Jiufen, Taiwan – ‘Spirited Away’ Tea House and much more

‘Let’s hike up Mount Keelung’ he said… ‘it will be fun’ he said… ‘it will be easy even with our backpacks’ he said… Ok, thanks son– good call. That was one nasty hill. I mean, 685 meters, much of it straight up. I switched between humming ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Highway to Hell’. It certainly felt like I was experiencing one and getting closer to the other. This was after hiking from the bottom of Jiufen (an old mining town carved into the hillside) to the summit earlier in the afternoon. I’ve never seen so many stairs.

Let’s start at the beginning of the day.

The trip from Taipei to Jiufen1  was easy– MRT then a bus2 — it was good fun up the windy mountain road; Wikipedia actually comments that ‘the roads that lead (to Jiufen) are mostly steep, curving, narrow, and possibly dangerous’ which sounds about right– scooters and cars swerving to miss our bus on the way up the mountain made for an invigorating ride and we enjoyed the great views looking down the sheer drop off to our left on the way up. Did I mention that the bus had seat belts?

On the way to Juifen we passed through a neat looking town called Rufien (not sure if it is a Village, or a district of Taipei– requires another trip to Taiwan to investigate)– I would liked to have stopped if we had more time– it looked like a great place to explore.

Jiufen is a small town carved into the side of a mountain. The discovery of gold during the Japanese occupation in 1893 created a boom for the area. After the war, the gold mining activities declined and Jiufen has now become a major tourist destination in Taiwan with many older building and streets to explore. The old Shenping Theater, cobblestone courtyards, steep winding stairways, red lanterns lining the streets, ‘hole in the wall’ shops, hidden alleyways and obscure buildings and homes really set the stage for a memorable day’s travel. Did I mention that there is a mountain?

Have you seen Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away3‘? It is said, that Jiufen was one of the inspirations for this animation classic, and the number of Japanese tourists trying to get the the perfect ‘Tea House’ shot 4 was crazy– elbows up– squeezing forward– Kei and I could  shoot over the heads of our competitors!

We got off the bus at the bottom of the town– we were spending the night in Keelung and we had our backpacks (tip- I would do this differently next time) and orientated ourselves using a big map by the bus stop. Up some stairs, and some more stairs we worked our way to Jiufen Old Street–  lots of shops selling trinkets and souvenirs and crowded with tourists. Red lanterns lined the pathways, and vendors used scooters with carrying racks to transport items up these narrow walkways. Taro ball and green tea vendors were some of the most common stores– and yes, the ever present ‘Stinky Tofu’ was on the menu for some people– the smell would hit you- -BAM– out of no where. We snacked on some fried squid, and had a delicious pineapple smoothie as we got our bearings on the town. The vendors were very friendly and accommodating.

Growing a little tired of street food, we made a great find–a very cool restaurant with views over the valley back towards Taipei and Keelung, where they served the popular ‘Beef Noodle Soup’5. So, up we climbed to the third floor of the restaurant (what is it with all the stairs?). It was an overcast, windy day and windows rattled as the wind howled down the streets. Now, I mean, we were really high up, looking way down, sitting beside shaking windows and so to ensure Kei could fully enjoy this experience, I gave him the window seat. The restaurant had old Japanese movie boards all over the walls and booths– very retro, very cool. We ordered dumplings (of course) and Beef Noodle Soup– it was delicious. The beef was braised, tender and flavourful and the dumplings were excellent– it was a nice break from all of the market food. Still don’t the name of the restaurant– snapped a photo of the front so I can find it again!


















We worked our way down to the bottom of the village, where there was an old entrance to one of the mine shafts– Taiyang #5 Tunnel– which looked like another scene right out of Miyazaki’s classic animation movie and we tried to find the Jiufen Gold Mine Museum. We found it, it is an obscure, hard to find building, but we found it. We had a knock several times to get the clerk to answer the door. It seems he lets one or two groups in at a time. We had a private tour (in Mandarin), which I’m sure would have been even more fascinating if we spoke the language!

With a new tourist map from our Gold Mine Museum friend, and ‘must see’ list we set out for the Shengming Temple at the very top of the town. Yup, the top of the town. So taking every conceivable small goat trail and narrow stairway possible (with NO other tourists in sight) we made our way to nearly the top of Jiufen past old houses and buildings which I am sure were a hundred years old. The temple was beautiful– a great discovery. After a few more dead ends, and stairs leading to nowhere, we made it to the very top of the town, where we found a fire station– lucky me! I knocked on the door spend some time talking with the firefighters about gear and training in broken English and sign language with a little help from Google Translator. They serve the whole Jiufen area with everything from fire fighting, to mountain and ocean rescue– the fire trucks are really small compared to our rigs– I’m sure they were small than my Tacoma, but it was very cool to find similarities too. They joked about not wanting to rescue me from Mount Keelung…

Let’s talk about the hike up to the top of Mount Keelung6. We walked from the fire station along the edge of a narrow road (debating whether it was safer to walk on the left or right shoulder as cars zipped by)– past many small mausoleums (which was kind of creepy) towards the entrance of the hike up the mountain. There were two pavilion type structures up the mountain– at the one third and two third points on the trail, almost daring you to challenge the climb. We worked our way to the bottom of the mountain and I could tell it was going to be a tough hike, but those pagodas were leering down at me almost saying ‘come on, try it, I dare you’. That was all the encouragement I needed– off we went. Now, this was a really nasty climb, the stone steps were uneven, covered with moss, and rickety– seriously– you had to really watch where you placed each foot– I’m glad I had good walking boots. I remember seeing a young woman start the hike with low heels… I don’t think she made it to the top. We took breaks at the pagodas on the way up, finished a bottle of water on the way, and I actually focused on controlling my heart rate. It was a relief to make it to the top– the view– even though it was overcast, was spectacular– overlooking the Sea of China on one side and and the Pacific Ocean on the other and we could see the city of Keelung in the distance. For the first time, I was thankful for the typhoon– without the wind, the climb up Mount Keelung, and moving up and down and around Jiufen would have been so hot and humid it would have been really difficult. We hiked down to the bottom of the mountain– our legs were shaking uncontrollably. After a break at a small pit-stop at the bottom of the mountain– and after two Pocari Sweat drinks (don’t knock it till you try it)– we headed back to town to take a photo of the the iconic tea house as the sun started to set.

Muscling our way through the other tourists, we ‘got’ the shot of the tea house we wanted from a vantage point that we scouted out earlier in the day!

Our thoughts turned to getting to Keelung city– our stop for the night. After attempting to negotiate a price with a taxi, we decided to take the bus7. The bus ride was supposed to be 1 hour and 15 minutes. Well, Mario Andretti did the trip down the mountain in 40 minutes– I don’t think we actually stopped once on the way down– maybe there were no stop signs… it felt like California Screamin’ at Disneyland. In hindsight, I am glad it was dark and we couldn’t see out the windows. I put on the seat belt.

Keelung is a port city and the smell of the ocean made it feel like home. It was dark and we wanted to get rid of our backpacks, so we went to find our hotel which was literally a stone’s throw from the Keelung Night Market. We climbed the stairs to the hotel which happened to be on the second floor of the building (you can’t make this stuff up), checked in, and climbed another staircase to get to our room, because there was no elevator, to discover that we were sharing a double bed for the night. Well, my 19 year old son Kei won’t take up too much room, right?

The close proximity of the Keelung Night Market beckoned us from our hotel room– it was a busy Friday night and it was packed with families, couples, and friends enjoying a night. I don’t think we saw any other foreigners and with all of the second and third looks we were getting, I don’t think the locals had either. Chicken, pork skewers, pork with rice were a few of the things we ate, but our favorite was a dumpling place which had the greatest assortment of dumplings ever– pork, curry, shrimp, pork and chives just to name a few– they were inexpensive and excellent. After a fresh fruit smoothie, which was probably the bestand a I have ever had, we went back to our hotel.

We ended up sharing the bed with a swarm of small ants that were making their way across the hotel room and through the sheets, but they didn’t bite, and after our adventures, we didn’t mind their company.

A few thoughts –

Buy baby powder… If you know why, you know. If you don’t, you will.

Google is pretty great I asked ‘how do I say’ baby powder ‘ in Mandarin’ and it worked– the smallest container of baby powder I could find was about the size of a small Volkswagen, but I bought it anyways and carried it too up the mountain.

Pedestrians do NOT have the right of way – seriously, don’t jay-walk

If you go to Jiufen, take some trails and stairways to places unknown, we found some really cool spots. I felt like Indiana Jones.

ld style toilets in some places in Asia – take ALL valuables out of your pockets – – keys, wallets, change, cell phones etc. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Everywhere I’ve ever been, anyone I’ve ever met on a hiking trail has been friendly, today- lots of hello’s and ni-hao’s.

  1. Also spelled Jioufen – means ‘nine portions’ – originally there were nine families living here during the Qing Dynasty – apparently when supplies were ordered from other towns, they would ask for ‘nine portions’
  2. Taipei Main Station MRT Blue line to Zhongxiao Fuxing – then Bus 1062
  3. Award winning animation film released in 2001 by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibili – called ‘Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi’ in Japanese
  4. the tea house is actually called A Mei Tea House
  5. Iconic Taiwanese noodle soup made of stewed or braised beef, beef broth, vegetables and Chinese noodles
  6. Mount Keelung is an extinct conical volcano- give yourself 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours for this hike– it is stairs most of the way up and quite strenuous
  7. We took bus 788 to Keelung – from the bus stop at the bottom of Jiufen

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