Spirited Away to Jiufen

Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away is one of my all time favourite movies. This beautiful animated feature tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who must find her way out of a spirit world and rescue her parents.

Although the movie is Japanese some of the inspiration for the spirit town came from the old goldmining town of Jiufen in Taiwan. This isn’t as strange as it might seem as the Japanese occupied Taiwan for fifty years, heavily modernising its colonial outpost. The peak gold mining operations occured during the Japanese era and many of Jiufen’s buildings date from that time.

We have visited a number of locations related to Spirited Away during our travels, including Dogo Onsen and the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architecture Museum, so Jiufen was also on our must see list. More than that it has a reputation as a fascinating, beautiful town to visit with interesting food.

Food is, of course, the first thing on our mind when we set out. The hotel recommends a small place towards the end of Chang’an West Road that serves traditional Taiwanese breakfasts and soy milk. Neither Alex nor I are a fan of the latter (B is), but we love the xiao long bao dumplings, the stone baked pork buns with their crispy pastry, the deep fried yutiao sticks and spring onion pancakes.

There is no train to Jiufen. Instead you have to catch a train to Ruifang and change to a bus. Fortunately the local train to Ruifang is much less crowded than last time, when we changed there for the Pingxi line. It’s quite an interesting route along the Keelung River, past old apartment blocks and ports with a backdrop of dark green mountains.

I use the map on my phone to locate the bus station at Ruifang and we arrive just in time to catch the bus to Jiufen. It fills with tourists and, I suppose, some locals with passengers standing in the aisle. Then we set off up the winding mountain road towards Jiufen.

Anyone for “Colorectal Noodles?”

The town of Jiufen clings to the mountainside, a glorious mishmash of architectural styles and colours. Despite it being a Monday and the weather cool the streets are crawling with tourist visitors. I hate to think what it would be like in peak season. So it’s quite unlike the empty daylight streets of Spirited Away.

Getting around the centre of Jiufen means ascending dark narrow alleyways lined with shops and stalls, also narrower than those portrayed in the movie. But one should not confuse inspiration with reality and it’s still just as interesting to stop and inspect the variety of foods and other goods on offer.

In the movie Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs as a punishment for devouring piles of food. Would this happen to us? There are many popular dishes being sold along the way.

First up, the A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll, a sweet savoury dish with balls of taro ice cream. We all eat some. It’s okay. Wouldn’t order it again.

Mint ice cream doryaki (pancake bun). Yum. Not a local dish though. We seem to be going backwards here, starting with dessert.

We tried both the vegetarian and the red pork meat transparent dumplings, blobs of, in the case of the meat, roasted pork soaked in Chinese wine and wrapped in semi-transparent gelatinous shell. Chihiro’s dad may have slurped them down but I find them as disgusting in taste as their appearance would suggest.

B enjoys a bowl of grilled jade snails while I dislike the fatty pork sausage I got from (the wrong) stall.

This isn’t going so well.

Finally we discover something worth raving about. Busy Grandma Lai’s Sweet Taro Balls, gooey balls served in a warm sweet ginger flavoured soup are delicious, the nicest I’ve ever tried.

We emerge from the tunnel of shops and find the Jiufen Tea House. Perhaps this big old structure served as an inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away, though I’ve also heard that of Dogo Onsen. The cost of taking tea there is not cheap and we are not great tea drinkers anyway. But it goes beyond the flavour of the beverage.

When we enter we are guided to a big wooden table near the rear of the building. In the middle is a big black teapot steaming over a charcoal fire, steam drifting gently upwards.

A very old tea area

We select our tea, a lower slope oolong from Alishan, and the attendant makes a first pouring, tips it out, and a second, stirs with the cherry tree branch.

The act of boiling, of pouring and just gently sipping the tea by the fire is calming, needed after the crowds and the slope. Local pineapple cakes are served, so incredibly delicious.

Out the back of the teahouse are views of the valley and the town, iron animal statues. Inside is a fern lined waterfall into a pond of orange koi.

I am sad to leave the teahouse. The unused tea leaves are sealed for us to take away.

We continue walking up the slope, wandering really. We buy a baby’s bottle of sweet warm kumquat juice, walk past cafes and guest houses. Jiufen would be fascinating after dark, when the crowds have gone and the lanterns are lit. I decide that I’d love to come again.

Monkey Magic!

Now we head down the stone stairs to Taiyang Number 5 Tunnel, sealed up, low enough that anyone my height would have had to stoop to enter.

I consider going into the Goldore museum, which has exhibits about the gold extraction process, but the other two don’t want to. We saw enough about gold mining at Ballarat and Bendigo this time last year.

Re-entering the shopping area of the town we come to the Shengping Theatre in time for a short movie about the town. It’s all in Mandarin so we can’t understand a word of it, but you don’t need to. There are English information boards in a room behind describing the history of the building, which was used for shows of Chinese opera and puppetry.

Along narrow alleyways and past old buildings, Jiufen really is a fascinating place to explore. But it is getting late and the others are tired. We return to where we arrived, have some snacks and then hunt for the bus stop in the other direction.

The bus ride back down the hill to Ruifang station is the scariest that I have ever experienced. Narrow streets, a speeding bus and little margin for error. I know in the scheme of things that there are far scarier bus rides in this world, but I’ve never been on them.

There’s a while to wait until our train departs from Ruifang, so we explore a little of the town. There’s a number of food carts along the street. I buy a bun from one, hot and yummy.

We return to Taipei by train. It’s full of uniformed school kids who, like school kids everywhere, are not inclined to give up their seats.

Our food journey is not done upon reaching Taipei’s Main Station. B wants to see the famous Shilin Night Market again, so we catch the MRT up there.

Fortunately it’s not as crowded at this early hour as on our last visit. There aren’t just food stalls but shops selling clothes, mobile phone accessories and other trinkets. B and Alex search for cases for their iPads, though end up buying none. We find some shoes to replace Alex’s wet and disintegrating pair. Replacements for my pair of Merrells are more expensive than back in Australia, so I live with the holes.

Of course there is plenty of snacking along the way, sampling the delights on offer. My favourite is the fried cubes of milk, frozen condensed milk I think. Pity that I had to share. B and Alex eat cubes of “burning squid”. In the central “Shilin Market” covered area are fairground games. Alex gives a ball throwing game a go, but doesn’t do so well, earning only a strange koala toy.

There are also fresh fruit stalls. Unfortunately, we only see the warnings about their unscrupulous behaviour after we’ve been ripped off purchasing a custard apple.

B asks for directions, then points us in the opposite way, so it’s a long walk back through the now very crowded markets to the MRT station, then a ride to Zhongshan Station.

Our triple bedroom is ready when we return to the hotel. It has no windows but it does have a monster mural on the long wall. Plus a fridge and a Japanese bumwashing toilet. I’m happy!

So we survived our trip into the spirit world, weren’t turned into pigs and Alex didn’t have to sell his soul to a witch to rescue us. And like the movie I’d be delighted to return for a sequel.

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