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Asia,  Guides,  Taiwan

The Ultimate Travel Guide: Jiufen

There are a few things that have placed Taiwan on the world stage. Whether it’s bubble tea, cute black bears or their constant beefing with neighbouring China, the country has earned a place in many people’s collective consciousness. However, many people only know of Taiwan because of one sleepy mountain town in the hills outside of Taipei, Jiufen.

The iconic stacked buildings placed haphazardly along the misty hillsides is a beautiful throwback to the area’s colonial past and industrial heritage which brought the region such a rich boost in culture with a combination of authentic teahouses and lantern lined alleyways.

However many people only know of Jiufen through the internationally renowned anime movie Spirited Away which was said to be based on the gold mining town. Well…that may not be exactly true, but as far as most people are concerned, this is the true home of No Face and the mischievous spirits.

So let me guide you through everything you’ll ever need to know about the ultimate Taiwanese tourist spot of Jiufen.

A Brief History

The history of this isolated mountain village began during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) when it only housed 9 families. Whenever delivery ships arrived in the area, these families would regularly request jiu fen (九分) or “nine portions”, hence the name.

By the end of the 19th century, gold was discovered in the area which brought about a boom period in the town’s history. The huge influx into the area and increased development continued until its peak during the Japanese colonial occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945).

The hillside town on a misty day. Photo by Mark 高維隆 on Flickr

As the town continued to grow buildings were stacked atop one another along the hillsides, giving the town the iconic image it has today!

Sadly, Jiufen’s history darkened towards the end of the Second World War as the town became a Prisoner of War camp which saw many tragedies and forced labour. Following the war and the end of Japanese occupation, the gold industry quickly declined before closing for good in 1971. Soon after, the mining towns of Jiufen and nearby Jinguashi also fell to despair.

Revival on the Silver Screen

Fortunately for Jiufen, there was light at the end of the gold mining tunnel! The town saw a revival in 1989 when the internationally acclaimed movie A City of Sadness was set there. This brought back a second wave of interest to the town that initiated both domestic and international tourism as the town began redeveloping.

No face, easily the most iconic character in Spirited Away

In modern times yet another movie was responsible for putting the town on the international stage. The Japanese anime movie Spirited Away was not only an international box office smash and considered one of the greatest anime movies of all time, but it also brought a hell of a lot of notoriety to Jiufen as many believed that it became the inspiration for the movie…or was it? (More on that later)

Ever since then, Jiufen has been considered the quintessential tourist destination in Taiwan and is easily considered one of the must-see destinations!

Geography

Though Jiufen is easily the most iconic town in the era east of Taipei, most group everything up until the coast to be a part of the town, and certainly include it during a Jiufen trip. The other notable town is Jinguashi, which is home to the actual gold mine that brought such notoriety to the area.

Jinguashi also encompasses many other sites all the way to the coast, which include some of the most fascinating spectacles of any Jiufen trip! Not only are there plenty of reminders of their industrial and colonial pasts, but also some extraordinary natural marvels.

Here’s a guide on all of the attractions in Jiufen and Jinguashi.

Getting There

To get deep into the mountain towns, you have two options: buses or trains. Typically, most people visit Jiufen from Taipei, as it’s by far the easiest way to get there. Let me guide you through the easiest ways to get to Jiufen.

Train

Getting to Jiufen by train is a little complicated as it only reaches about halfway. After that, you’ll have to take a bus the rest of the way. It does have the advantage of avoiding any Taipei traffic, so it’s worth considering.

The first step is taking a train from Taipei (either Taipei Main, Songshan, Nangang or Wanhua Stations) to Ruifang to the east of New Taipei City. The train takes 30-60 minutes and costs between NT$49 to 96, depending on which type of train you catch.

Choo choo to Ruifang. Photo by billy1125, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are more than 30 trains per day so you can easily catch one at any time. For a more detailed guide on the trains to Jiufen, then you can check the Taiwan railway website.

Once you arrive at Ruifang, you need to catch a bus from the stop just past Ruifang Police Station. You can catch bus numbers 788, 827, 965, or 1062 for a 15-minute ride which will guide you towards Jiufen, which costs about NT$15-20. If all else fails, look for any bus that says Jiufen/Jinguashi on the front.

Bus

The easiest option is to take a bus directly from Taipei, of which you have a couple of options. The most convenient ones are bus numbers 1062 and 965.

Bus 1062 is by far the most popular, and therefore usually has a pretty long waiting line during peak hours. It leaves every day from Zhongxiao Fuxing station from 7:15 am to 9:20 pm on weekdays and 7:05 am to 8:50 pm on weekends.

Bus 965 is much lesser-known and much easier to get a seat. They leave from multiple stations, including Fuzhong, Banqiao, Ximen, Beimen, Wanhua Railway Station, and close to Taipei Main Station. They cost roughly NT$90 and run from 6 am to 9 pm on weekdays and 7 am to 9 pm on weekends. You can also use the Taipei Unlimited Fun Pass or Taipei Fun Transport Pass for these buses.

Bus Tours

There are also tour bus shuttles that guide you between Taipei, Jiufen and nearby Shifen (famous for its sky lanterns and Taiwan’s widest waterfall). The benefit is that you won’t have to work out all the different transport info! Rather than being led around, you’ll have a set amount of time at each stop where you’re free to roam on your own.

They leave often from Ximending from 9:30 am or 1:30 pm. You have an option of half-day or full-day tours, and they cost upwards of NT$490

Getting Around

To get around the town and visit the attractions in the area, then you need to rely on the same series of buses that you took to get to Jiufen in the first place. For all the attractions within Jiufen itself, this isn’t a problem, as everything is within walking distance anyway. However, if you want to get out to the coast or visit any attractions along the way, then hop back on the 788, 802 or 965 bus towards Jinguashi.

After Jiufen, why not guide yourself through another of Taipei’s best hotspots?

The ultimate Beitou itinerary to plan the perfect day trip to the home of Taiwanese hot spring culture and a geological paradise.

Click here!

Is this Really the Inspiration for Spirited Away?

Endless amounts of articles, blogs and vlogs have been written on how Jiufen was the inspiration for the iconic bathhouse in Spirited Away, a Japanese anime film by Hayao Miyazaki about a lost girl who begins working for the kami, or spirits.

Despite everyone being convinced that this is a fact, it’s actually untrue. Miyazaki has repeatedly denied that Jiufen was the inspiration, though that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. As far as everyone is concerned, Jiufen IS Spirited Away regardless of what Miyazaki has to say about it. Helped in big part by the myth being continuously propagated, huge influxes of Japanese tourists, and the locals’ desire to still be associated with the popular movie, Jiufen will always be the spiritual bathhouse.

Too much Spirited Away merch. Photo by Kemgung YAMSAUM OOI on Wiki Commons

Today every souvenir store along the old street is bursting with movie merchandise and piles of No Face related trinkets. And of all the structures along the narrow walkways you’ll pass by on your explorations, the A-mei Teahouse is easily seen as the inspiration for the iconic movie.

Attractions

The attractions worth visiting are spread amongst the old mining towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi as well as the surrounding area towards the coast. Most attractions are either related to the former mining boom or natural phenomena which are scattered amongst the valleys. Luckily they’re pretty easy to get to and not too far away from each other.

Jishan Old Street

Jiufen guide old street
In the heart of the old street

This is the pinnacle Jiufen highlight and the entire reason such droves of tourists arrive daily. The authentic narrow lanes and monumental staircases snaking their way amongst old Japanese teahouses amongst the misty hillsides is one of Taiwan’s most iconic images.

It’s the perfect spot to spend a few hours meandering between each lane taking snapshots, picking up souvenirs and snacking your way from store to store. Granted, it’s very touristy and usually packed to the gills, but of course, it would be, this is one of the most popular spots in all of Taiwan! Is there little wonder that these beautiful lantern filled alleyways garner such a crowd?

The old street stretches from the main road all the way to the Jishan Street Viewing Platform, which gives one hell of a beautiful view of the remaining town as it slips down towards the coast. Further ahead, the tourist thrills of the lantern-lit lanes dissipate into traditional housing where you can find several guesthouses and more traditional teahouses frequented by the locals.

Details:

Open: Though the street itself is open, all stores will close.
8 am – 7 pm on Weekdays
8 am – 10 pm on Weekends

A-mei Teahouse

Jiufen guide a mei teahouse
The most iconic site in Jiufen

Of the many teahouses in and around Jiufen, without a shadow of a doubt, this is the absolute highlight of them all! Not only is it the iconic image of Jiufen, but it’s also the reason so many people believe why this is the home of Spirited Away.

Once the only blacksmith in Jiufen, the gorgeous wooden building then became the apex teahouse it is today and has been extremely popular ever since. Crowds gather daily to sample some freshly brewed tea and, more importantly, capture that perfect shot of the teahouse in all its glory (top tip, head to the stairs of Skyline Tea House next door to get the best shot!)

If you were to visit any teahouse, it would have to be this one. And due to its popularity, it’s best to pre-order your tea set online, which includes an enormous pot of tea and four little treats: brown sugar mochi, green bean cake, sesame crackers, and sweet plums. Ordering tea is almost a necessity, as it’s the only way you’ll be able to sit on the rooftop to get the absolute best experience.

Details:

Open: 10 am – 10 pm

Price: Tea set (mentioned above) – £11

Other Teahouses

Though A-mei is certainly an attraction all in itself, Jiufen still has plenty of other teahouses worth your time! Just a few steps away is Taiwan Sweet Potato Teahouse which you can enter through an old mining tunnel! Directly next to A-mei is Skyline Tea House which is the best spot to capture its more attractive neighbour. Jiufen Teahouse has some of the best selections of local tea available.

The further you head from A-mei the quieter the teahouses become and have a little more of a personal feel. They also give equally beautiful views! They include Forgetful HouseOcean See, or Something Easy, a pottery shop with a tearoom on the third floor. All worth checking out!

Jinguashi Gold Ecological Museum

Jiufen guide gold museum
The entrance to the Gold Ecological Museum

Now we get to the entire reason Jiufen has been put on the map in the first place! The Jinguashi Gold Ecological Museum is this Japanese-era mining complex from which the gold boom brought the area such fame! Even though the mine has been shut down since the 1970s, it’s said that there’s still up to 250-tonnes worth $6 billion still lying underground!

Today the offices, workshops, dormitories and mine itself have been transformed into a tourist park to give a look back at centuries past. Easily the star attraction of the park is the Beishan Fifth Tunnel which will guide you deep into the mine which brought Jiufen such fame and the terrible conditions the workers had to endure.

Jiufen guide gold museum
The entrance to Beishan Fifth Tunnel

In the nearby museum, you’ll have an opportunity to touch a 220-kg gold bar that was once the largest in the world! You’ll also learn about the darker history of the mine and how POWs were forced to mine for the Japanese. If that doesn’t take your fancy, how about trying coffee topped with gold leaf in a nearby cafe!

You can also take time to check out the Crown Prince Chalet, a Japanese-style garden mansion that was apparently built to house Emperor Hirohito during an inspection tour, though he never actually came.

Details:

Open:

9:30 am – 5 pm on weekdays
9:30 am – 6 pm on weekends

Price: NT$80 + NT$50 for Beishann Fifth Tunnel

Golden Waterfall

Jiufen guide golden waterfall
The completely unique Golden Waterfall

Jiufen is so much more than than just a series of mining towns. The area also has some incredible natural beauty, many of which are spectacularly unique. Possibly one of the strangest and certainly most beautiful has to be the Golden Waterfall!

As the mining industry came to an end, the clogged tunnels used by the companies resulted in groundwater flooding out of an outlet and thus created the Golden Falls. Though many believed the peculiar colour was the result of the local mining industry, it turns out it’s completely natural! The surrounding earth is rich in minerals such as pyrite (fool’s gold) and enargite, and then through a process of oxidization-reduction and iron catalysis results in the rusty golden colour.

Shuinandong Smelter (13 Levels)

Jiufen guide shuinandong smelter 13
The beautifully eerie 13 levels

What goes up, must come down, and Jiufen’s gold industry was no different. The region went from one of the most prosperous gold mining areas in Asia to crashing into near-nothingness during the 1950s. No greater evidence of which can be seen at the Shunandong Smelter.

The dominating series of structures were used in the sorting and smelting of gold and copper ore and set along the descending hillside towards Liandong Bay. The intimidating structure was soon nicknamed the “13 layers” by miners and locals. At one point, the Shuinandong Smelter was the biggest in all of Asia. Now it resembles nothing more than urban explorers dream and a creepy reminder of the areas former glory.

Yin Yang Sea

Jiufen guide yin yang sea
A bird’s eye view of the Yin Yang Sea

As you get closer to the coast, you’ll start to see a very unusual scene where the bay has a distinctive mix of yellow and blue. Often this contrasting mixture is blended so beautifully that it earned the site the nickname of the Yin Yang Sea.

It was once believed that the colour was caused by the polluting activities of the Taiwan Metal Mining Corps. However, decades after the industry shut down, the Yin Yang Sea still exists! It turned out that it’s actually a geological phenomenon similar to that which created the Golden Waterfalls. Enormous amounts of pyrite which exist within the earth is oxidised into iron ions over time, which cannot dissolve easily in water. The resulting water fails to mix with the deep blue of the ocean, creating an utterly beautiful contrast.

If you want more than Jiufen, then here’s the ultimate guide on travelling to Taiwan’s number one tourist attraction, Sun Moon Lake

How to get there, What to do, What to eat

Click here!

Qitang Old Street

Jiufen guide qitang old street
A guide of the history in Jiufen through the authentic Qitang Old Street

Though this old street gathers much less attention than its more decorated neighbour, it’s still worth a visit! Qitang Old Street makes up the remnants of yet another prosperous mining town which has since fallen into a more peaceful existence. The streets are much more of an authentic calling to its past glory and not as tourist-heavy as Jishan. With a gathering of a few stores and restaurants, it garnered the nickname of “Little Ginza” during its heyday.

Cyuanji Temple

Jiufen guide cyuanji temple
Yet another beautiful Taiwanese temple

Overlooking Qitang Old Street at the end of the Rainbow Staircase is one of the few notable temples in the region. Built in 1896, Cyuanji Temple is renowned for the 25-ton gold and bronze Guan Gong statue that sits atop its roof, easily making it the largest figure of the deity in Taiwan.

The temple also plays host to a yearly Green Grass ceremony during Dragon Boat Festival. During this time, devoted faithful search for medicinal herbs which are taken back to the temple to be dried and powdered before being shaped into balls, which has since become known as the “100 Herb ball” ritual.

Jinguashi Shrine

The remains of Jinguashi Shrine. Photo by fullfen666, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The godly nature of the Shinto shrine has given an air of mystery to this former temple site. Also known as the “Mountain God Shrine,” Jinguashi Shrine was built in 1933 after the Japanese Nippon Mining Company took over the management of the local gold mine.

Sadly though, little remains. The buildings were destroyed following the war as the KMT government tried to rid any evidence of Japanese influences on the island. Today all the only evidence of its existence are 2 torii gates, a few stone lanterns and the shrine’s original foundation, beams and pillars.

Teapot Mountain

Can you see it? Photo by Wei-Te Wong on Flickr

The entire region is full of the most glorious mountain ranges in the entire country! In any direction you travel, you’ll have some glorious views. But if there’s one peak worth your time, it has to be Teapot Mountain!

The breath-taking 1 to 2-hour hike to the summit not only has some of the best views on offer, but some of the most unusual rock formations too! As the name suggests, at the mountain’s peak appears to be a handleless teapot…pretty ironic given Jiufen’s love of teahouses!

POW Memorial and Peace Park

A guide showing visitors one of the monuments at the POW memorial in Jiufen. Photo by Prince Roy on Flickr

The Japanese rule of the island wasn’t always a pleasant one, particularly during the war, and particularly in Jiufen. Tonghsan Park was once the site of a POW camp between 1942-45 where 1000 British and allied soldiers were imprisoned.

The POWs were forced to work in the gold mines in horrendous conditions, sometimes with underground temperatures as high as 40°C. Living conditions were even worse, and many of the prisoners were malnourished or died from disease and accidents within the mines. It’s believed that around 10% of the prisoners perished here, and it could have been so much more. The Japanese government actually planned to kill all remaining prisoners in Taiwan as the war came to an end, though thankfully the order was never carried out.

Today a memorial stone and one single gatepost remain of the Kinkaseki camp as a sad reminder of the cruelty and horror of the war.

Baoshi Mountain (Zhaori Pavilion)

Jiufen guide yin yang sea
The view of the Yin Yang sea from an old smelting relic

Apparently, the mountain was named after the Japanese sirens that sounded regularly around the area during the colonial period. Though the mountain itself doesn’t compare to Teapot Mountain, the view from Zhaori Pavilion is what makes it worthwhile!

The pavilion allows for a stunning panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the Ying Yang Sea to the north and Teapot Mountain and Jinguashi to the south. Another cool inclusion is a nearby relic that once played a role in the transportation of ore now stands as a shell of its former self. Sure looks beautiful though.

Shengping Theater

Inside the Shengping Theater. Photo by bangdoll, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shengping Theater dates back to 1934 during the booming years of Jiufen and Japanese influence. It goes some way to show the sheer height of the industry during that time. It was built with Taiwanese cypress (hinoki) to imitate the Baroque style which was popular in Japan at the time. Inside, are some preserved movie posters from the time, a well-preserved concession stand, and an old movie projector.

Details:

Open:

9:30 am – 5:30 pm on weekdays
9:30 am – 6 pm on weekends

Now you’re finished with Jiufen, how about a guide on the best highlights in Tainan?

The top 15 highlights in the ancient capital and one of the most historically significant cities in all of Taiwan, Tainan

Click here!

Accommodations

While most people do Jiufen as a day trip from Taipei, spending the night offers you the chance to enjoy the streets before and after all the tourists arrive. Also, the opportunity to see Jiufen and its many teahouses light up at night is well; worth the effort to stay there.

Many guesthouses remain within the local housing further past the old street, many of which have remained since the days of Japanese occupation!

Cuisine

It’s no secret that for many people, the highlight of the old street is the incredible snacks on offer! Most Jiufen restaurants are hole-in-the-wall shops with only a few tables, so don’t expect a 5-star experience. Yet some places come with second floors and balconies which offer great views worthy of any high-class restaurant. So let me guide you through some of the best snacks Jiufen has to offer.

The star of the Jiufen show is taro and sweet potato balls, which are served hot or on ice, in a sweet syrup. They usually come with a bunch of other goodies, including everything from a variety of beans to jellies.

A typical mix of taro balls and various other treats. Photo by Yun Huang Yong on Flickr

Any Jiufen food guide would be incomplete without mentioning herbal rice cakes and taro cakes. These thick dumplings come stuffed with beans or vegetables, and deserve your time! For those with a sweet tooth, try the Peanut Ice Cream Roll, a wrap consisting of traditional ice cream, peanut brittle shavings, and cilantro. It may sound odd, but trust me, you won’t regret it!

Peanut ice-cream rolls ready to go! Photo by Jirka Matousek on Flickr

TravellingWelshman

A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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