Jiufen is often referred to as being the inspiration for the setting of Spirited Away, which is one of my favorite Miyazaki films. Although Miyazaki himself disputes this claim, I can certainly see the similarities. Either way, after visiting the town, I can assuredly say this: Jiufen is a magical place.
We made our way through the mountains on a small bus that we had boarded in Taipei that was set for Jiufen. As we climbed higher and higher, we caught glimpses of the radiant water of the East China Sea. Tucked away in the mountains of the Ruifang District, Jiufen was once an industrious gold mining town. During the Japanese occupation, allied POW soldiers who were held there were forced to work in the mines.
After we got off the bus, we saw a large crowd funneling into a small gap between some buildings on the street. Despite the unassuming appearance, this was the main entrance to Jiufen. I soon learned that Jiufen is a web of narrow alleyways, lined with storefronts and street carts. The main path carves its way up the mountain and each turn reveals new sights and mouthwatering smells.
We made frequent stops to taste different foods and snacks along the path. This is where I had one of my favorite desserts in Taiwan, the A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll, a sweet burrito stuffed with grounded up peanut candy and taro ice cream. We also browsed several shops, including an ocarina shop with decorative roots growing along the walls and ceiling. Tunnels branched off the main path and led away from the crowds into beautiful mountainside landscapes.
There were a surprising amount of animals to see along the way. There were lots of napping cats and dogs (some stray and some belonging to the shop owners). The cats appeared to take great satisfaction in claiming the seats of motos as their personal napping spots.
As the sun began to set, Tiana and I started looking for a nice place to drink tea and enjoy the view. Instead of going to one of the popular spots, or doing research, we simply wandered around and eventually stumbled upon a strange cave. It was covered in white writing and had a small sign that promised tea. We squeezed through the cave and emerged on the other side to discover a beautiful garden with a statue of Buddha.
We made our way into the tea shop, and noticed that there were tea kettles by each table, heated by hot coals. We enjoyed the best Oolong I've ever had paired with some savory roasted beans. We watched the town and the coast beyond fade from orange to purple to dark blue and the lights slowly begin to flicker on. In the distance, we could hear echoes of a sweet-sounding tune, which we later discovered was music from the garbage truck.
We packed up some of the tea and descended back through the streets to the bus stop. Jiufen had completely transformed during our time in the hidden tea shop. The streets were just as crowded as before, but took on a new quality as they were now illuminated from the warm light of glowing lanterns.
Before returning back to our hostel we stopped at the infamous night market in Keelung, where we enjoyed braised pork rice, Taiwanese sausage, pork bun with peanuts, and the infamous oyster omelettes that I’d been eager to try since watching Anthony Bourdain eat them on Parts Unknown.