Architecture Culture Destinations

Visiting Tadao Ando’s Church of the Light

The architect Tadao Ando has designed four chapels and churches in Japan. They are known as the Churches of the Wind, Water, Sea and, his signature work, Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church, better known as the Church of the Light.

The Church of the Light was built in 1989, in the town of Ibaraki, in Osaka prefecture about 25 kilometers outside of Osaka city. It is the main chapel of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church and a showcase of the self taught (he used to be a boxer) architect Ando’s trademark work.

Ando – unlike his Japanese contemporary Kengo Kuma who specialises in the use of wood – primarily uses reinforced concrete that is very smooth to the touch, with strictly geometric lines. He is renowned for building his structures in harmony with nature, letting in natural light and wind to redefine the space inside the concrete.

“Light is the origin of all being. Light gives, with each moment, new form to being and new interrelationships to things, and architecture condenses light to its most concise being. The creation of space in architecture is simply the condensation and purification of the power of light.” – Tadao Ando

Church of the Light drawings by Tadao Ando
drawings by Tadao Ando

The Church of the Light has a rectangular shape, cut through by an obliquely-angled freestanding wall which divides the space into two parts: the chapel itself and a small triangular entry hall. The narrow aisle slopes gently down towards the altar on the south end of the church.

Behind the altar, the wall has two large slotted openings that form the shape of a cross. Light seems to burn through wall into the otherwise very dark space, facing the churchgoers seated on wooden benches made from the wood that was used for the scaffolding during the construction of the church.

Ando had an ongoing disagreement with the congregation concerning the cross shaped slots. He wanted to let the wind in freely, but the congregation deemed it too cold and covered it with see through plastic windows.

Why visit

There’s something very striking about Tadao Ando’s work. I love the smoothness of the concrete and can’t resist touching it whenever I visit one of his buildings. The absolute minimalism appeals, as does his use of light and dark. It is photogenic work, or in modern terms… ‘instagrammable’. Concrete is sexy, don’t @ me.

My favourite of his buildings that I have been able to visit is the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima. Its labyrinthal entrance leaves a lasting impression and the building is more interesting than most of the art inside. Although the Monets are a nice contrast. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden on the premises, you’re not even allowed to take a picture of the sea views from the museum café.

*cough*no photography*cough*

As for the Church of the Light, even as a non-believer, the sight of daylight burning a cross through the wall is something I won’t forget.

How to get to the Church of the Light

Unlike some of Ando’s other churches, The Church of the Light is fairly easy to get to and to visit, although you do have to book in advance.

You’ll have to sign up via their website weeks in advance and it is not open every day. Days of opening are decided one month in advance. Visiting hours are between 1.30pm and 4pm. Entrance is free, but church staff will ask you for a donation upon signing in. Nobody checked whether I had actually booked in advance or not.

Tadao Ando is a very famous and popular architect throughout Asia, he has designed many buildings in South-Korea and China. When I visited in November 2017, there were a lot of – mainly Asian – visitors. Everybody will be taking pictures. People will stand at the back, north end of the aisle first, but will eventually walk towards the south wall. Take your indoor pictures early if you want clean shots of the building.

  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando
  • The Church of the Light - Tadao Ando

Directions: From Osaka take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Ibaraki Station, a 14-minute ride. From there you can take a local bus. It is 12 minutes on the number 2 Kintetsu bus, the ride costs around ¥220. Get off at Kasugaoka Park Bus Stop (Kasugaokakouen) from which it is a 1 minute walk north-west towards the church. The bus driver will provide a map with walking directions upon request.

Or you can walk, as I did. It’s a little under one hour.

This link will lead you to the website of the Church of the Light

Other iconic buildings by Tadao Ando you can visit:

  • 21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo
  • Benesse Art Museum, Naoshima
  • Chichu Art Museum, Naoshima
  • Punta della Dogana, Venice
  • Opening in 2020: Bourse du Commerce, Paris

Architecture Tips

Japanese architecture, sign up for free courses

The Japanese architect Tadao Ando has been asked to work on an extension of the Kröller-Müller museum in The Nederlands. Internationally, Ando is probably the best known figure in Japanese architecture. “Ando designs extremely meticulous buildings that show respect for nature and are enormously spacious”, said the spokesman for the Kröller-Müller museum on Architectenweb.

Tadao Ando Endeavours poster

For me, urban architecture is one of the motivations behind my little love affair with Japan. In 2017 I went to Ibaraki (near Osaka) to see Ando’s world famous “Church of the Light”, his museum on the island of Naoshima and the incredibly impressive retrospecitve exhibition “Tadao Ando: Endeavours” at the National Art Museum in Tokyo. This Spring I will take a guided tour of buildings in the Omotesando neighbourhood. 

“Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture” 

Are you interested in modern architecture? Then maybe you’ll enjoy the “Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture” course designed by Tokyo University. Ando and other en andere luminaries in Japanese architecture are featured in this course. You can do the course for free on the edX website. 

History of Japanese contemporary architecture

In this course you will learn about the history, ideas and concepts of contemporary architecture in Japan. The course covers four subjects and five generations of architects. Part one is all about theory. The course teachers are, among others, Professor Kengo Kuma who designed the beautiful “Culture Tourist Information Center” in Asakusa and the famous Starbucks at Dazaifu Tenman-gū (with its 2000 wooden batons creating a diagonally woven lattice stretching out beyond the building’s facade) and Professor Yusuke Obuchi of the faculty of architecture at the University of Tokyo.

Via the medium of video they teach you about the grandfather of Japanese modern architecture, Kenzo Tange. Other architects, like Arata Isozai and Terunobu Fujimori are interviewed on location, showing their impressive buildings and talking about the way they work and their influences inside and outside Japan.

One of the most fascinating notions discussed is that Japanese architects aren’t bothered by European prejudices or rivalry: French architects are supposed to ignore Von der Rohe, and German architects pretend they don’t know Le Corbusier. Japanese architects are therefor said to be more objective about Western architecture.

Architecture courses

At the time of writing, the University of Tokyo is offering three different architecture courses on the edX website. Some of the material is archived, but you can still review it.

Sign up for a course

To sign up go to the course page on the website. You will have to register first to be able to see the course material.

Read more about Japanese architecture in out article about Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Enoura Observatory.

The picture above this story is the entrance to the Chichu museum on Naoshima designed by the architect Tadao Ando.

Architecture Art

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Enoura Observatory

A visit to Enoura Observatory in Odawara was the unexpected highlight of my sixth trip to Japan. Enoura Observatory lies at the foot of the Hakone mountains and looks out over Sagami bay with panoramic views of the Boso peninsula and Oshima island. It is an art gallery, an installation, an exercise in architecture, a place to perform, an open air museum, a citrus orchard, a bamboo grove and a garden. The structures and connecting corridors are placed to catch and reflect sunlight  on the days of the solstice and equinox. Not unlike the prehistoric tombs of Newgrange in Ireland, where on the day of the midwinter solstice the sun illuminates the floor of its main chamber.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, photographer and architect

The creator of Enoura Observatory is Hiroshi Sugimoto. A famous photographer who also makes sculptures, installations and has been working as an architect. You may not be familiar with his name, but you might have seen his work. Sugimoto shot the picture named “Boden Sea” that was on the cover of the album No Line On The Horizon by U2. 

U2's album sleeve, photo "Boden Sea" by Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sleeve of U2’s album, photo “Boden Sea” by Hiroshi Sugimoto

Odawara Art Foundation

In 2009, Sugimoto started the Odawara Art Foundation, its aim to promote Japanese culture to a wider audience. For years he searched for a place on the coast to realise his dream. With a 2014 grant he was able to build his multidisciplinary complex on a hilly piece of land in Enoura, in the Kataura area of Odawara, some 60 miles West of Tokyo. The project opened to the public in 2017. It has a 15th century entry gate, a gallery, a tea house, a stone stage, a glass stage.The buildings and installations are largely made from found objects and material from Sugimoto’s own collection:

“It is a combination of all my training and experience gathered here — everything,” the Japanese artist says. “(It brings together) my photography experience and the landscape design. (Plus there’s) the conceptual side: the sense of my time and personal history, and human history. Then maybe the history of the universe.”


Enoura Observatory is a place of peace, quiet and serenity and the proprietors want to keep it that way. The whole complex is 38,000 m2, 10,000 of which has been cultivated. There are only two three-hour admission times per day, people are let in in small groups only. This way it’s ensured that each guest has enough personal space and time to enjoy the area. According to calculations, every visitor has about 600 m2 of personal space during his or her visit. I can attest that it is possible not to see most of the other guests in your time slot, especially since the addition of the bamboo grove in 2018.

Enoura observatory, Odawara, Japan

Your visit to Enoura

There are several ways to get to Enoura. I took a train to Nebukawa station on the JR Tokaido line. When you buy your ticket for one of the two admission times, you can also book a ride on the shuttle bus from Nebukawa station to the Observatory.  

On arrival you are given a guide book which lists the origin of many of the objects you’ll see, and a list of rules. You can’t touch anything, you can’t use tripods and you’re not allowed to make phone calls. There’s no shop, no restaurant. There is a vending machine and designated locations in which the eating and drinking is allowed. Everything is geared towards the optimal experience of art and nature. Silence is king. You have the mountains behind y0u, the sea ahead of you. The deep orange colour of a rusty platform contrasts with the clear blue sky. Light plays an important part throughout the observatory. Sugimoto is after all a photographer. Light shines through the cracks, through holes in the walls of dark corridors, it reflects in the many glass objects and surfaces. There is so much to take in at Enoura Observatory that the three hours you are allowed in pass very quickly. Eventually, you’ll find all the people in your group will gather at the stone theatre and glass stage overlooking the bay, somehow drawn to it or each other. You wait for the gong to be struck, signalling the end of your visit to Enoura. The shuttle bus will take you back to the station.

Plan your visit to Enoura Observatory

Visiting Enoura Observatory is by appointment only. Visiting hours change season by season, check the Odawara Art Foundation website for the most recent information. You can book your time slot on the same website, from three months in advance. 

The closest train stations are  JR Tokaido Line Nebukawa Station en Manazuru Station. There is a free shuttle bus from Nebukawa and there are taxis from Manazura. 

Pictures of Enoura Observatory