Spirited Away in Jiufen – Day 4
For me this was supposed to be the star of the trip. If I knew anything at all about Taiwan it was this tiny factoid about Miyazaki and Spirited Away. I, however had no idea what adventures lay in store for me. Breakfast this morning came in the form of 7-11. We picked up some Onigiri and a grass jelly box drink. The satisfaction was palatable. Line is pretty popular in Taiwan, and 7-11 sold line points alongside more familiar items such as PSN and XBOX points. My travel buddy and I met up with the rest of our friends in order to take the bus to Jiufen. The bus from Taipei would take 2 hours in order to get us up into the mountains. Our bus driver weaved in and out of traffic through Taipei and it was incredible how well anyone could drive with all the buses dodging each other.
As the bus left the city we began to see a lot more green hills and trees. The surrounding mountainside was dotted with homes and temples built high up into the sides. Occasionally we would also pass cemeteries in the hills, their many shrines reflecting the light of day from their glossy surfaces. Plant life began to look more and more tropical and when we passed by the local railroad tracks I could see that the houses were built right up to the edge of the tracks, with barely any space between them and the rails. Passing over the Keelung River that wound its way through the hills, our bus carried on.
The further the bus drove, the older the homes looked. Gardens, plants, and trees adorn the front of many buildings. When we once again passed by the river, I could see houses lined up to the edges of the grass sloping down 50 feet below to the river. The last bit of the bus ride had us riding narrow switchbacks which the bus driver somehow deftly managed to navigate. As we wound our way up we came across a grand looking temple and we knew we had found Jiufen.
Two of my fellow travelers waited for the rest of us to find our Bed & Breakfast to put down our luggage. But alas, the twists and turns of Jiufen were too confusing to navigate. We called the owner of the B&B and he came to pick us up. After stowing away our gear we proceeded towards our destination, Jiufen old street. This is where the fun would be. We knew that our destination was above us several switchbacks up, however we weren’t exactly sure how to get there. We found stairs going behind houses that appeared to cut through the switchbacks. We started our climb. It became quickly clear we had no idea where we were. However, finding the old street was easy–we just needed to head straight up and we did that alright. The tricky part was finding the front entrance where our 2 friends were. We spent about an hour wandering through back alleys and winding roads completely lost until we finally found our friends at the local Family Mart, another valuable convenience store. Now our journey could begin in earnest. We plunged straight through the entrance of old street which felt a lot like the night markets of Taipei in terms of the crowds of people, lines of stores, and the smells of delicious food.
The narrow street stretched and winded its way between narrowly placed buildings. The occasional local would squeeze his way through on a moped, laden with supplies for his shop. Every twist and turn led us to something new. Beyond main road we found little vista spots where we could gaze over the mountains and towards the coast one way; turning 180 degrees around we could look up into the mountains where we saw small shrines dotting the green forested mountainside. Below us twisted and winded the road we had traveled, leading its way down the mountain.
All kinds of food were found along the streets from seafood, to dumplings, to tea. Hungry, we decided it was time to consume lunch. We located a nice shop that served food family style. Armed with milk tea we had previously bought we engaged in a multi-course meal including rice, dumplings, bamboo, green onion pancake, fish ball soup, and fish. Satiated, we moved on to our next destination. Several different tea houses presented themselves to us but two specifically caught our collective eyes. The Jioufen Teahouse and the Sky Castle Teahouse. In the Jioufen Teahouse there was also a museum where we got to see a multitude of different clay teapots, koi, and flowers.
Along the way on our quest to locate the Sky Castle teahouse we came across a carving in the side of the mountain depicting the gold miners of ages past. Also encountered were the first of several cockroaches that I chose to mostly ignore. A door too small for one of our friends was spotted, amusing us greatly. Our Dog, Happy, was a rescue from Taiwan and on this trip I actually encountered several that looked like her.
A wonderful treat we tried was the Cart Wheel Cake with a custard filling. An alternative form of it had a red bean filling. There is this one shop where the woman there wears an outlandish wig. She looked hilarious and apparently is quite the character; she’s all sorts of willing to pose for photos though I didn’t get the chance to ask.
Needing a rest for our feet before dinnertime we chose to get tea at 山海觀茶餐廳 (Mountain and Sea View Teahouse?) which overlooked the mountain. With the fog rolling in and out we didn’t get a good glimpse of the mountain all the way down to the ocean most of the time, but during the times that the fog cleared we could see all the way down to the harbor and ocean.
Afterwards we went to the lantern road which where lanterns were stringed down both sides of the steps headed down. A dog chose to block the steps and didn’t care who was around at all. Remember how I mentioned Sky Castle teahouse? Well we had never found it until now. It was only another flight of stairs away from where I decided to turn around.
Darkness began to fall at this point and combined with the fog created a very mystical atmosphere that was spine tingling. There was even a mysterious cave that zigzagged between two alleys and got smaller and smaller like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
With the sky dark, the lights of the town below began to light up in the fog, causing an otherworldly glow. I was admiring the view when I heard a loud crack. Quickly turning to the side I saw that a local had lit a box of fireworks and they were launching off into the sky randomly. After enjoying the light show I wanted to see the lanterns one last time while they were lit. So did all the other tourists. Through the crowds I could see the strings of red pearls glowing in the night. Emboldened by the glowing red lights, we ventured through the mysterious cave between the buildings.
After the cave I looked up above the lanterns and caught another building glowing in the distance. I really felt like I was in the spirit world or some otherworldly place. Satisfied, it was time to go back home and get some shut-eye. We went back to the hidden stairs slicing through the sides of the switchbacks and behind homes. The fog had created a lot of slippery spots on the stairs so the going was a little treacherous. We had gone about halfway when we realized we weren’t sure where we were and where our place was. We hoped we were going the right direction but we couldn’t be sure. Then out of nowhere a black dog appeared and began guiding us down the steps. Confused, we followed, absent any better decision making processes on our part. Right when we saw the B&B we recognized the dog ran off and vanished into the mist. I told my friends that we had gotten spirited away by the dog. Little did I know it wouldn’t be the last time.
Stay Tuned for Part 3!