Jiufen, Taiwan is a small town on the side of a mountain near the capital city of Taipei. It has gone through many stages over the years. It was once a thriving gold mining community, reaching its peak under Japanese control. When the mining ended, the community fell into poverty, but experienced a revival when it’s beautiful location and unique appearance made it a popular setting for film makers and tourists. Admittedly, Jiufen appeared on our radar because many have noted its striking similarity to the popular Japanese animation, Spirited Away, one of Dannie’s favorites. We spent four days experiencing Jiufen, and we were glad we did.
Jiufen is Small and Compact
The majority of tourists take on Jiufen as a day trip from Taipei or other nearby towns during their vacation. For some, this is probably an obvious decision. It’s definitely possible to walk from one end of town to the other in one day, stopping at the majority of the attractions as you go. It’s not like visiting Rome or Paris where the culture, architecture and activities are spread out over an entire sprawling city. In Jiufen, no two sites are more than 15 minutes apart, and there is a lot to see in that very tight space. In a sense, it’s almost like visiting a theme park because so little space is wasted and everything is designed to attract your attention.
But if your favorite part of travel is coming home with great photos, or if you simply want a deeper experience of a place, there is ample reason to spend at least two days (and one night) in Jiufen. From the Old Street, to the mountains, to the ocean in the background, this old mining town changes character dramatically, hour by hour and day by day. In a way, you could see more of the town by standing still and just watching than you could by walking it end to end. Fittingly, in this village that is obsessed with its past, the sights are best explored by navigating with a clock instead of a map.
Here are the ways we spent our time Jiufen, Taiwan, and how we incorporated them into our photography.
A Stroll Down the Jiufen Old Street
The Jiufen Old Street is surreal. If you have traveled to Asia, you are probably familiar with “old towns.” We’ve certainly seen plenty of them during our time in China (especially in Dali, and especially in Lijiang). Stone streets, lined with food stalls and souvenir shops – all selling similar wares – funnel mobs of tourists from one end to another. They feature manufactured photo ops, people in costumes and an infinite variety of ways to exchange a buck or two for a treat or a bauble. The most analogous American experience would be a fairground – only permanent.
The Old Street in Jiufen (Google Maps) has all that, but somehow it felt a little different to us. The entrance to the Old street is next to a 7-11 on the side of a mountain, and from the outside, it looks like a hole in the wall, literally. But stepping inside feels like being pulled into a worm hole. Much like the Tardis from Dr. Who, it is bigger on the inside. The Old Street is an open air market, but it is so narrow that the awnings over the shops nearly block out the sky, creating a visual effect that brings to mind being digested by a snake. When it rains (as it did for almost our entire four day visit), it is almost possible to stay dry as you inch your way along.
The street may be narrow, but it is long! How long? I don’t know, but every time it twists or turns around the side of the mountain and you think it is about to end, it just keeps going. The awnings are lined with paper lanterns that combine with colorful shops, children’s toys, and steaming kitchens to create a feast for the eyes. But your other senses aren’t left alone for a minute either. The smells of almond powder, meats, teas, and stinky tofu alternately tantalize and assault your nose. Shop owners thrust out samples of their foods and play Christmas carols on hand painted ocarinas. Periodically, you jump to the side as you hear a motor scooter approaching from behind you.
A Quick Plug: If you read the last paragraph and wondered if “stinky tofu” is the actual name of a food (that people eat!), it is. I wrote an e-mail newsletter about it – Stinky Tofu: An Open (Not Open) Letter to Taiwan – but don’t bother clicking that link until you have signed up for our newsletter to get the password. Of course it’s not a very good password, so can probably just guess it.
From a photography standpoint, the crowds and the repetitive nature of the scenery make photography a challenge. On rainy days, you have to defend your camera from falling water and struggle to get a clear shot past a moving curtain of umbrellas. It’s worth experiencing though. The food is delicious (there is even one vegetarian food stall!), and if you travel with children, they will be delighted by the atmosphere and the attention they receive from the shop owners.
Admittedly, there is no such thing as a peaceful tea time with a two year old girl, but the teahouses in Jiufen are not to be missed. Like everything in town, they are crafted to be visually stunning, but they tend to be less crowded and stressful than the Old Street itself.
The Jiufen Teahouse
The aptly named Jiufen Teahouse had one of the most beautiful interiors I have ever seen. There are only a few tables, but throughout the main floor there are teapots over pit stoves filled with ashes, and you can sample teas and buy leaves if you don’t have time to sit and relax. Since we were in town for so long we had plenty of opportunities to sit down and enjoy a pot. It was a nice way to warm up on a rainy February day.
The basement of the Jiufen Teahouse is magical. One side is laid out like a tea museum where display cases and shelves showcase an incredible collection of teapots, cups and artwork. On the other side, there is an indoor waterfall tumbling over a mossy stone wall and feeding a pond full of koi fish.
The A-MEI Teahouse and the Skyline Teahouse
I’m pretty sure that these two teahouses are in a symbiotic relationship. We didn’t patronize either business because one was two busy and the other had terrible reviews. Presumably these two teahouses are in competition with one another, but I have a feeling that neither would exist without the other.
The A-MEI Teahouse is one of the iconic sites in Jiufen. Its wooden exterior, lined with lanterns, sits on the side of the mountain overlooking the ocean. If you have ever looked for photos of Jiufen, you have seen a picture of the A-MEI Teahouse. Because it is such a familiar site, many people go inside to eat or drink, but it’s the exterior that draws the eye.
But because of the compact nature of Jiufen, there is only one angle from which to take a good photo of the A-MEI Teahouse, and that is from the Skyline Teahouse (Google Maps). The food there is reportedly terrible, but that doesn’t matter because it has a monopoly on the view of the place across the street. While the view is slightly better from the second floor, you can take a serviceable photo from just outside the front door (which is a good thing because going there before they open is the only way to get a shot that isn’t crowded with tourists.
So it’s a chicken and the egg situation. Does the A-MEI look beautiful because the view from the Skyline made it famous, or does the Skyline exist solely to provide a view of the beautiful A-MEI?
悲情城市-小上海茶飯館 (Chinese Restaurant)
Dannie and I ate a meal here while Lisa napped with her grandmother back at the hotel. Apart from having an outdoor dining room with plenty of shelter from the rain, it overlooks the town square and the Shengping Theater (Google Maps) and provides a fun angle for photography. We picked the corner table right next to the square and I went down in the rain to shoot up at Dannie from under my umbrella.
The Jiufen Stairs
A few stalls before the end of the Old Street there is a steep and treacherous stairway that goes down to a bus station farther down the hill. Though it is also decked out in lanterns, it has a different feel from the tunnel-like Old Street. The staircase itself makes a quintessential photograph, but it is also home to a number of the most popular locations in town. If you walk both the Old Street and the stairs, you will have seen most of the locations that the average tourist comes to see, including the teahouses and the square mentioned above.
The Jiufen stairs are slippery when wet, and during our stay they were wet all the time. This seems like as good a time as any to point out that the entire town of Jiufen is not stroller friendly.
If you step off the Jiufen stairs, you can take Quingbian Road (Google Maps), to the right of the Shengping Theater. This will take you on a 10 minute walk outside the old town and around the valley. Eventually, you come to a vista that gives you a great view of the town of Jiufen, the surrounding mountains, and the ocean in the distance. When we came here, the entire region was cloaked in a thin fog, and it gave our photos an eerie look. I especially liked looking at the peninsulas that jutted out into the ocean, and a massive temple in the forest on the opposite side of the valley (sadly we never visited it. Next time!). We arrived at the vista late in the morning, but because of the cloud cover there was no harsh sunlight to ruin our photography. Down below us, we could see rows of taxis carrying fresh tourists into town.
Beautiful Temple Rooftops
Even though we never made it to that big temple in the forest, there are several right around the old town. One of them, visible in the photo of Jiufen we took from the vista, is just up the hill from the Old Street. We approached it from our hotel, higher up the mountain, and got a closeup view of the amazingly intricate rooftop sculptures. I was impressed by the layers upon layers of artwork that overlapped each other. Photographing it kind of felt like composing a scene in a movie in which characters did battle with one another in the sky.
Jiufen Lanterns at Night
The iconic an omnipresent red lanterns are the reason so many people think that Jiufen was the inspiration for the setting of Spirited Away (though the director denies it). In the movie, the main character is warned to get out of town before all the lights come on, and in failing to do so, she is transported into spirit world that is at once beautiful, spooky and magical. Honestly, it’s not far off. As the sun gets low, the lanterns come on in Jiufen, and it suddenly feels a bit otherworldly. Suddenly, the town feels older, and it’s not hard to imagine that you have become trapped in a world of ghosts and shadows. Under the light of the lanterns, you suddenly notice creepy masks on the walls that you hadn’t seen during the day, and the old street feels even more enclosed than ever, as though the world outside is now totally inaccessible.
Our hotel was up the hill from the Old Street, and to access it we had to clime up a maze of crumbling sidewalks and narrow staircases. It was a slight hassle, but one of my favorite views was the time we decided to leave our hotel after dark to go down for a bite of food. The path down the mountain was deserted and quiet, but we finally rounded a corner and at the end of one last staircase we could see a sliver of orange light illuminating a river of people inching their way through the shops, totally unaware of us or anything outside of the nighttime spirit world that had swallowed them.
The Jiufen Old Street in the Morning
The nighttime lanterns reminded me a little of halloween, but the smiling faces and the campy shops keep it from becoming truly scary. We did, however, go for one early morning walk that was downright ghostly. It was shortly after sunrise, but a thick fog was blanketing the mountainside, leaving Jiufen dark and misty. The shops were all closed and only rarely did we pass another person on the Old Street. It was totally silent. When we finally passed a stall where the owner was inside preparing for the day, light poured out of the opening, into the alley and the fog. It was yet another moment when we felt like we were walking onto a movie set.
We had gotten up early to photograph the Jiufen Stairs without pedestrians, but we had to stop and take some photos there. That was my favorite photo from our entire four day trip, and it wasn’t even one of our primary targets (I think the stall we used for light sold crackers). That was the moment I was most glad we had made Jiufen more than just a day trip. If we hadn’t been staying just a short walk away, we never could have been there before the shops opened and gotten a behind the scenes look that was somehow even more cinematic than the main event.
Oh, and if you are worried about how your camera will handle the tough lighting situations in a place like Jiufen, you could just take control yourself and use manual mode. I recently published an e-book that could help you do just that. It’s called Easy Manual Mode Photography, and it’s available in our shop for (much) less than a pot of tea in Jiufen.
If you are heading to the Taipei area and are thinking about venturing out, then Jiufen is definitely your spot for some surreal photography. If all you can do is a day trip then you will probably get some great shots. But if you have a night or two to spare, book a hotel and really get into it. There’s more to see and to familiarize yourself with than you will notice just passing through (especially if you have a bus to catch).
Before you go, we have a few more articles about Taiwan for you to read. If you’re interested in reading about more of our favorite locations, check out our destinations page to see where else we’ve been in over a year of full time slow travel. But if you are only interested in Jiufen, that’s fine too. Ask us anything in the comments section and we’ll do our best to answer.