A Day Trip to Jiufen, Taiwan
Taipei has plenty to offer travelers but if you need a little change of scenery, it’s easy to get out of the city. I went on a day trip to the north coast to an area known as the Bitou Cape and the village of Jiufen (or Chiufen). Here I found gorgeous rock formations, a mining town architecturally planted in another era, a beautiful, hidden temple, and stunning views of the coastline.
Along the north coast of Taiwan you’ll find geologically young, jagged mountains draped in a blanket of lush vegetation. Centuries of violent Pacific weather and typhoons have eroded the coastline leaving behind beautifully sculptural rock formations and the occasional sandy beach. I went to see the Nanya Rock Formations but there are several notable clusters of rock formations like this along the north coast.
The veins of stone have worn differently leaving behind ribbons of red, yellow, and tan material. However, given that it was about 95 F (35 C) and oppressively humid, I didn’t linger long on the shore. At least our car drove slowly along the coastal road giving some great views of the impressive landscape.
There are several hill towns hidden in these mountains, but I was on my way to Jiufen. In the 1930’s gold was found in the surrounding hills which turned this quiet village into a boomtown. Yet in about a decade the gold was done and the town emptied and was forgotten.
During the gold rush, Jiufen was quickly built up almost exclusively in the contemporary Japanese colonial architectural style. It’s sudden decline also preserved the unity of this design throughout the village. Perhaps drawn to the ghostly atmosphere here, filmmakers sought out Jiufen and featured it in two popular films: City of Sadness (1989) about the political turbulence of 1940’s Taiwan and Spirited Away (2001) which won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
You can see this beautiful architecture in parts of Jiufen – sometimes well preserved and sometimes in its natural state of decay.
Unfortunately, Jiufen is now very popular with tourists so the architecture and quaint streets have lost some of their luster. But you do get a sense for energy of the booming gold rush town as you walk through the narrow, steep, and crowded streets.
There is a long main shopping street in Jiufen which is fun to explore. The small stalls sell everything from savory snacks to specialty teas, and from tourist knick-knacks to traditional crafts.
Looking for some cool breezes, I eventually made it to the “top” of Jiufen which had magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.
Following a sign for a temple just around the corner, I found the massive Shengming Temple. Amazingly, especially considering how crowded the streets were, the temple was completely empty so I got to explore totally on my own.
As I had seen elsewhere in Taiwan, the decoration of this Taoist temple was absolutely amazing. Every inch of it seems to be painted or carved. I only wish I understood the iconography better. Without understanding the stories behind the art and their meanings, I can only appreciate the aesthetic quality of the decoration. (But at least there was a lot of it to appreciate.)
I wasn’t expecting much on my trip to the Bitou Cape. I just wanted to see the coast and a little more of the Taiwanese countryside. I ended up finding a beautifully rocky, green landscape and an architecturally unique village. While Jiufen, overrun with visitors, suffers somewhat from its own fame, the Shengming Temple provided me with a quiet art treasure which more than made up for the crowded streets.