Being a huge fan of Studio Gibhli’s Spirited Away, I knew the moment I stepped foot in Jiufen a few years ago, that I had to go back again. Only on my second trip, there would be more time to explore the spidery alleys, and hopefully an overnight stay. Thankfully, my friends were open to the idea, so we included this magical town in our plan, and got ourselves spirited away.
The real story behind Jiufen
Tucked in the hills northwest of Taipei, Jiufen was founded during the Qing Dynasty, and only nine families lived in the humble, secluded village then. The villagers ordered and purchased supplies in nine portions, hence it was called Jiufen (九份), or “nine parts” in Mandarin.
In the late 19th century, gold was discovered during the railway constructions. It drove people straight to the hills and Jiufen, with its rise in prosperity and popularity, became a gold-mining town.
During World War Two, Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese, so many of the buildings in Jiufen were influenced by traditional Japanese design. Prisoners of war were brought there to work at the mines, and the town was also a place for entertainment.
As the gold ran out, Jiufen ceased its mining activities and gradually became neglected. It was only after films like 1989’s A City of Sadness and 2001’s Spirited Away were released that Jiufen’s nostalgic romance was sparked once more, evolving into popular getaway destination in Taipei.
Spirited Away in Jiufen
Spirited Away is an award-winning classic Japanese anime by Studio Ghibli. It is about a young girl, Chihiro, who crosses an abandoned amusement park and enters the spirit realm. When her parents were mysteriously turned into pigs, she must find a way to save them without exposing her identity as a human. Along the way, Chihiro has to work at a bathhouse, face supernatural beings and always remember her real name, or she can never leave.
Frankly, it frightened me as a child the same way Princess Mononoke did. I mean, her parents literally transformed into beasts, and there was a cannibal spirit. These are some serious visuals to burn into a child’s head! But as I grew, I fell in love with journeys into strange worlds like Alice in Wonderland, so this grew on me too.
So if you are ready to see the fantastical side of this town, here are 8 sights and experiences to get yourself spirited away in Jiufen.
1. Eat Jiufen street food
At the start of the Spirited Away, Chihiro and her parents explore an abandoned theme park lined with restaurants. They follow a delicious smell to a stall full of mouthwatering food, where her parents take no time to gobble them up, and undergo the grotesque transformation.
“That’s strange; they’re all restaurants.” – Chihiro’s mother, while wandering through the town
It can get rainy in Jiufen, so be sure to bring an umbrella or raincoat.
The street food of Jiufen seems to be one of the obvious inspirations for the setting in the film. Imagine endless stalls with a tempting array of food like Taiwanese sausages, taro balls, desserts, dumplings, broiled meat and other deep-fried goodies. Smoke and smell interlace into a hunger-inducing perfume.
Don’t leave without tasting some of the local delicacies!
2. Enjoy taro balls with a view
Taro ball dessert is a unique local snack in Jiufen, made from sweet tapioca. There are two popular stalls here – Lai Ah Po Yu Yuan (賴阿婆芋圓) and Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan (阿柑姨芋圆). You can get a bowl of hot or cold handmade dessert for NT$ 45.
If you do go to Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan, have it in the dessert parlour as you can have your dose of sweetness while looking out at the breathtaking scenery. You could look out at the sea the same way Chihiro did at the bath house.
3. Check out the Museum of Ghost Masks
On the way to Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan, you’ll see the Museum of Ghost Masks, filled with bizarre masks representing different ghosts or spirits. Don’t be put off by the masks greeting you in front; they aren’t as scary as they seem. And they really bring out the whole idea of Spirited Away!
4. Wander down the lantern-lit streets at night
“It’s almost night. Leave before it gets dark. They’re lighting the lamps. Get out of here…” – Haku, Spirited Away
In the film, the spirit world disappears by day, and comes alive by night. In the real world, the shops in Jiufen tend to close by 5pm, some restaurants stay open till around 8pm while the tea houses open till late. Across the town, the red lanterns light up like they do in the film.
Jiufen is absolutely stunning at night, with red lanterns illuminating the narrow streets. Doesn’t it feel as though you are in Japan? We spent a night in Jiufen and loved the wonderful night scene!
5. Visit the famous Ah Mei Tea House
Most of Chihiro’s adventures takes place in Yubaba’s traditional bath house. Its design concept is said to have been inspired by Ah Mei Tea House, a hundred-year-old tea house and the first of its kind in Jiufen. This impressive building is the town’s ultimate photogenic landmark.
The glow of the lanterns make it all the more surreal, like a Studio Ghibli Wonderland.
6. Learn how to drink Chinese tea the proper way
Since it was crowded and slightly rainy during the day, and very quiet during the night, we decided to have tea at Ah Mei Tea House when the streets are dark and peaceful. There weren’t many people having tea at that hour, which meant that we got to pick the table we wanted, overlooking the town.
There is only one standard order for all customers. To even sit there, you’d have to go for the tea set for NT$ 300 per person. Not cheap, but you do get a short lesson on how to drink Chinese tea properly and some melt-in-the-mouth, mini snacks like green bean cakes and sesame seed biscuits.
7. Enter a mysterious tunnel
We found this tunnel near Ah Mei Tea House by chance, and it definitely looks like it belongs in Spirited Away. While it doesn’t transport you to any spirit realm, it does lead to a lovely viewpoint where you can see the buildings in Jiufen along the cascading landscape.
8. Search for gold
Given Jiufen’s gold-mining history, it could explain the bath house workers’ obsession with gold in Spirited Away. There is a Gold Mine Museum here, which we didn’t have time for but a good place to check out if you would like to learn about the history of the town.
9. Explore the other towns along the Ruifang line
“I’ve got to get out of this place. Someday I’ll get on that train.” – Rin, Spirited Away
After staying a night in this charming hillside town, we had to say goodbye. We took a bus back to Ruifang Station, and went down the Ruifang line to some of the towns along it.
Like Jiufen and its neighbouring towns, the train is an integral element in Spirited Away. It is a way towards freedom for some of the characters. Chihiro and No-Face take the train to Swamp Bottom, to return a stolen item to a witch called Zeniba.
The train does look a lot like the one in the anime, but that might just be me. More on our train adventures later!
How to get there
You can get from Taipei to Jiufen by train and a transit by bus, or by bus the whole way. If you are prone to motion sickness, I highly suggest the first method. The road to Jiufen slithers through hilly terrain so you might want to minimise your time on the winding road.
From Taipei Main Station, we took the train to Ruifang Station (about 50 minutes). Once we reached Ruifang Station, we walked out to the main street, turned left and walked a short distance to the police station. There is a bus stop next to the police station with plenty of buses going into Jiufen. Look out for buses 825, 827 and 856.
Where to leave your luggages
For all its dreamlike architecture, Jiufen is full of staircases and you would not want to drag your luggage around there. If you plan to head there for a day, leave your luggage at the storage area of Taipei Main Station or Ruifang Station.
There you have it, a Spirited Away adventure in Taipei! Hope this gives you a new way of seeing and exploring Jiufen. Share your thoughts as a comment below!