I could barely contain my Studio Ghibli fanboy excitement as we thundered up the winding mountain road to the small town of Jiufen, about an hour out of Taipei. We had caught an express train out of Taipei to Ruifang, where we were greeted by a collection of costumed teddy bear statues (including the least scary vampirate, Zeus, and Einstein) while we figured out which bus to take. While the trip was about 15 minutes from Riufang station to Jiufen, the speed-racing and liberally honking bus driver wanted us to use that time to fully consider our own mortality. We almost kissed the sweet solid ground at our stop, before making our way to our B&B.
Jiufen is a pretty famous sightseeing spot in Taiwan. It’s a historic gold mining town, with many of its old buildings still intact. If you, like me, love Hayao Miyazaki’s films, you’ve seen the heart of Jiufen in Spirited Away‘s winding and confusing stairs, towering ancient bath house, and overall feeling of wonder. Miyazaki, like so many others, visited the town and came away inspired by it. The town itself was built during the Japanese occupation, and so it’s architecture has a strong Japanese style in the old district. The old tea house (faithfully recreated in the Amei Tea House in the centre of the town) was one classic example – and Miyazaki drew on it for the bath house in Spirited Away.
Before even starting on the wonderful small town, it’s worth talking about our amazing host. We found our B&B at the edge of the town, looking right down into a gorge that ran right to the sea. After tenatively pressing what we hoped was the doorbell, a husky voice called from somewhere above that he’d be down now. We were greeted by Uncle Xie, who waved us in and excitedly checked up after our health. Uncle Xie was everything you could want from a host. He was friendly, usually soft spoken except for his excited “yaaaah” when we agreed with anything you said, and full of advice on the way to have a wonderful trip to Jiufen. He organised us breakfast (traditional Taiwan style o-nigiri and warm soymilk), and even lent us umbrellas so that ours could be packed away dryly for the trip home. His weathered face and Buddai-like earlobes really made him feel like a larger-than-life character like Uncle Iroh from Avatar: the Last Airbender.
With Uncle Xie’s battleplan for taking in all of Jiufen, we set out to find the famous staircase that cuts through the centre of the town. The eaves of the old buildings are lined with red lanterns that lead you up the many, many stone steps into the town itself. We were even accompanied by a funny little dog that led our way. It really felt like the universe was giving us the full Ghibli experience, and that the dog was going to be some magic spirit guide. He wasn’t, but he did take us all the way up to Jiufen’s old ironworks turned restored Japanese-style tea house and historic cinema.
Lanterns, cats, and stairs were all in absolute abundance, and it is very easy to wander the twisting paths around the town for ages, never entirely sure what you will see if you leave the tourist-filled stairs and Old Street. After taking the necessary classic photos, we decided to try and find the smaller gold mining museum in the town itself (more on the other museum later). This was a challenge that saw us stumble across the entrance to one of the old mining tunnels and a kind of spooky statue park.
Doubling back we tried again to get to the museum and found ourselves almost back where we started. And then, doubling back again (quadrupling back?) we ran right into the museum. Sadly, the usual English guide wasn’t around, so we could only look at the displays. However, the museum gave out fantastic tourist maps with history and info written by the ex-miner who started the museum, and this really helped us to get around without getting lost so often.
Jiufen has lots to see. The Shenping Theatre was the first large movie theatre in Taiwan, built to supply entertainment to the miners, and to keep them from the Korean House up the street (apparently a significant example of Jiufen’s old red light district). There was even a film being shown (with no English subtitles unfortunately), as well as a recreation of the concessions stand.
Just a short way up the famous stairs from the theatre is Amei Tea House, a recreation of the old tea house that used to stand at the top of the hill. Because of its connection to Spirited Away we HAD to go there, and it was well worth what seemed at first a pricy NT$300. With the mountain cold and the persistent drizzle, the warm interior was a welcome escape. We were given a window table looking down to the sea and over the mountains west of the town. One of the waitresses taught us waiguoren how to brew tea in the traditional way, a methodical process that was really theraputic. We first had to warm the leaves, teapot and cups. Then we brewed and strained the tea, and had to do some sleight of hand before drinking. You start by pouring into tall and thin cups which you cover with the drinking cup. You then flip them around and slowly lift the thin cup, breaking the vacuum and filling your drinking cup. This thin cup is for smelling the steam, and then warming your hands – a real necessity! We were given enough high mountain oolong leaves to brew ourselves into oblivion, as well as a number of nibbles including some tasty green bean paste cookies, thin black and white sesame crackers, sugar coated preserved plums, and small lumps of mochi. It’s definitely not to be missed!
By night, with the red lanterns aglow the Ghiblifeel intensified as we found our way down from the old cemetery and miner’s monument, past temples, and to the other must-see in Jiufen: the old street market. The similarity to the ghostly market of Spirited Away was palpable, as you smell food being cooked all around. Since it was a holiday weekend, the market was very full of other hungry sightseers, but we found our way to some very tasty food, including ice-cream and shaved peanut brittle rolls that were really delicious. The market is an interesting mix of traditional handicrafts, including many ocarinas, leather being worked in the shops, and even custom-made wooden shoes, as well as general market gewgaws and commercialized stalls peddling the ubiquitous Totoro keychains. We did find a famous cat, who adopted a store’s owner (not the other way around). Other unusual sights included an ocarina store shaped like an ocarina, a gallery of really creepy looking masks, and a window display of studio Ghibli characters, eerily lit behind misty glass. In spite of the crowding, the market was a lot of fun to visit, and perhaps on a quieter night it would be easier to navigate through the bookending photo opportunities that cause a traffic jam. But, since it is Jiufen, there are also countless side streets and stairs (of course) to help you get into and out of Old Street more easily.
On our second day, helped again by Uncle Xie’s advice, we climbed aboard another deathbus to get to Jinguashi mining museum. This is another part of the Japanese-started gold mines, and it has reconstructed buildings made from the original materials (as far as possible) to show how the miners lived during the Japanese occupation and afterwards. There was also a lot of information about the large house built to accommodate the Japanese Crown Prince (who never got to visit), and a section of old mine tunnel that for a very cheap NT$50 you could get a hardhat and walk through. Most of the visitors go to see the immense gold brick in the final museum building, but it is really worth taking the time to explore the mine compound area and see the scenery and other buildings, including a special art gallery dedicated to the miners, and the sections of museum with artifacts from the miners, including items from British POWs who worked the mines in terrible conditions during WWII, as well as a large gold orb that had been illegally smelted and hidden by some of the town’s inhabitants.
Jiufen really was a wonderful town to visit, from the calming teahouse to the exhausting up-and-down stairs, to the bustling market. I was worried I had overhyped myself, but I wasn’t disappointed at all, and it was sad to say goodbye to Uncle Xie and to see the town disappear past our taxi windows – three bus rides had given us a reluctance to risk an unlucky number four!