To all the world, the mountain town of Jiufen looks as though it has been plucked out of an old Chinese storybook. With red lanterns lining steep alleyways and atmospheric tea houses serving tea in the traditional way, the charm of yesteryear is vividly alive in this former mining town
At first glance, Jiufen (九份) appears as an odd-looking settlement clinging to the forested hills of Ruifang District. There seem to be too many houses cramping into a limited buildable area. But unlike in Gamcheon where houses are built in staircase fashion so that no house blocks any house behind it, Jiufen’s buildings seem to be making a silent appeal to their neighbors to move over. Some structures look as though they are sliding into their adjacent ones, while others seem to stand above their neighbors.
Snaking through this chaos is a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. They wind up and down the hills, leading to Buddhist temples, vista points, and eventually to the old town where shops and food stalls stand shoulder to shoulder. Day and night, an endless stream of visitors passes through these lanes. Perhaps they are seeking the charm of yesteryear embedded in every corner of this peculiar town.
A brief history of Jiufen
During the first years of the Qing Dynasty, Jiufen was founded as an isolated village comprising merely nine households. Due to its inconvenient location, the locals would always request nine portions every time shipments arrived in town. For this reason, the town was named Jiufen, which literally means “nine portions”.
The village remained largely unknown in the next centuries until gold was discovered in 1893. Accordingly, inns, teahouses, restaurants, and even a cinema spawned up to accommodate the needs of gold-seekers and merchants. Within years, the once isolated village rapidly developed into a gold dynamic mining town.
After World War II, Jiufen’s role as a mining town started fading as a result of declining mining activities. And for a while, it was mostly forgotten. The town only regained attention in the 1990s as the film location for A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and later in 2001 as a model city for the Japanese anime movie Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli (the director Miyazaki has denied this claim). Though bearing little resemblance to the town in the movie, Jiufen’s nostalgic scenery is still a draw for many visitors.
Having tea at Jiufen
Another unmissable experience when visiting Jiufen is to sip tea at one of its atmospheric teahouses. There are currently a dozen traditional teahouses in town. But we ended up at Jiufen Teahouse (九份茶坊) – a classic teahouse that originated as a Chinese medicine clinic.
In contrast to its modest storefront, the interior is beautifully decorated with traditional furniture, antiques, and numerous teapots. The hostess led us to a cozy room, with a glimpse of the fog-covered hills below. On her recommendation, we picked the Oolong tea and savored it in a very Taiwanese way: pouring water constantly warmed by charcoal into loose-leaf tea. A relaxing teahouse moment, while outside it started drizzling…
How to get to Jiufen from Taipei
- Located 40 kilometres east of Taipei, Jiufen is easily accessible by local trains from Taipei Main Station. Just take Line 801 towards Su’ao (Yilan) and get off at Ruifang Station. The trip takes less than one hour.
- From Ruifang Station, take Keelung Bus Nr.856 to Jiufen. Please note that the bus stop to Jiufen is located about 400 metres left of the Ruifang Station. The one in front of the station only runs to Keelung. I made this mistake and as a result, a supposedly one-hour trip was turned into three hours.
- The entire trip can be paid with the EasyCard – an add-valued smartcard that can be used in most of Taiwan’s public transportation system.
- Houtong Cat Village – the feline paradise – is just one station away. That’s why many people combine these two destinations on a day trip.