Charming Ways to Get Spirited Away in Jiufen
Not too long ago some good friends of ours introduced us to the animated works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. One of our first (and still favorite) films from this icon of animation is the film Spirited Away. Fast forward a year and we were planning a return trip to Taiwan for summer vacation. As we researched where we’d like to go and what we’d like to do, we came across some interesting websites discussing a city that was Miyazaki’s inspiration for the bath houses in Spirited Away.
Before really much more research at all beyond looking at several photos for verification, we immediately added it to the list of places we were going to try to visit while staying in Taipei. Taiwan’s notorious weather permitted several rain-free days during our trip, so we were able to visit Jiufen. While this place completely enamored us with its charm, we wanted to share some of our favorite places to visit in Jiufen. It doesn’t matter if you’re, like we were, visiting because of a movie or any myriad of reasons, this guide to Jiufen’s mystical alleys and tea houses should aid in your adventure.
Iconic Old Street
The first and foremost reason for our trip to Jiufen is the iconic Old Street. The architecture of this stunning mountainside village harkens back to before World War Two when Japan was occupying Taiwan. The inns, bath houses, and tea houses of Jiufen served as a relaxing getaway from Taipei in the gorgeous mountains of northeast Taiwan. The tight alleys and labyrinth of market stalls are lined with the beautiful red lanterns and one section of staircase stands apart as the most famous spot in this stunning village. There is little mystery as to why Hayao Miyazaki was so inspired by Jiufen that his production studio set off to make the classic animated film “Spirited Away.”
Make sure you don’t leave Jiufen without first trying some of the famous food! The food may appear to be a bit strange, but everything we tried was sheer heaven. Our favorite food we found had to be the peanut ice cream rolls. They shave a brick of caramelized peanuts onto a thin popiah (similar to a crepe and made with wheat flour). Then they simply top it with a scoop of ice cream before rolling it all together. But don’t stop there. Be sure to check out the Taro Rolls, glutinous rice cakes in served either hot or cold, and the warm fish ball soup! I repeat: do not leave until you are simply rolling back down to the bus stop.
The tea houses of Jiufen are as recognizable as the red lanterns guiding you inside. With beautiful woodwork and paper windows, these businesses offer a break from the hustle and bustle of the tight alleys and market stalls, transporting you to another time and place. With several popular tea houses in the area, you’d be hard pressed to go thirsty, and literally any of the tea houses will offer respite in a relaxing atmosphere. We visited several tea houses while in Jiufen and we’d recommend the Hanlin Tea Room
for its incredible sunset views later in the afternoon. For seats on the balcony, arrive early, order some drinks or food, and settle in.
Balance is important, especially the kind of balance that brings you back down to this ridiculous, often absurd, earth we live on. While exploring the town of Jiufen we stumbled up this magically absurd museum of hand-crafted masks. While masks aren’t inherently strange, the ones in this museum ranged from grotesque to downright horrific. Each plaster mask was hand crafted and painted to fill this disturbing collection. Sculptor Wu’s Ghost Mask Museum
is a converted house that is completely gutted except for the walls- which, again, have been covered from floor to ceiling with horrific facial expressions, mutilations, and disfigurement. While not for the squeamish, this museum is a strange, yet very enjoyable detour from the tourist-filled alleys of Jiufen. Play a game of “Which Face Would You Rather Have?” while inside!
Jiufen is charming to a fault. Every alley, tea house, art gallery, and store is worth exploring. If I was hard pressed to have one single moment from our day in Jiufen back, however, I’d choose to return to the balcony of the Hanlin Tea Room to watch the sunset over the mountains. With a happy wife, a cold beer, and dumplings on their way, I settled into one of the most breathtaking sunset views I’ve ever seen. From where we sat we could see the ocean, rolling mountains, and city below as the sun arched ever closer to the horizon. Jiufen changes into a mysterious setting at night, and the dramatic sunset we witnessed let us know something drastically different from the daytime was coming.
Unless you visit Jiufen during the off-season, you will likely find the area full of people and tour groups. The iconic areas of Jiufen will be the worst places to hang out for any extended amount of time. We suggest you hike away from the hordes and find yourself a bit of peace and quiet. With an elevation that provides a clear view of the nearby ocean, the comforts of Jiufen are only barely matched by its vistas. Follow Qingbian Road west towards Songde Park which has a tunnel to the west side that is reminiscent of the one which enters into the magical world from the movie Spirited Away. There you can easily see some amazing views of the water as well as the quiet side alleys of Jiufen.
Though not in Jiufen, Houtong is just one additional stop away on the train. In the past, Houtong was a mining village that was slowly, but surely, abandoned by most of its residents as the coal mining industry began to decline. In recent years, a local organization took pity on the stray cat population living in the area and volunteers decided to try to give the cats a better life. They neutered some of the cats to control the numbers and turned the area into a charming tourist destination. Small restaurants, cafes, and shops line the quiet village and the Keelung River runs nearby. Just ten minutes away from Jiufen on the train, the Houtong Cat Village makes a perfect side trip away from the crowded streets of Jiufen.
Jiufen English Map
We were a bit annoyed to discover no English maps of the area while we were in Jiufen. We basically had to just wander around on our own with a little help from the kindness of strangers. I present to you an ENGLISH MAP of Jiufen hand made by Hedgers Abroad. Enjoy!