Exploring Taiwan: Real-life Spirited Away & Houtong Cat Village
February 20, 2015 § 1 Comment
Kicking off the new year’s goal of exploring more of Taiwan, Matthew and I have decided to take a weekend trip to the famed Jiufen (九份), the inspiration behind Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’ and Houtong (侯硐), an old coal mining village that became a haven for stray cats. It was a relief to leave Taipei and get some fresh air. The train ride was an hour away and only costed NT.50 (about USD $2), which makes me question myself why I don’t go out into the outside world more.
Jiufen was an old gold mining town that prospered back during the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. The town is tucked into the mountains and enjoys a stunning view of the Pacific ocean. The small area meant that the buildings are densely built, narrow roads and alleys that winds around the mountainous town.
I highly recommend exploring Jiufen at night. Mostly because you can avoid the throngs of tourists that visit during the daytime but also because the night scenes were significantly more interesting.
The quietness of the town at night was slightly eerie and surreal. Besides the random passerby or two, we didn’t come across anyone during our nighttime exploration. It felt like a ghost town, especially with the dilapidated structures and the endless rows of graves. The nighttime sounds that you grow accustomed to hearing in the city, scooters, neighbor arguments, tv sets, were nonexistent. Instead, you heard the ocean breeze and the occasional crickets chirping.
After walking through numerous dark alleys and narrow staircases, we stumbled across this brightly lit tea house:
It was just like a scene out of Spirited Away. The dark town backdrop just highlighted the bright building even more, absolutely stunning to look at.
The winding alleys and little cul-de-sacs were my favorite part of Jiufen. There’s hidden art studios and tea houses hidden in the back alleys of Jiufen. We had a great time looking at photo galleries and chatting up the artists that settled permanently. I can’t think of a better way of getting on with life; doing something that you love, surrounded by beautiful natural scenery.
The town came to life around mid-day. The main tourist road is full of souvenir shops and restaurants and of course, tourists. There are tons of ‘little eats’ and famous snacks for those that are feeling peckish. The everything stores are always fun to explore, even if they full of kitsch items. However, pushing against tourists was no fun and selfie sticks were out in full force, so we took it as a cue to move to our next destination.
Houtong was a coal mining town that prospered in the early 20th century but faced an economic downturn once the coal industry began to fall. Many residents moved away to find better opportunities and the town slowly fell into ruins. It was only known as a cat village in the last decade, after a group of cat lovers decided to give the stray cats in the area a better living environment. One thing led to another and Houtong became a mecca for cat lovers to visit.
There are over 100 stray cats that are jointly taken care of by the local residents. The cats are free to roam around everywhere, even the train station. Cat murals and pictures grace the walls of the station, a long with little walkways for cats to use. It was magical.
It was such a treat to see so many cats in one place. They didn’t give two shits about the people and just did whatever they wanted to do, in typical cat fashion. Most of them were taking cat naps in the sun, while other cats sat around and gave everyone judgmental looks. Sometimes they would let the human peasants pet them and other times, they run in the other way when being approached.
Besides gawking at the common house cat and taking 1000000 pictures, you can also check out the mining museum, the preserved train tracks and enjoy some afternoon tea at the cat cafes. The whole area is pretty small (map), perfect for a quick day trip.
While we were enjoying a late lunch, a beautiful white cat with black spots appeared out of nowhere and jumped onto Matthew’s (who shall now on be referred to as the chosen one) lap. It was like a scene taken out of a Disney movie, where Snow White or some Disney princess would summon her animal friends to help with the chores.
The sweet little cat would.not.move. She refused to leave the comfort of the chosen one’s lap, even as we finished our food. It was the cutest thing, but I was also super jealous of not getting chosen. The chosen one ended up carrying her all around while we explored the whole village. Life just isn’t fair sometimes.