is just one of the several art pieces featured at Tokamachi’s Echigo-Tsumari Summer Festival, the snow seems to be an integral component of the conceptual artistic experience. After all, we are in snow country where, as Kawabata elucidates, the “snow falls even on the maple leaves.” It is hard for me to imagine it without the hanging icicles, the stairs hidden under sheets of snow and white mountains reflecting the colorful illuminations through the windows.

To reach Tokamachi Station, take the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa Station. There, transfer to the Joetsu Line to reach Tokamachi Station. From Tokamachi Station, it’s a 20-minute cab ride to the “House of Light.” Daytime visiting hours are from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Reservations of up to 12 guests to stay overnight must be made in advance. For more information, visit hikarinoyakata.com/eng. The Tokamachi Snow Festival is held on the third weekend of February annually.