If there’s a city worth going on a day trip while staying in Taipei, it’s most probably Jiufen (or Jioufen, or Chioufen). Any traveller, any local will tell you about it: it’s a must do. For one simple reason: when the sun sets, the place is just so damn pretty. Thanks to its old streets and its red lanterns, Jiufen has a very traditional Asian charm.
Quite isolated due to its situation in the mountains, north-east from Taipei, Jiufen was an unknown destination for quite a while: “Jiufen” means literally “Nine parts” because there were pretty much only 9 families living there for a while. This changed quite quickly when the Japanese came first to Taiwan, in 1893, discovering gold in the Ruifang District. It created a kind of “Gold Rush” in those mountains, and you can still visit old gold mines in the area.
RETRACING CHIHIRO’S STEPS IN JIUFEN
When the gold mining industry declined after World War II, Jiufen could have sunk into oblivion if it wasn’t for a movie. “A City of Sadness” (悲情城市, Bēiqíng chéngshì) was released in 1989 and brought up to light the “White Terror” period when the Japanese surrendered Taiwan to China, and the island was under the control of the Kuomintang, during which thousands of Taiwanese people were tortured, imprisoned and executed. The director, Hou Hsiao-hsien, chose to shot his movie in Jiufen. It was the first movie of this kind talking about those tragic historical events, and it even won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice Movie Festival.
More recently, another movie brought Jiufen under the spotlights: “Spirited Away” from the famous Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. He said that Jiufen inspired him for some settings of his superb movie, especially scenes from the beginning when Chihiro and her parents discover the lost abandoned town in which the two parents start to eat everything they see and turn into pigs. Miyazaki’s success in Taiwan is obvious while strolling in the streets: you’ll find many goodies, from No-Face plush to Totoro USB, it’s a dreamland for any Studio Ghibli fan.
The beauty of Jiufen lies mainly in its narrow alleyways and its famous night market where you’ll easily become like Chiriho’s parents – meaning you’ll probably want to taste everything you’ll see. The famous A Mei teahouse will make your heart sing when the red lanterns get lit when darkness comes. I think it’s the most photogenic place in all Jiufen – meaning you’ll probably have to queue to take a photo.
A TEA LOVER’S HEAVEN
While talking about tea, did you know that Jiufen is a great place for tea lovers? There are many teahouses scattered in this city, all offering wide range of different local (or non-local) tea that you can sip hot or cold.
Speaking of the A Mei teahouse, if you decide to go there for a sip, you’ll be seated on a large terrace with the best view ever to enjoy your traditional Taiwanese tea. Up in the mountains, while sipping your tea, you’ll see the Pacific Ocean and the lights of the surrounding towns. This is certainly a great spot to enjoy the sunset. I asked for a traditional hot tea, and the young waiter showed me all the steps to prepare it on my own. First, you wash the leaves. Second, you pour the hot water. Third, you let it infuse and wait. Four, you pour the tea in this little cup that’s made for smelling. Five, you smell – and it smells good. Six, you can pour it in the regular tea cup and enjoy it. You’ll have to repeat the operation several times until there are no leaves left or until your bladder will feel too full for you to keep going. The tea came with a few sweets: a red bean mochi, sesame cracker and some lù dòu gāo (a green bean sweet) in order to contrast with the bitterness of the beverage.
As for the Jiufen Teahouse, it’s settled in the oldest house in town which said to be a hundred years old. The place is just stunning. Old teapots, wooden tables, paintings, small stream and waterfall, in a relaxing atmosphere. You can visit the house for free if you’re interested in having a sip of tea, as the tea house is also an art gallery with beautiful potteries and ceramics.
I also recommend the Siidcha place, which is more modern, because the rooftop terrace will give you a breathtaking view over Jiufen. The Siidcha teahouse provides also a wide range of traditional teas called ‘Leicha’, which is the prevalent kind of tea among Hakka People in Taiwan. Hanging out there while writing my travel journal was just perfect to end a busy day sightseeing. And my iced peach green tea was absolutely awesome.
Jiufen makes you travel through time. The narrow alleyways and the red lanterns will make you feel like you’re touching something almost forgotten. Beware, though, the city is nowadays crowded with tourists.
And they’re damn right, because between all the pretty tea houses, all the stalls of delicious food and this traditional yet magical atmosphere, Jiufen will make you fall in love with Taiwan –if it didn’t happen yet.
LET’S GO TO JIUFEN!
From MRT Station Zhongxiao Fuxing in Taipei, take Exit 1 and the bus n°1062 to Jinguashi.
From Taipei Main Station, you can also take the local train to Ruifang, then the bus n°827 or 788 to Jiufen.
A Mei Tea House, No. 20, Shixa Lane, Ruifang District, New Taipei City
Jiufen Tea House, 142 Jishan St., Ruifang District, New Taipei City, Taiwan 224
Siidcha Tea House, No.166, Jishan St., Ruifang Dist., New Taipei City 224, Taiwan