As I approach the tail end of my stay here in Taiwan, I find myself reflecting on the many things I have seen here and around the other parts of Asia I have had the privilege to visit. Perhaps the most interesting and beautiful place I encountered on the island of Taiwan was the town of Jiufen.
It is a mountain town that was originally a regional center for gold mining during the time of Japanese colonialism and the later early Chinese Republic. It is named Jiufen, literally translating to “nine groups,” referring to the nine families who originally lived in the area during the middle ages. The gold industry brought incredible wealth to the area and allowed it to be built up into what it is today. The closure of the mines was anticipated when the easily reachable gold veins became depleted. The town when into decline after the last mine shut in 1971.
But during the era of wealth, the town developed dozens of beautiful streets and alleys filled with picturesque tea houses and restaurants. Though it was forgotten largely by the outside world and far off the beaten track, it was the inspiration for the Japanese animated movie “Spirited Away.” After having seen that movie as a kid, and hearing that Jiufen was the real-life-Spirited-Away-town I knew I had to go. This is the sort of place that will wind up on your bucket list after just one google image search. But I will try my best to paint a picture in your head.
Imagine if you will, a street no wider than lined with lanterns, still with trucks barreling down every few minutes, giving you a foot of space between the wall and the rear view mirror. A street so crowded with so many arbors that inside and outside lose their distinction, and in fact their very meaning. It could be said that half the entire town is just one giant building. The shops sell anything you can imagine, some fried insects, local specialties such as meat floss or local jellies. Others sell tea from specific mountains and valleys from far away. Many sold various trinkets and nicknacks typically having a Budhist significance or representing good fortune or health.
It would be incredibly easy to get lost in the Jiufen Old Street, as it is called, I would know, I have done it several times. At least several times a block there are odd stepped paths you can take that lead out into the neighborhoods which have no access from any vehicle, only by foot. Hundreds of winding narrow streets line the hillsides connecting every traditional style house. It was hard to determine if I was on a public street or in someone’s front yard or otherwise on their property, until I realized there was little distinction to be made.
Later I found my way to a downward sloping stepped street, although I had been away from the crowds for quite some time, I found them again on the said street, guided tour flags and everything. Though it was hard to see much past the crowds of mostly Japanese tourists, I saw another street lined with red and gold lanterns each wishing good luck, fortune, prosperity and happiness to all who passed by. There is truly something significant about how Chinese characters communicate these ideas in an aesthetically pleasing way that is lost with an alphabet based language such as our own.
On both sides there were a variety of restaurants on each side, I decided to go in one, as I had gotten separated from my friends and was quite hungry. A kind of old woman invited me in, although from a far away place, reminded me of my own grandmother. The entrance was an odd rock tunnel without any proper door, that looked as if it was once one of the gold mining shafts that financed the building of this beautiful town. I sat on the balcony eating my favorite kind of dumplings, Xiaolongbao, with a cold Taiwan beer. From there I could see an image that gave me an extreme moment deja vu. I realized that without a doubt that years before Hayao Miyazaki had likely sat on that same balcony. Because in his movie, the exact view of the tea house across the street from that particular angle was identical to the bathhouse in his movie, to the dot.
In that moment I realized that I am truly blessed to have the privilege to go and see these places that none of my ancestors ever had. Maybe in this era, with a world getting smaller, such experiences grow more common. But I don’t believe experience inflate like money, the more there is the less it’s worth. I think the world becomes richer with more experiences. Maybe these aren’t the days of Marco Polo, but isn’t it a wonderful world we live in that you too can be Marco Polo?
Miles Streicek is a junior Finance major studying abroad at National Taiwan University in Taipei, Taiwan for the fall semester.
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