In Singapore, where one experiences only rain or shine, the thought of travelling to Tohoku, Japan, in autumn, was a welcome respite. More so when I learnt that the itinerary included visits to hot spring baths or onsen.
Tohoku, which lies on the eastern region of Japan's Honshu island, is popular with the locals, particularly farmers who travel to this region at the end of the harvesting season.
The writer in front of a momiji or maple leaf tree.
It is only in recent years that tourists have come to love this destination for its mix of scenery and historical sites.
History comes alive
Our first stop was the castle town of Kakunodate, in the Akita prefecture of Tohoku. No one should dismiss Kakunodate as boring because this is where, in spring, cherry trees blossom and in autumn, weeping willows turn into a riot of colours - red, yellow and orange.
Walking along the streets transports one back to old days. Strolling through one of the preserved samurai houses of the Aoyagi family, it is clear that Japan went through a long feudal period in its history, given the display of samurai weapons, costumes, armour and paintings belonging to a samurai family of the past.
The Japanese pride themselves on their traditional arts and crafts such as its cherry bark crafts or Kabazaiku, the handicraft art of manufacturing objects from polished mountain cherry bark.
The technique of Kabazaiku was first introduced to Kakunodate 2,000 years ago and has been passed down the generations. One of the more popular items incorporating Kabazaiku is the tea container.
Local Japanese visitors to Kakunodate enjoy a rickshaw ride around town.
Another place that captures samurai history is the Aizu Samurai Residence Complex in Aizu Wakamatsu, the oldest town in Fukushima prefecture.
Set within seven acres of land on which the Aizu residence sits, it is dedicated to showing how the samurai once lived, complete with furniture and household effects.
A walk through the complex will allow visitors a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of a samurai family and how some parts of their living quarters were designed to fend off potential attacks from enemies.
An onsen visit
The highlight of the trip has to be my maiden visit to the hot spring baths.
Natural hot springs are aplenty in Japan and every region of the country comes with its fair share of hot springs attached to resorts.
Most Japanese love to relax in the hot springs while they enjoy the healing properties of the mineral-rich water.
My first hot spring experience was in Hotel Morinokaze - a large establishment of 243 rooms that contains virtually everything from large dining halls to indoor and outdoor hot spring baths and even a water park called Kenji World, the largest in northeast Japan in the Iwate prefecture.
The sheer size of the hotel was amazing. The rules to observe before heading to an onsen were shocking: I had to enter the hot spring bath naked, with only a small towel to cover my modesty.
Even though it was nudity among the same sex, the very thought of going naked among strangers made me reconsider trying out the bath.
I also had to shower in public, in full view of other women, before entering the hot spring bath. Throwing aside my inhibitions, I did both, only to realise that the entire onsen concept was not as bizarre as I had thought.
After enjoying both the indoor and outdoor hot spring baths, I dressed myself in a lightweight cotton kimono or a yukata as the Japanese call it. This is a common attire, and most Japanese wear it during their entire stay in the hotel, when going to the hot spring baths and even for meals.
An indoor onsen is heaven for the initiated. The outdoor onsen under the stars is even better.
The hot spring baths in Hotel Morinokaze are restricted to the same sex and the etiquette to observe is a shower and a rinse before entering the bath.
Do not ogle and stare at others, and minimise noise as most Japanese prefer to relax and soak quietly in the hot spring baths.
There should not be any photo-taking within the premises. Avoid showing off large body tattoos and keep your hair tidy so that you look hygienic when sharing the hot spring baths with other hotel guests.
The outdoor hot spring bath is what I regard as a total onsen experience - with stars twinkling above me, on a cold autumn evening, soaking in the steaming hot water was pure bliss.
The writer's trip was courtesy of All Nippon Airways (ANA)