Like it has always been, it was again drizzling in Jiufen. We waited for it to abate to a fine mist before rushing across the highway and starting the ascent across the glistening stone steps towards its heart. And its heart was beating fast; pumped with people going up and down its arteries, holding colorful umbrellas competing with the red Chinese lanterns lightly bobbing over teahouses, aromas of cooking mingling with the scent of new rain, and mists, magical mist, hovering above everything else, swirling slowly like a daydream.
|THE STAIRS LEADING TO JIUFEN OLD STREET|
But getting to Jiufen wasn’t really the stuff of dreams. We started off late from the Yehliu Geopark on the second day of our tour, day one being set for our Taipei day tour. The original plan was to take a bus from Yehliu to Keelung City, perhaps visit the Elelphant Rock if we still have time, before proceeding on another bus bound for Jiufen. With daylight slowly getting shorter, we decided to take a cab, haggling hard to bring it down to TWD1,200.00 for the five of us. It was twice more expensive than taking the bus, but was also twice as fast (we checked using our Flytpack). And with our limited time in Taiwan, we’d definitely take time over money.
|JAPANESE TOURISTS VISITING JIUFEN|
Forty five minutes later, rushing through lashing rain, we arrived in Jiufen. Being situated on the slopes of a mountain in Ruifang District more than 300 meters above sea level, the small town was swallowed with light rain and thick fog as we alighted from our taxi. It was quite cold. A giant cat, perched above the roof of a store greeted us before we started the ascent towards the town’s heart.
|JIUFEN OLD STREET PLAZA|
Our climb across the vertical Shuchi Street started quietly, small shops and households with intricate wooden doors flank both sides of the narrow stone stairs. Passing a few tourists going down, the path wounds on before suddenly opening on a busy square with a narrow road, Jishan Street. Finally, we arrived at Jiufen’s Old Street.
|JIUFEN’S SHENGPIN THEATER|
The square was beset on all sides by three-level unpainted wooden structures with gray roof tiles; shops on the ground floor, tea houses on the second, and more tea houses with balconies at the top. All these, hanging with red lighted lanterns. Off one side, the Shengpin Theater stands, its facade covered in worn faded bricks and a colorful tarp depicting cinematic icons, Taiwanese style.
|RUSTIC UPWARD STREET|
Immediately, scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning anime film, Spirited Away rushed to my senses. I haven’t seen the movie in years, but still, all of Jiufen’s little details, the narrow stairs, the lamps, the rickety structures, the food, heck, even its aroma, spirited me back to Chihiro’s lost world of strange gods.
|RED LANTERNS HANGING EVERYWHERE|
Most say that Jiufen, an old gold-mining town from when the Japanese still ruled Taiwan as a colony, was the inspiration for the hit Japanese animated film, but a few discount it as a mere coincidence. But seeing Jiufen in real life, one can’t help but wonder how similar the two worlds really are.
|I LOVE JIUFEN’S ATMOSPHERIC PATHWAYS, TOURISTS AND ALL|
We proceeded onwards, letting our tummies lead the way. It sent us to the City of Sadness Restaurant, an eatery overlooking the square. This is the exact place where another critically acclaimed movie was filmed, A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a masterpiece that bagged a trophy for the 1989 Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately, their prices were a tad too high for us so we transferred to another tea house right across it, the Nine Family Tea Language restaurant. Yes, language, Google Translate says so, lol.
|STEAMY XIAO LONG BAO FOR OUR LATE LUNCH|
|A TOP VIEW OF JIUFEN OLD STREET FROM ONE OF THE TEA HOUSES|
Set three storeys from the square, we had the perfect view of Jiufen’s Old Street, watching people coming and going across the slick square while chowing down on hot shrimp fried rice, stir fried veggies and a basketful of steaming xiao long bao. We were careful not to overeat, lest we turn into pigs like Chihiro’s parents, lol. In truth, we were just saving some space for more street food, Jiufen is a haven for such.
|A MUSEUM SELLINGS MASKS REMINDS ME OF SPIRITED AWAY’S THREE HEADED, ERRR, HEADS|
|NO FACE MAKING AN APPEARANCE AT JIUFEN|
|AN OLD MINING TUNNEL LEADS TO A FAMOUS TEA HOUSE|
The crowd was thicker when we started our way up again. We plodded on, never minding the slow ascent as there were a lot of curious things to see right beside the stairs, like a shop cum museum full of masks, an old mining tunnel filled with graffiti that leads to a famous tea house, knick knack stores with Spirited Away trinkets, and food, lots and lots of street food.
|JIUFEN’S STAIRWELL FILLED WITH TOURISTS|
Eventually, we reached the top where, uhmmm, nothing awaited us. Should we have walked to the right, we would’ve come face to face with a rustic hillside cemetery, all covered in fog. But we were bushed, and without an umbrella, we walked back down.
|THE FAMOUS GRAND TEA HOUSE|
We headed towards the hundred year-old Amei Tea House, popularly known as the Grand Tea House, the most famous structure in all of Jiufen. With red lamps lit as early evening arrived, tourists started to flock the area, taking photos of the dark wooden building shining with warm light. It is said that this is the inspiration for Spirited Away’s bathhouse where Chihiro worked her ass off to free her parents from being pigs.
|GOING BACK DOWN|
|MISTS TAKING OVER JIUFEN|
And finally, this time, unlike Chichiro, we reluctantly had to leave. The last bus going back to Taipei was at eight in the evening, although I really wouldn’t mind being stuck here and staying for the night. We took one last pass at Jiufen’s alleys, watching the thick fog roll in along the mountainside before turning our back and going back down.
JIUFEN UPDATE 2017
|BACK IN JIUFEN AFTER TWO MONTHS|
Unlike my previous trip to Jiufen where we took a cab from the Yehliu Geopark, this time, we did it the cheaper way, taking a bus to Keelung City (TWD30.00) then another bound for Jiufen (TWD30.00). It wasn’t as hard and as long as I imagined it would be and Keelung City itself was quite interesting.
|JIUFEN NEIGHBORHOOD AT NIGHT|
The last trip for the bus going back to Taipei was really what made us take the cab back then, but now, knowing that we could just take a bus to Ruifang Train Station, then take the train back to Taipei considerably relaxed our itinerary. It also allowed us to stay much later in Jiufen and explore its side streets better.
|THE FAMOUS FOOD CORNER|
We arrived in Jiufen on a Sunday and the crowd was as thick as it was during our first outing. Knowing it was inevitable that we’d get separated from one another, we simply set a time to converge at Jiufen’s Old Street before going our own separate ways.
|CHECKING OUT SIDE STREETS I’VE NEVER BEEN TO BEFORE|
I retraced my steps back towards the top of Shuchi Street, wanting to see the cemetery by the hill, unfortunately it was already too dark when I reached it, so there was no recourse but to go back down again.
|INTO THE JAPANESE TUNNEL|
|THE TUNNEL EVENTUALLY LEADS TO THIS TEA HOUSE|
The old Japanese mining tunnel was next on my list. I previously thought that the portal was simply a gimmick by one of the restaurants, I didn’t know then that it was a legit tunnel. So into the graffiti-filled tunnel I went. It was a bit tight, but two persons can pass side-by-side easily enough. It wasn’t as long as I expected it to be and in less than a minute, I was out of the passageway and into a quiet narrow alley with a teahouse right at its end.
|INSIDE THE AMEI GRAND TEA HOUSE|
I also took a chance to have a peep inside the Amei Grand Tea House, feigning the need to use their toilet, lol. While its facade exudes a certain mystery—with its dark wooden walls punctured by a rhythm of windows and red Chinese lanterns, its interior was as ordinary as can be.
|TOOK A LEFT TURN AT THIS ALLEY|
|AND WAS SURPRISED TO SEE IT LEADING TO A VIBRANT STREET|
|STILL FILLED WITH WEEKEND TOURISTS|
With nowhere else to go, I went back up and took a left turn along Jishan Street. I was totally surprised to find another side of Jiufen that I haven’t seen before. The alley, like most in the area, was still filled to the rafters with tourists. Shops and legit-looking restaurants form the walls for this mad jumble of people.
|JIUFEN’S FAMOUS STREET FOOD AUNTIE|
|NOT-STINKY TOFU, ANYONE?|
This was actually where I spent most of my money since souvenirs, even street food, was cheaper here compared to other parts of Jiufen or even most of Taipei, for that matter. I gobbled up sticks of Taiwanese sausages, lumps of very soft tofu, real squid balls and whatever free snacks that were up for free-taste, lol.
|GOODBYE AGAIN, JIUFEN|
Eventually, I reached the end of the street which surprisingly opened again to the main road. After my never-ending munch-aton, a colorful fireworks display suddenly bloomed overhead, as if signaling my exit and telling me that my time was up and it was finally time to return.
► HOW TO GET FROM TAIPEI TO JIUFEN
OPTION 1: TAKE A KEELUNG-BOUND BUS (1062) FROM ZHONGXIAO FUXING MRT STATION, EXIT 1. FARE: TWD102.00. 1HOUR TRAVEL TIME
OPTION 2: TAKE A TRAIN FROM TAIPEI MAIN STATION TO RUIFANG STATION. FROM THERE WALK TOWARDS MINGDENG ROAD RIGHT BESIDE THE POLICE STATION AND TAKE BUS 827 OR 788. BUS FARE IS TWD15.00. BUS TRAVEL TIME 15 MINUTES.
Jiufen Old Street
Address: Jiufen, Ruifang District, New Taipei, Taiwan
Entrance Fee: None
Open Hours: All hours daily
GPS Coordinates Map: 25.110007, 121.845031