Kusatsu is best known as a ski and hot-spring resort, but there are a handful of other sights to divert visitors when they're not on the slopes or in the bath. One of these is the Kataoka Tsurutaro Art Museum, dedicated to the work of (you guessed) Kataoka Tsurutaro, an actor, comedian and former professional boxer, who's also a talented painter. Just down the hill from the Kusatsu Hotel and Hotel Ohruri, it's a pleasant place to spend a peaceful hour admiring his artworks.
Once you pay the entrance fee and step through the large door, the atmosphere is immediately relaxing. The first room has a high ceiling with lots of light, the layout is uncluttered, and the colourful, stucco-like walls make it feel like a grand farmhouse in the Spanish countryside, an impression that continues as you go up the steps and through the other rooms.
The art is just as appealing as the setting, with a lot of understated charm, colours that are rich and lively, but not brash or gaudy. Many of the paintings are appealingly unfussy: simple frames and plain backgrounds with fans, flowers or animals to the fore, crabs, birds, fish, cats, lobsters. Some are painted with a delicate hand and plenty of fine detail, some with broader strokes, heavy outlines and lots of energy.
There were two paintings I especially enjoyed: one of delicate but brightly coloured goldfish, another of two cranes, that suggested a lot by what was missing. They're both looking up to the sky - at what? Their feet aren't shown - are they standing in water? In mist, in snow?
Other pieces in the museum show Kataoka's full range of artistic talents. There's a large folding screen (secured in place by cheerful ceramic ducks) with vibrant, loosely painted animals from the Chinese zodiac, a couple of large canvases with bold calligraphy, and some ceramic pieces with delicate, intricate patterns and designs.
As is the way of things, the exit leads into the souvenir shop, where you can choose from a range of cards, prints, books, stationery and other goodies to buy and take away. Even here it's nice to browse the gifts in unhurried fashion before you head back outside.