When I was researching Jiufen prior to the Taiwan trip, not once did I come across anything that says you have to climb stairs. You can imagine my shock when the tour guide mouthed “240 steps.”
Why is Jiufen worth visiting anyway that warrants such a torturous climb?
Jiufen was a gold mining town and allegedly the inspiration for “Spirited Away”
One part of that subtitle is true. Jiufen was a mining town. Insofar as being the inspiration for the locale of Spirited Away, “allegedly” is the only accurate part of that claim. The celebrated animated film’s director has denied any connection between Spirited Away and Jiufen.
Still, tour organizers in Taiwan market the place aggressively based on that non-existent connection. And it’s not so hard to do given the physical resemblance of the village to the setting of Spirited Away. Maybe it’s the proliferation of red lanterns. Perhaps it’s the fact that Jiufen does have a Japanese feel about it — which shouldn’t be surprising given the history of the place.
Gold has been mined in Jiufen since the 15th century but it wasn’t until the Japanese occupation of Taiwan that development boomed. It is the strong Japanese presence in this mountain village that explains why its streets, food culture and architecture gave the impression that Spirited Away was inspired by the place.
Gold mining in the area ebbed after World War II when the Japanese dropped its claims on Taiwan. The mine was closed in 1971. Jiufen languished. How Jiufen first became a tourist attraction doesn’t have to do with Spirited Away.
In 1989, two years after martial law was liften in Taiwan, a film called City of Sadness came out. Set in Jiufen, it was controversial because it depicted the atrocities committed by the Kuomintang Party against those that it deemed critical of it — in particular, the February 28 incident, a subject that was not openly discussed during the decades when the Kuomintang ruled Taiwan via martial law.
City of Sadness received critical acclaim globally and became the first Taiwanese film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It also renewed interest in Jiufen throughout the 90s. When Spirited Away was released in 2001, cafes and tea houses were already a-plenty in Jiufen. Their retro look, created to reflect the 1947 setting of City of Dreams, gave the place a nostalgic and old-fashioned Japanese aura. With the resemblance, it’s easy to assume that Jiufen could have been the model for the abandoned amusement park that Chihiro and her parents stumbled upon in Spirited Away.
A choice between Jiufen Old Street and Amei Tea House
In the tour bus, two maps were passed around. A map of Shifen and a map of Jiufen. Everyone took photos of the maps to get a bird’s eye view of both places and to know where to look for the bus at the appointed times.
The tour guide asked who among the group wanted to go to Amei Tea House and who wanted to go to the Old Street (Jishen Street; yellow in the map above).
She explained that we would get off the bus at the parking lot (bottom of the map), those who wanted to go straight to Jiufen Old Street would have to take a public bus or a taxi in front of the police station. It’s 10 minutes to the bus stop in front of 7-11 and Jiufen Old Street was a short walk from there.
Those who wanted to go to Amei Tea House could just follow her on foot. She would make arrangements so we could be seated immediately in case there was a queue (I heard there often was).
Initially, I wanted to go to the Old Street for the street food then proceed to Amei for tea and cakes. That’s the reason we limited our snacks in Shifen to one piece each of stuffed chicken wings. But the trouble of having to get a taxi or get on a bus was… well, I thought it was a waste of time. Going straight to Amei seemed to be the better option.
Too much stairs
From the parking lot, we had to go up the stairs to the road, cross and then go up the stairs with the 240 steps.
But we weren’t going all the way up to the top because Amei Tea House was just about two-thirds up of those 240 steps. I’ve done this kind of climbing before at Sun Moon Lake to reach a temple. I was going to survive the climb to Amei. Or so I thought. I did survive it, obviously, but barely.
At first, I was in high spirits. I took photos, I peeked at the shops… Then, the stairs became narrower. It was crowded. And it was terribly humid. Several steps ahead of me, Speedy occasionally turned around to see how I was faring. I was getting claustrophobic. Somewhere deep in my mind that was fast beginning to warp, I thought about pushing everyone down and away from me so I could breathe.
The lanterns were pretty. The shops that lined both sides of the stairs looked inviting. But I had to climb higher. Just a short distance from Amei, I thought I was going to get cramps. My legs hurt so much. But Speedy was there holding out his hand. If he could make it, why couldn’t I? Had I known at that moment that Speedy almost gave up much, much earlier, I might have bailed out on Amei altogether.
Amei Tea House
I dragged my feet. Every step was torture. Excruciating. But the thought of what awaited us up there, the tea cakes and the view, kept me going.
We arrived. Oh, at last. My scalp was wet, my hair felt stringy and perspiration was dripping from my head to neck to shoulders. I just wanted to sit down. But there was more climbing. There were stairs past the entrance to Amei. And the stairs were blocked by visitors who were taking photos.
Amazing. These people had the energy to smile and look euphoric after all that climbing? It didn’t occur to me that these people were on their way down, not on their way up, and they have already had the pleasure of relaxing.
So, there we were. The climb happened in several segments as we stopped to give way to the photo sessions. I mean, did we really want to be photobombers?
Inside Amei, we were asked where we wanted to be seated. There was an air-conditioned section on the lower floor but we chose to climb another flight of stairs to the open air section where we could smoke and where the view was simply spectacular.
When we were already seated, relaxed and enjoying cup after cup of cold tea, Speedy told me he felt dizzy near the bottom of the stairs. I told him that if we go back to Taiwan to bring the girls, I would book the Shifen / Jiufen tour for them but they’d have to go by themselves. I am not going to climb those stairs ever again. Did I really mean that? At that moment, yes. I was vehemently serious. But then, you know, sometimes, you say things in the heat of the moment, and…
It took ten minutes for my body to adjust and stop perspiring. As we started eating the tea cakes and drinking the wonderful tea, my mood started to change.
The matcha bean cakes were stupendous. Boldly flavored, light but not terribly crumbly.
The mochi tasted like sticky coffee rolled in roasted peanuts.
The preserved cherries, I found too tart. The sesame seed crackers… I’ve had better in Japan.
But the tea was wonderful. Drink to your heart’s content because you get unlimited refills.
And the price? Ah, that’s the catch. Pricey. TWD399 per person. But then again, you pay for the food, the tea, the experience and the wonderful view. And, more importantly, you are welcome to stay as long as you like. No food attendants will hover around as though silently implying that unless you order more tea cakes, you might as well vacate your seats. Oh, no. They don’t do that to you in Amei. Instead, every ten to fifteen minutes or so, someone will approach to ask if you want more tea.
We stayed for almost two hours. Speedy didn’t want to climb to the Old Street despite the promise of gorgeous street food. He was happy with our afternoon in Tamsui. How could anything beat that? And so, we stayed and waited for the sun to dip into the horizon.
It was just too bad that they don’t serve full meals at Amei. I thought they did but was told that there were only tea cakes and tea. To tide us over until we got back to Taipei, we ordered…
A cake that I can best describe as coconut panna cotta topped with freshly grated coconut. After that, we were ready to leave.
It was a beautiful night. There was a light wind and the humidity had partially abated.
We walked around. There was a fairy tale-like quality about the place. There were quaint shops and tea houses not unlike Amei though probably not as popular. It was almost understandable why people willingly climb the horrible stairs.
Will we ever go back to Jiufen?
Yes, we will take the girls there. I will book a different tour though. I want one will allow us to stay in Jiufen for the entire afternoon until sunset. No more stairs though. Next time, we will take the bus or a taxi to that stop in front of 7-11 and walk the short distance to the Old Street. I want to explore the Old Street and eat all the street food that my heart desires. Then, we will walk DOWN the stairs to Amei (or, maybe, another teahouse that offered the same spectacular view), enjoy tea and cakes, and gaze at the dramatic sunset.