Spirited Away – The magical mountain town of Jiufen
Jiufen is a place that we have touched upon briefly before when covering interesting spots in Taiwan, and indeed is one of the many amazing locations we visit during our 12 day tours, but today we will dig a little deeper into the history of the town and what makes it such a must-see location for both local and foreign visitors. As with a lot of the northern coast of Taiwan, the birth of Jiufen is actually thanks to the Japanese.
In 1895 Taiwan became Japan’s first colonial venture. The Japanese had watched western imperialists claim and then control large swathes of Asia over the previous two centuries, and thought that it was about high time they gave it a go themselves. Japan would about 40 years later famously go a bit over the top with the whole ‘owning-other-peoples-countries-and-generally-not-being-very-nice-to-them’ thing, but their intentions for Taiwan stared out admirably.
Taiwan, it was deemed by Kyoto’s high command, would become the model colony. Huge amounts of cash and resources were poured into infrastructure and industry, as well as an attempt to change the native language to Japanese. (Fun fact: There are still a few really old Taiwanese people who’s first language is Japanese, as that was what was taught to them in school!). So when Japanese surveyors thought that they had found gold in the hills surrounding Keelung, no expense was spared to set up the brand new mountain town of Jiufen.
The mining effort began in earnest, with some success, in the 1920’s, and there was a big bump in gold production for a few years during the 1940’s when some free labour appeared in the form of British POW’s from Singapore. However, the reality was that there were limited amounts of real gold in the hills surrounding Jiufen, and once the Japanese lost control of the island at the end of the war, it was no longer economically viable to continue digging.
The end of the gold rush signalled the end for Jiufen, or at least signalled the start of a hiatus. Perched perilously to the east of Yangminshan, overlooking the rough waters surrounding Keelung, there was little for the inhabitants of Jiufen to do than to pack up and go looking for work.
However, a town with such staggering natural beauty couldn’t lay dormant for long. People started coming back to the sleepy village, and when the town was truly awoken once more (I’m talking 10am and 2 cups of coffee woken up) it was thanks again to the founding fathers – the Japanese.
In 2001 Hayao Miyazaki released the Japanese anime film Sprited Away. The film became an instant cult classic, and when it was revealed that the fictional town at the heart of the film was based on Jiufen, the town started to receive more and more visitors keen to discover the inspiration for such a fantastical setting. It is fair to say, that the visiting travellers were not disappointing.
Although still a small community, Jiufen is now a bustling tourist location. The old market streets once again are packed with sights and smells of cooking food and happy vendors. Still a place of interest for anime aficionados, Jiufen has something for everyone. It’s a snapshot into an old way of living in Taiwan, and has a spectacular hike from the town to the top of a mountain where you can view Keeulng, and on a clear day, even just make out 101 in the distance! It’s an absolute must visit on any trip to Taiwan, and is a firm favourite on all of our 12 day cycling tours!
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