When I visited Taiwan in December, I spent two nights in Jiufen!
Jiufen is a small mountain town east of Taipei, in northern Taiwan. I first learned about it from some ALTs in Japan who visited it, saying that it was the mountain town in Taiwan that the Japanese animated movie Spirited Away was based off of. When I googled Jiufen, I found all sorts of articles and blogs about “getting Spirited Away to Jiufen,” etc, and it really does look remarkably like scenes from the movie! However, I cannot find anything from Studio Ghibli or Hayao Miyazaki (the director) supporting this, so… who knows if it REALLY was the inspiration behind the film?
Minus the insane amount of tourists that clog the streets and made me lose track of my travel buddy and want to start stabbing people with my umbrella (deep breaths), it’s a magical kind of place, with winding streets and vendors of all kinds crammed along alleys. My favorite time to walk around was early in the morning, when most of the vendors were still setting up and there weren’t THAT many people around (although the crowd was growing already…).
Anyway, it is still a beautiful, breathtaking place, both in the sun, as well as the rain. How do we know? Well, it rained the ENTIRE time we were there, except for two hours of glorious morning sun.
Jiufen was a quiet village that had a gold rush which transformed into a mining town during the Japanese occupation in the late 1800s. In the years since Spirited Away, and it’s uncanny similarity was discovered, it has become a popular tourist destination for Japanese tourists as well as foreigners interested in the film. We heard SO much Japanese there, way more than we did in Taipei.
First up, tea! Tea houses and tea culture seems to be a huge thing in Jiufen. If you take a walk along the streets, you can see anything from hip and trendy tea shops to dimly lit tea houses nestled between food stalls and souvenir shops.
I really wanted to have a tea house experience, but the tea houses we saw all seemed super expensive (around $18 USD for a tea set!), and super crowded. So on one of our rainy nights, we decided to go to the edge of tiny, touristy Jiufen, and decided to step into this old, creaky, tea house (named 树榣).
Walking into the tea house was an experience in itself – it was big, dimly lit, and we could hear the rain/wind up against the roof and walls. After a bunch of twists and turns, we found the balcony, which had a beautiful view of the bay and mountainside. It would have been a nice spot to sit if it weren’t spraying cold rain everywhere!
Our waitress was quite the character – she was totally in her own world and super laissez-faire. Gave us chopsticks with crusty bits of food on them, and left us to fend for ourselves with our tea set (after showing us the first step)! I really liked the part where, after you put in your tea leaves, you just poured the hot water into the pot until it overflowed, and then pushed the lid on and made it overflow some more! The tray was designed for it, and caught the water in it’s pan – so cool. :) At first I was like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING! It’s getting everywhere!!” But all was well, the tray was made for that. :P
The tea house itself was also really cool! We weren’t sure if it was made to look old, or if it was just full of real things that were just really old. There were super old looking fans, statues, banners, etc. It was an interesting (and sometimes confusing) atmosphere to have tea in! VERY laid back.
As for the tea itself, it was good, but not mind blowing or anything. I love tea, but prefer fruit or milk teas. :P
One of the street foods I tried, which was pretty good, was Peanut Ice Cream Rolls! They were a bit sweet for me, and splitting one with Justin was a good idea. The process was really cool to watch, and we got a quick video of them!
I also tried “barbecue mango mochi” and bubble tea at a place called Drunk on Earl. The mochi was interesting… not my favorite, but the bubble tea was AMAZING! I already talked about this particular bubble tea place in a previous post, but I have to talk about it again here. It was SO GOOD. I tried finding more information on this place but I can’t seem to find anything! I went back and got another bubble tea on my last morning in Jiufen. <3
One of the attractions smack dab in the middle of Jiufen was ShenPing Teater, which was a welcome relief from the rain for us! The theater is said to be the first modern theater in Taiwan, and was built by the Japanese in 1914, making it over 100 years old. The theater was shut down at one point, and now has been renovated and plays older movies for free! We saw My Native Land, a biographical and tragic movie about a Chinese writer.
Overall, Jiufen was great! It was a slow start on Taiwan, and as I said in a previous Taiwan overview post, two nights is overdoing it a bit if you want to really cram it in. It’s doable in a day, especially if it is raining. However, whether it is for a day trip, or a few nights, it is a nice step back into history – minus the crowds. ;) Then again, I could explore winding streets and stairwells anywhere forever!