A trip to a mysterious mountain town that inspired Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki to create the trippy masterpiece that is Spirited Away? Yes. Definitely.
Catbus from Keelung to Jiufen
We find ourselves in the city of Keelung, a nice enough but fairly charmless city in north eastern Taiwan that is considered a tourist destination mainly because of its port and huge night market.
Jiufen is in theory only a short bus ride from the city of Keelung but the local bus we needed seemed a lot like the catbus. Its number was a mystery, it didn’t keep to any kind of timetable and is seemed able to appear and disappear at will. We hang around the main bus stop in Keelung for a little while, unsure even which side of the street we should be waiting on until a kind Keelung local takes pity, flags down the enigmatic catbus and tells us to climb aboard.
Lost in Jiufen
After almost an hour of the sort of cliff edge, sharp turn near death experiences I don’t even flinch at anymore we spill off the bus at Jiufen. A few minutes to admire the view and do a bit of deep-breathing to swallow down the nausea then we follow the crowds to the two narrow streets that make up the town centre. This is our first mistake. Jiufen is a fully-fledged tourist town with all of the annoyances that come with it and the first thing you should do when you arrive is to flee to the outskirts and let everyone get the eat-buy-shout-selfie lunacy out of their systems.
Away from the two main streets, Jishan and Shuchi, Jiufen is a labyrinth of winding cobbled streets, grassy embankments and stone staircases. In Spirited Away, Chihiro, our heroine, is always running somewhere. I haven’t got the stamina of an animated child I do feel a bit like Chihiro, trying to find my way in this strange place, climbing staircases, looking into the doorways of old buildings and walking down steep dirt paths only to find myself back where I started. Or not. I can’t tell and spend a few hours getting lost in the tiny but somehow endless town.
A Tunnel to the Spirit World
I find a tunnel that looks remarkably like the tunnel to the spirit world in Spirited Away. Its plaque is written in Chinese but my Taiwan travel guide tells me it’s a gold mining tunnel, caged off to stop idiotic tourists getting themselves killed. A wise move as I know that if that locked gate wasn’t there I would definitely clamber into the tunnel’s treacherous darkness just to see where it led. We stand at the gate for a few minutes peering into the void and feel a slight breeze tug at our clothes, beckoning us in just as it beckoned Chihiro’s family into the spirit world.
A Gold Rush Town
A history of gold mining is just one aspect of Jiufen’s past that finds its way into Spirited Away. The existence of gold in the ground underfoot explains why there’s a town here in the first place in the middle of a mountain ridge in an isolated spot in north eastern Taiwan. Gold is the currency of choice in Spirited Away, hoarded by Yubbaba and thrown around by No Face who can conjure it up with his bare hands.
Japan in Taiwan
We walk away from the tunnel and back towards the centre of the town along winding pathways that give us a sweeping view of the buildings that seem perched on the mountainside. I’m yet to visit Japan but I can definitely see Japanese influence in the architecture of this town that looks to me like a mash-up of Chinese, Japanese and European style. Jiufen’s strange Japan-in-Taiwan aesthetic might well have been the first thing that inspired Miyazaki to re-imagine it as Spirited Away’s spirit world.
The Japanese occupied Jiufen during their colonisation of Taiwan that lasted for fifty years from 1895 to 1945. Japanese companies took over gold mining and hundreds of workers settled in the tiny town. There are apparently still Japanese onsen bathhouses in Jiufen and Japanese-style inns but I have to admit I don’t notice them, I’m just enjoying the view.
Trapped in Jiufen
But Jiufen’s history isn’t all gold and prosperity and whimsical architecture. There’s a real darkness to this place, a result perhaps of its proximity to a former Second World War prisoner of war camp known as Kinkaseki. The Allied soldiers held captive here were forced to work in the gold mines and it’s unclear how many of those held at Kinkaseki made it out alive.
In the second half of the twentieth century Jiufen gradually became ghost town. Mining stopped in the seventies and the town fell into decline, taking on an aura of melancholic abandonment that inspired Hou Hsaio-Hsien to film his 1989 historical drama A City of Sadness here. The secluded back streets that I thought were quaint are starting to look gloomy and I want to get away from the lonely silence and back to the noise of hundreds of people having a good time.
Food in Jiufen
Back amongst the masses at Jishan and Shuchi Streets I’m ready to eat and manage to consume, in no particular order:
- A Bawan dumpling (filled with a red substance described to me as ‘vegetarian meat’. So horrible.)
- An octopus ink sausage (sweet pork sausage that looks black because of the addition of octopus ink. Tasty.)
- A handful of squid balls (which I burn my mouth on as they’re scalding hot from the fryer. Delicious though.)
- Glutinous rice cakes filled with ‘no idea’ (a mixed bag of sweet and savoury gooey rice blobs that were quite nice once you managed to peel them from the plastic bag they were competely adhered to.)
- Matcha cookies (nice enough but what’s the point in cookies with no cuppa to dip them into?)
- Ice Cream runbing (a spring roll filled with peanuts, ice cream and other sweet stuff that would be delicious but I’m about ready to be sick now.)
One of the things I love most about Spirited Away is its joyous celebration of food. Chihiro’s parents get stuck into a huge buffet of Japanese/Taiwanese delicacies at the start of the film and are turned into pigs as a result. Food is dangerous but also has the power to heal. Haku gives food to Chihiro to comfort her, Chihiro gives food to Haku when he almost dies and who can forget No Face’s epic all-you-can-eat buffet in the bath house.
For Chihiro to become a part of the spirit world she has to eat the food of the spirit world and for you to become a part of Jiufen you have to eat the food of Jiufen.
Most of the events in Spirited Away take place in the bathhouse, a building said to have been inspired by Jiufen’s majestic old teahouse. We get a good look at the stunning old wood and brick building with large panelled windows and hanging Chinese lanterns but notice the queues inside and wander away to a different teahouse, the Sky Castle, where we can sit outside and watch the sun go down. The tea ceremony at the Sky Castle is worth the wild price providing you take your time. We endure the onslaught of a plague of mosquitos at dusk and are rewarded for our stubbornness with a delicious sunset that turns the sea from blue to pink to red to inky black in minutes.
Jiufen at Night
Jiufen is transformed at night when a million red lanterns illuminate it in all the right places. Despite how beautiful it all looks I feel an unexpected jab in my ribs that is a little like homesickness and I suddenly want to leave. As the tourists filter back onto the tour buses and into the hire cars, parked insanely on every available patch of road, Jiufen takes on a different ambience. It’s not creepy as such, it’s more desolate, as though all of the prosperity of the last few years is falling away and it’s becoming a ghost town again right before your eyes.
I want to leave before night fully emerges and rush to the bus stop where we wait, tired from walking and full of food, hoping to make it out of Jiufen before we outstay our welcome and risk being spirited away.
I haven’t included any pictures from Spirited Away here but have a look at this Oh What a Day! blog post for a great comparison betweeen film stills and real places.