Jacqui L’Ange gets into hot water on her first visit to Japan – and can’t wait to return to the country’s sublime Onsen (hot springs) baths.

I’m naked and alone in a changing room at night and I can’t read any of the signs. They’re in Japanese, so I can’t even decode the kanji script and guess my way out of here. The four local women who were here before just disappeared down a long corridor. This is the routine I’m contemplating now. I can’t see exactly where it goes because it bends at an angle. And one of its walls is glass.

Description: A woman enjoying open air onsen in Hokkaido

A woman enjoying open air onsen in Hokkaido.

Actually, I’m not completely naked – I have the complimentary white Onsen “modesty towel”, which is about the size of a large handkerchief. It won’t be much use if I find, halfway down the glass passage, that I’ve wandered into the men’s baths, or worse, failed to understand a sign that says “dining hall this way” and end up being unscheduled entertainment for the hotel guests.

In the few days that I’ve been in this country I’ve learnt that Japan is a place of exquisite etiquette and minute attention to detail. It’s easy for a clumsy Westerner to blunder, although most locals are so politely tolerant of a gaijin oversight that you may not even know you’ve caused offense.

But it’s pretty obvious that this little towel will be too small to hide behind if I make a wrong turn.

Hot rocks

Description: who can resist the shinkansen, the bullet train?

who can resist the shinkansen, the bullet train?

Japan is a volcanic country, which means plenty of hot springs and a long tradition of Onsen, or hot baths. My partner, David, and I came to the Minakami-onsen, to escape the bright hustle of Tokyo and iron out some of the creases from our long flight. (Japan is almost as far as you can get from Cape Town, and it took us 36 hours of air and transit time to get here.)

Minakamikan is located in the Gunma Prefecture, about a 90-minute ride on the Shinkansen “Bullet Train” from the big metropolis.

The small town feels like part of another world. It’s autumn, so the air is crisp and the maples have turned every shade from yellow through burgundy. In the back-yards, bare-leaved persimmons are heavy with orange fruit. There’s a Shinto temple on every corner.

Our hotel is suspended on the banks of the Tone River, which courses down the slopes of Mount Tanigawa. The Onsen promises therapeutic benefits for everything from rheumatism and nervous system disorders to digestive troubles, scarring and what their brochure calls “feminine ailments”

Clients can choose from eight different kinds of baths, made from cypress, crystal, stone or ceramic pearls – the shape and material of each one subtly changing the energy of the spring waters. Which are HOT.

I liked the outdoor baths best; there really is nothing like sinking in up to your chin and watching slightly sulphurous vapour rise into the chilly night air, keeping still enough so that the stars and your thoughts reflect off the dark surface.

I just need to walk this gauntlet to get there…

Description: Hot spring water flows into the open-air private rock bath

Hot spring water flows into the open-air private rock bath

Onsen etiquette

Although Onsen baths are communal, men and women bathe separately. Minakami-onsen separates its baths into different areas, and allocates certain times for men and women at each one.

Each has a distinct character – my favourite: a warm waterfall running down the face of a volcanic rock into a deep round pool with perfectly sculpted ledges for you to lie on and be pummeled by invisible water hands.

The clean style and lack of clutter mean that little details take on special resonance. Each corner provides something – an origami bird, a perfect stone – to please the eye.

Our 24-hour stay will be just enough time for David and I to sample every section, separately. We also do one soak together, in one of the private baths that families or couples can book to bathe together. Since David is part-Japanese, we do this first so he can ease me into some Onsen basics.

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