The last time I visited Jiufen was 2009, almost a decade ago. Time really flew by, and there are some things that changed and some that remained the same. Thanks to the new express bus (line 965) from Taipei downtown, Jiufen is just about 1 hour ride to the the old street area directly.
From gold mining to tourism
Jiufen and neighboring towns used to be known for gold mining, and enjoyed a few decades of prosperity from Qing Dynasty throughout Japanese colonization period. The gold output from these towns at the time was comparable to that of the whole Japan. Gold mining started dwindling around 1945, and ended in 1971. People started moving out and sought opportunities elsewhere. The town was brought back to the spotlight after a historically controversial movie staged in Jiufen, “A City of Sadness (悲情城市)” by Director Xiaoxian Hou. Since then, tourism was revitalized and buildings were converted to tea houses and restaurants for visitors to take a break in this scenic mountain town.
Jiufen is located at north east Taiwan, and known for its rainy weather. It rains more than two thirds of the time per year. Ten years ago, I had luck to tour Jiufen in sunny weather. This time however, we rode the bus from sunny Taipei city to rainy Jiufen. Somehow the rain brought a poetic vibe to Jiufen and not a problem with a proper umbrella. I’d suggest checking the weather in Jiufen/Ruifang area instead of Taipei city, as they could be drastically different.
Jiufen old street
A-Mei Tea House (阿妹茶樓)
This is my favorite activity in Jiufen, especially on a rainy day. It is perhaps one of the most iconic buildings in Jiufen, rumors had it that Spirited Away movie has a similar setup to this. It was a perfect place to send an hour or two, enjoying the drinks, snacks and ambience. The view is breathtaking when weather cooperates, day or night.
Two of us got a tea set, including four snack plates and a tea pot with tea leaves enough for three rounds (two people minimum for tea set). The snacks were tasty and nicely presented. The four plates were: green bean cakes, sugar powder plums, brown sugar mochi, and sesame crackers. It was just relaxing taking small bites of these snacks, and sipping freshly brewed tea. Hot water was provided to steep 5 pots of tea per round, 15 pots in total. No worries, the cups and tea pot are tiny.
Taro Balls (芋圓)
Taro balls, one of the signature food items in Ruifang area, are usually made with mashed taro, sweet potato flour and water. Mrs. Tsai invented taro balls back in 1946, after moving to Ruifang with her husband. She started out selling taro balls on ice along with the store owned by her in-laws. Later it became well liked and brought to Jiufen near the elementary school.
There are two super popular places for taro tapioca balls, Ah Gan Taro Balls (阿柑姨) and Lai Ah Po Taro Balls (賴阿婆). We went to Ah Gan Taro Balls, with window seats that overlook the coast. The menu was simple, just hot or ice and less than 60 NTD. I got iced bowl, with shaved ice at the bottom and warm taro balls on top. The flavors between the colors were subtle, the yellow balls had slight sweet potato sweetness. We walked by Lai Ah Po Taro Balls, and they seemed to have more flavors including green tea plus variety of beans in the bowl. I’d recommend checking out Ah Gan Taro Balls when the weather is nice, and Lai Ah Po Taro Balls for more exciting taro balls experience.
Shengping Theater (昇平戲院)
This theater was first built in 1941 during Japanese colonization era, and used to be where traditional performances took place back in the flourishing gold mining days. After the stage collapsed from its wooden structure and natural disasters, the performing stage was transformed to a more modern film theater while the popular Taiwanese opera band kept performing. However, as gold mining era faded, the theater ended up closing up in 1986. The building was unused, and became the stage in a few famous Taiwanese films. It was later restored to show the interior in the old days, including the ticket booths, shops and the seating areas. This theater preserves a lot of history, and I sat in one of the school-like audience chair, imaging how many things have changed in this town.
Bus 965 (bus stop location on Google Maps)
This is a new route introduced in 2018, with advertisements on almost all Taipei buses. Jiufen has become a popular destination in recent years, and there was a line even on a Tuesday morning at Ximen stop. The bus was 90 NTD each way, and stopped at Banqiao, Ximen MRT station and Beimen area. After Beimen MRT station, the next stop would be near Ruifang which made it faster than other buses like 1062. On holidays, taking the bus at an earlier stop would be a good idea to get a seat for about 1-hour long ride. It is a upgraded bus, with TV, Wifi and charging outlets.
Official website says the frequency is 30-40 minutes during rush hours and 40-60 minutes during normal hours on weekdays. Though, it was more frequent on the day of our visit, about 15-20 minute intervals Tuesday 9-10 am. I’d recommend getting to the stop a few minutes early, also because there are a few bus stops that got us confused for a bit.
TRA (Taiwan Railway) also goes in Jiufen area, but requires bus transfer to Jiufen old street. The closest train stop is Ruifang (瑞芳). The bus is actually pretty frequent, multiple lines go to Jiufen. However, the total travel time is most likely around 1.5-2 hours one way.
I was curious how Jiufen looked like when I visited 10 years ago, and dug up some old photos to compare.
The angle was quite different, but captured both A-Mei Tea House on the right and the sign of “A City of Sadness” movie on the left side. A couple of coffee shops from 10 years ago seemed to have disappeared, while A-Mei Tea House remains the most famous tea house in town.
After Jiufen, we took another bus back to Ruifang train station and headed to Shifen to see sky lanterns. The train schedule that connects Ruifang and Shifen was every hour on weekday afternoons, we only stopped by Shifen for less than an hour due to rain. We still saw groups of people writing on their lanterns, bringing to the train tracks, and releasing them. What a beautiful ceremony to send wishes to the sky.
Jiufen might be an hour way from Taipei, it has become a very touristy destination with crowds on weekdays. Still, I felt a different spirit walking up and down the narrow steps under lines of red lanterns. Whether it is rainy or sunny, day or night, this town surely brings out all kinds of spirits. Below is our itinerary, and our lists of places.