Boiled octopus. That’s what you feel like when you’ve reached onsen nirvana, apparently. Lifting an arm out of the water to check, I’ve certainly turned an impressively vivid shade of pink. I’m definitely cooked: now how the hell do I get out of here?
Japan’s natural hot springs or onsen are as numerous and widespread as they are popular, with some serving as public bath houses and others belonging to a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. For an onsen virgin like myself, the ryokan is perhaps a little less likely to lead to full-on public humiliation, but nevertheless my experience since checking into the Hidatei Hanaougi ryokan in Takayama has been a steep learning curve to say the least. Simmering naked in the company of near-strangers is just the half of it.

Checking in
Trying to guess the appropriate behaviour may be something of a minefield of manners, but to stress too much is to miss the point of the ryokan, however. Refreshed with green tea and sweets on arrival, it’s made clear that we’re here to relax. We check in and pick up our yukatas, the simple cotton kimonos that will be our uniforms for chilling out in during our stay.
My room is like a miniature set from You Only Live Twice – a traditional Japanese layout with sliding paper screens, tea set out on a low table and ornamental alcove decorated with fresh flowers and hanging scroll. The maid indicates for me to removing my shoes so as not to damage the delicate tatami-mat floor. I obey, then inexpertly don my yukata. Adding the pair of socks provided in the cupboard – the ones with the stitched part in between the toes, made to go with wooden thong sandals – I feel sufficiently attired to brave the onsen.

Getting wet
Adding my slippers to the neatly lined up pairs at the door, I enter the steam. Following the example of someone who seems to actually know what they’re doing, I put my towel, yukata and everything else into a basket. I make a laughably pointless attempt to cover my modesty with a flannel the size of Barbie’s picnic rug.

Before you enter the bath you have to get clean first, pulling up a stool at the row of wash basins and having a good scrub with the soap and shampoo provided. Clean as a whistle and ready to be boiled, I tiptoe over to the pool and, after several minutes of squealing like a monkey, adjust to the heat. Moving into the open-air section and finding a smooth rock to sit on, my face is cooled by the twilight air. Blissing out no longer seems a problem.

Indoor or outdoor, gender separated and mixed, lavish or simple, the estimated 20,000 onsen in Japan are treasured as places where people can come with friends or family to relax after work or at the weekend. Different springs are distinguished by the minerals in the water, each blend offering its own benefits to the mind and body. Some onsen add ingredients themselves, including chilli for improved circulation. Any more heat seems unthinkable as I eventually emerge from the pool to find myself dry from evaporation before I even reach my towel.

The multiple-course feast
Feeling serenely regal after my soak, it seems only right to follow with a feast fit for a queen. Translating literally as ‘stone in the chest’, the traditional kai-seki meal originated simply as a snack to ‘keep you warm’ before the tea ceremony. It’s come a long way since its days as an appetiser.

Over the course of the next few hours, an efficient team of waitresses keeps our long dining table continuously replenished with bowl after bowl of immaculately presented dishes that qualify as works of art. The series of visual delights begins with a spread of bamboo in green tea, octopus in sour plum sauce, clear soup with pink sushi rice, tuna and sea bream sashimi topped with a tiny marigold flower and chili-hot purple watercress is followed by meltingly crisp tempura and beef cooked on a hot stone.

Then the main course arrives: miso soup, pickles of cucumber, turnip and ginger, and of course, rice. This however is served only when permission is granted – sake aficionados claim that seeing the rice grain while drinking sake spoils the flavour. And still come plates of steamed veg, salmon in bamboo leaf, clam with meringue and tofu custard. Unsurprisingly, I learn that a feast like this for eight diners takes up to five hours to prepare. Preparation is beautiful yet minimalist, allowing appreciation of the subtleties – for the most sensitive of taste buds, some kaiseki are composed of only tofu-based dishes.

After-dinner entertainment
I Feel cleansed, purified, nourished … and totally knackered. Yet somehow, as I make my weary way to bed, a tractor-beam drags me into a doorway and I am powerless to resist. Several beers later, and still in what might as well be my dressing gown, my prowess on the karaoke prompts the barman to request that I join him in a rendition of Country Roads. Probably for entertainment value I suspect, but I don’t take much encouragement. Returning, eventually, to a cosy futon spread out and waiting in my tatami-floored chamber, I sink quickly into the deepest sleep in years. Public nudity and a whole new world of etiquette are more than worth a feeling like this – I’m the most contented boiled octopus in Japan.