A day trip out of Taipei: Bitoujiao Hiking & Jiufen Exploring


When I was in Taipei in the fall of 2020, I convinced my aunt and my mom to hike Bitoujiao, a hiking trail in the North eastern tip of Taiwan, with me. My mom’s not a big hiker while my aunt enjoys it more. To be frank, my intentions were purely to get out of the city and go on a hike. I wanted to see the ocean and mountains, and driving was the fastest mode of transportation there. But my mom wouldn’t let me drive her car without her, and public transportation would have taken too long, so it just kind of became a family day trip of sorts. Though honestly, I had to really convince my mom and aunt to do the hike with me. They were generally reluctant to leave Taipei and preferred to stick to their daily routine, doing…not much (they said so themselves).

One of the best things about Taiwan being an island is the quick access to green mountains and blue oceans.

That same day, we spent the latter half of the day at Jiufen, the famous touristy architecturally pretty village in the mountains that is well known these days for evidently “inspiring” the village in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Though, Miyazaki denied that Jiufen was the city that inspired the village featured in Spirited Away. Regardless, the movie did help contribute to the blow up of international tourism to Jiufen. The souvenir stores in Jiufen these days are filled with trinkets of Spirited Away characters.

Jiufen in the evening. Plenty of crowds despite the global pandemic due to Taiwan’s zero local transmission at the time.

Though I know that people made the connection between Spirited Away’s village scene with Jiufen, why did they attribute it to this mountain village in Taiwan, when a big chunk of the architecture in Jiufen today was built by the Japanese, and that the structure of the place is very much a remnant of Japanese colonial times. I wonder who decided, after watching Spirited Away, it looked more like a landscape in Taiwan than Japan. How can you tell when the architecture is created by the same (colonial) entity? I’m curious to know what the mountains and architecture in Japan look like, and how much of it will be familiar to me, as someone who grew up in Taiwan – a once colonial subject of Japan; perhaps so many of the elements in Taiwan that is “Taiwanese” to me, might just be “Japanese” to someone else.

Jiufen teahouse

The drive out was nice – for the most part. My mother being the anxious person she is, did not make my driving experience any easier. I had learned to drive just earlier that year at the ripe age of 25. Just 7 or 9 years too late, or right on time, depending on what perspective you’re coming from. If you’re like most Americans, your first reaction to learning my age when I learned how to drive would be pure shock and maybe some judgment. I’ve definitely gotten that before. 

Bitou harbor situated right by the Bitoujiao hiking trail

I tried to focus on appreciating the view instead of letting her irrational anxiety of me crashing her “new” car, which for the record, is in my opinion, “old-new”. Like, it was new a couple of years ago, and now it’s old and depreciated, but in her eyes, it’ll always be new because of how big of an investment it was at the time for her to buy a brand new car.

Houses lined up along the Bitoujiao trail and the coast

Finding a place to park is my mom and aunt’s main hesitation to drive anywhere nature-y in Taiwan. I find it ironic because parking in rural areas should be a lot easier than in Taipei, where cars crowd narrow roads. Finding this trailhead was not the most straightforward either. Since I only relied on English blogs, my instructions for how to find this trail was quite limited. I did manage to find a place to park though, and after a brief walk by the harbor, we made it to the trailhead.

Bitou harbor – a different perspective

I picked the trailhead that started near an elementary school that overlooked the ocean. Also the same entrance recommended by the English expat forums on Taiwan I perused. The weather was nice that day, the ocean very blue, the clouds present but not overbearing. It was an idyllic little school. I think it would have been fun to attend elementary school there, with whales decorating the walls and a playground with full blown ocean breeze. How nice.

View from Bitou elementary school

There were quite a lot of hikers that day. My mom likes to attribute it to the pandemic. Taiwanese people can’t leave the country, and since there was zero local transmission, Taiwanese people were just hyper traveling locally. So she attributed that as the reason tourist locations were more crowded than in non-pandemic times. I’m not sure how true that is, but it was considerably crowded on this trail that day.

Looking up at the trail

My aunt and mom don’t go out to the ocean-side much and it was nice to watch them enjoy being there. It’s always nice to see someone go from reluctant to really enjoying it, especially when it’s your stubborn grumpy family members. It’s like “yes, they like it! They like my recommendation!” What a nice feeling. We took photos, and they posed. 

Bitoujiao Trailhead by the elementary school

We hit a section of stairs that stretches out, standing on the ridge of the green mountain. It’s nicknamed the “Great Wall” of sorts, due to its similarities to the Great Wall of China. It’s definitely a stretch, in my opinion. But nonetheless, there must be some resemblance. When I think of the Great Wall of China, I think of the introduction scene of Disney’s Mulan animation  panning the Great Wall and the “Hun invasion”, an evidently racist portrayal of non-Han Chinese, because come on they just had to make these people have dark grey skin and sharp claw-like hands. I’m technically Chinese, and yet my dominant image of China is formulated by Disney’s American Mulan… For now, China is still this vague piece of land mass; where my ancestors are from, with language and culture that is faintly familiar but mostly foreign. Anyways, the only similarities this trail had with the Great Wall is just that it’s lined up on the ridge of the mountain. 

Trail lined on the ridge of the mountain

Walking along the trail, I took many photos while also zig zagging my way through to dodge the large groups of middle aged people having a swell time. My mom and aunt walked at different paces, our group separating into 3 individuals essentially going on a solo hike. They both liked to walk fast, but not even together. One would be ahead of the other, and I’d be the one lagging behind. I like to take my time and take photos along the way. Sometimes they’d stop and wait for me, before hurrying along again as I reach their spot. We did manage to capture some nice photos throughout the trail. 

Me awkwardly posing while directing my mom to take photos with my camera
Butterfly in nature
A close up of a big spider on its spiderweb

The trail is apparently on the most North East tip of Taiwan. I felt lucky because I had been to the most Southern tip a couple years ago on a trip to Kenting. It’s really nothing special, just a cool geography thing to think about. We watched the oceans crash and had some grapes for snacks. The hike was almost over and we still had a lot of the day left. I really wanted to go to Jiufen (a twenty minute drive away) but I was met with huge resistance because the idea of parking in mountains gives my mom immense stress. Since we still had an afternoon to kill and we drove all the way out here, I said it was either Jiufen or the cat village in the area (yes, an entire “village” with a lot of street cats and stores dedicated to cat souvenirs). Well, they both really disliked cats and so they chose Jiufen.

Overlooking the Bitiou fishing town and harbor
bitoujiao town
Bitoujiao town

We drove there. And it was probably the most stressful driving or parking situation I’ve been in. No, not because driving up the windy, narrow, alleys was stressful. It was only bad because I had a screaming mother next to me, yelling all kinds of terrible words. I felt guilty enough creating this stress for them, that I wanted to try to *at least*  find free parking. And so I  decided to go for a bit of a detour and try to enter Jiufen from the opposite side of the official entrance. 

Cute dog chilling while the humans fish

Welp. That was a bad idea! Because it involved being on a narrow hilly road where only 1 car would fit, but in reality there were 4 cars in the same space trying to go in different directions. Yep… and woops. After being screamed at, which I think was a bit of an overreaction, and then me screaming back at her, which was totally justified, I made it back to the official entrance of Jiufen where we found paid parking. It was a treacherous spot though. I had to turn into a small garage sitting on the edge of the mountain highway with cars, busses, and scooters zooming by constantly. After my multiple failed attempts to park correctly, and my mom and aunt freaking out blabbering on about how they wished we never came, the garage owner insisted on parking for me, so I let him.

We walked into Jiufen. I  tried to muster up some enthusiasm to hopefully make it more exciting for my mom and aunt to be there. If they enjoyed it, then maybe I wouldn’t feel so guilty dragging them out here. 

Jiufen buildings close up

I’ve been to Jiufen once before. It didn’t look like the place had changed much. It’s essentially a very narrow street filled with food vendors and souvenir stores. The food, to non-Taiwanese, must look exciting, colorful, delicious. To me and my family though? Just…overpriced and crowded.

Jiufen translates to “nine portions” because apparently back in the day, during the Qing dynasty, only nine households lived up here. So naturally, they would ask for nine portions of any kind of deliveries or resources that were made. The later history involved people coming to mine gold and quartz in the area. Jiufen developed into a full fledged town during the Japanese colonial era. I wouldn’t have known about the mining history if I didn’t look it up, because there were no clues to that history in the physical place. Or at least none that I noticed.

Scenic viewpoint in Jiufeniufen

It was only my second time to Jiufen, a heavily tourist-trafficked location in Taiwan. Sure, the views are nice, but all I feel walking through the crowds, by the stalls, is that this is just all a performance of culture! I guess that’s what a lot of tourism is. The local country performs culture and tradition in a digestible and cohesive way so those who pass by feel “cultured” and can leave feeling like they’ve gained something.

The flaunted items in Jiufen were all the “traditional” desserts and food from pineapple cake to sweet soup with mochi-like things in it, to grilled mochi and rice wrapped sausage. I don’t even know the right words to describe them because these are foods I grew up with, recognize the Mandarin words for it, but I struggle to remember their names on my own, let alone translate them to English. 

The view as the sun sets

Sandwiched between the food sellers were generic souvenir stores selling mass-made stickers, keychains, random accessories that smell too much of plastic. And alternating every couple of booths, you had the independent boutique souvenir stores too, selling accessories and items that look higher quality, and of course, with a higher price tag.

My main goal was to find a tea place to sit down and enjoy the view, because I wanted to treat my mom and aunt to sitting down and relaxing with a nice view. Something they never get to do. I figured it would be nice for them to get to that, and that they’d enjoy it. But, to my (not terribly big) surprise, they didn’t want to sit and relax at a cafe. They were actually adamantly against it! We had to have a whole debate on the side of the crowded path, and my aunt explained that she already spends everyday sitting around at home, why would she want to sit here too? Neither her nor my mom were particularly excited about being here either. Or at least that’s what came across on their faces. They’ve been once before maybe a couple decades ago, and it’s like their expressions were communicating they’ve seen it all, what else is there to see, as if this place was a static never-changing place.

A quite empty teahouse

It was weird to be a non-kid, and almost acting like the mother of this group. Even just a few years ago, my mom and aunt would have been the one making the decision on where to go and what to do, actively planning weekend trips, but this time our positions were flipped. I was telling them what to do and they were the reluctant kids that didn’t want to do anything. “Why do other families get all excited about day trips together? Why can’t I have that?” Are just some of the thoughts that cross my mind.

We split up and went our different ways. I was on a mission to find souvenirs to bring to my friends, but had a hard time deciding, like I always do when in Taiwan. As someone who does not enjoy buying things in general, it’s hard to decide on what to buy for people, let alone what others would enjoy from Taiwan. I settled on some cat stickers and cute corgi items for my brother and I (as our corgi at the time was near the end of his time and I wanted reminders of him). There was an entire store selling cat and dog outfits that I was contemplating to buy for my friend’s cat, but didn’t go forward with it. Everything was indeed, overpriced. Especially when I think in NTD (New Taiwan Dollar) which is the money standard I was used to thinking in before I moved to the US for college.

I managed to sit down for some tea and my mom joined me while my aunt kept wandering the town.

My aunt had walked around Jiufen, like a track circuit, for like 3 times before it got dark, while my mom and I wandered here and there. Looking at things, being tempted to buy it, and justifying our non-purchase when we recognize we can buy it cheaper elsewhere. We did end up sitting at a tea house though, one that I imagine usually catered to foreign tourists. We had some tea that was too sweet, and sat watching the sun set. I took some photos of my mom and she took some of me. It was a nice and relaxed mother-daughter session, something we don’t typically experience, just because we’re usually bickering instead.

None of us had commitments that night. Including my aunt. But yet she was freaking out that we were going to get back too late. “I told my husband that I was going to make dinner” “I told him I would be there” “I was going to do the laundry tonight”. Earlier in the day, she kept talking about how she had to be home to make dinner. But at home it’s just her and her husband, both retired, but like not in a fancy way. More like in a Taiwanese working-middle-class-way where they had just enough to keep going, but were too old to be hire-able. 

Temple by the entrance of Jiufien

I told her there’s no need to freak out, he is an adult, he can feed himself. Yet she kept obsessing over the fact that she needs to be home to do chores. She thought he had expected her home by a certain time too. 

Later in the day, she got a call that he was going to eat out with his friends. He seemed to be nonchalant about it, like there were no plans that night. My aunt just accepted those words, but still wanted to be home ASAP… Why? She has spent the last 40 years of her life accommodating that man, to find him continuing to put himself first and her second. And her continuing to put him first, and herself second. 

Classic Jiufen lanterns hung up in front of a tea house

It was habit at this point. She didn’t need to be home. She had no commitments. Her kids are grown up adults and her husband isn’t even waiting for her to come home. And yet, she was not letting herself enjoy this day trip and kept pushing to get back. No reason could get through to her. I think she noticed it too, her own rote movements as a mother, as a wife, possessing her every movement to make her go home and play that role, even when there was no one around to play that role.

Exit/entrance to the famous stairway/alley path most popular images of the town feature

I left Jiufen continuing to snap photos of the night landscape, not knowing how to capture light and ended up with blurry photos. I felt a simultaneous feeling of bliss and sadness. It was nice to have spent the day adventuring with my mom and my aunt. It was sad to see that they were trying so hard to not let themselves enjoy it. They treated everything fun with reluctance rather than embrace at first. And that made me frustrated. Luckily, I did see some moments of joy seep through their hard-shell habits throughout the day.

Blurry lights as evening settles down

I felt joy when I saw my aunt get excited to snap a touristy photo of Jiufen lanterns. Or when my mom was posing against the bright blue ocean behind her for a photo. I saw glimpses of child-like enthusiasm pop out, but just as quick as it came out, they shut it down again.

A tourist’s favorite perspective of Jiufen

Seeing them like that made me wonder — 

Why do we not let ourselves feel joy? Why are we reluctant to feel glee? Is it because we are too scared that it’ll end? Is it easier to predict a mundane routine and mediocre feelings, because rocking them more extremely ends in disappointment or hurt? Does life have to be that way? What happens if we just learn to prioritize ourself and let go of expectations? Is that considered too “individualistic” or “westernized”? What does it even mean to be “westernized”? Isn’t that too simplistic of a term to explain an experience and identity that is much more complex?

Monarch butterfly

The day trip that started out as just me trying to get a glimpse of Taiwan’s Northeastern coast turned into a trip that has stuck with me since… contemplating my many identities, the tourism-colonial complex, the lack of knowledge I have about a place I’m “from”, how my mom and aunt grew up, what roles they were confined to, how they decide to live out their lives, and what kind of life I get to choose for myself and get to live.

Color amongst the green

I think I’ll continue to pick the path with adventure and the one my mom and aunt face with reluctance. And with that, I think I’ll continue to drag them out on mini adventures any chance I get. Because they deserve to feel joy and excitement, as much as I do, as much as you do, as much as we all do.

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