Local Guide to Jiufen and Shifen – Between Sky Lanterns and Teahouses

Local Guide to Jiufen and Shifen – Between Sky Lanterns and Teahouses


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Between the rush of Taipei’s morning traffic and the trundling of stalls that signal the night markets coming to life, there’s hardly a moment to breathe in Taiwan’s cornerstone capital. After a week of exploring Taipei, I was looking forward to an escape from the urban sprawl to step back in time to two of Taiwan’s most iconic and historic towns – Jiufen and Shifen.

Nestled in the lush mountains of northeastern Taiwan, Jiufen and Shifen, resemble places out of an old storybook.

Jiufen, once a booming and then forgotten gold mining town, found its second calling through tourism. It’s now famous for its narrow, winding cobblestone streets flanked with red lanterns, traditional teahouses and bustling stalls. The town shares a striking resemblance to the setting of the animated film “Spirited Away.” This mystique only draws a larger crowd eager to experiences its enchanting atmosphere.

Jiufen famous view of A-Mei Teahouse

Shifen, an old coal mining town, has transformed its working railway tracks into a lively town center, with one food stall another competing to stealing your attention towards their mouth-watering treats. The main attraction here are the giant multi-colored lanterns visitors paint their wishes on and release into the sky.

Lanterns being released on Shifen train tracks

Though my local friend could not join me on this particular day, he gave me a list of everything I had to eat and do in each of those towns. “Absolutely have to do everything on this list,” were his exact words. He also gave me a little history lesson about the two towns.

A Tale Of Two Families

The names of these two towns are steeped in lore and history, going back to a simpler, but tougher period of Taiwan’s past.

Jiufen, which translates to “Nine Portions,” comes from a Qing Dynasty legend about the nine families that resided in this mountain region. Because of its remote location, whenever a shipment of goods arrived, it was divided into nine portions – one for each of the families living there.

Similarly, Shifen, means “Ten Portions,” for the ten families that lived in the area. It was a quiet town, until the discovery of coal. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Shifen’s coal mines were developed to fuel the growing demands of Japan’s industrial machinery. The town’s railway, still in use today, runs directly through the town. It is now famous as a place for visitors to release floating lanterns skyward with their hopes and wishes.

Should You Visit Shifen or Jiufen First?

Both Jiufen and Shifen are about an hour’s journey east of Taipei. If you’re planning to visit either, you might as well visit both.

If you are driving or taking a taxi, it doesn’t matter really matter which town you visit first.

The shops at Jiufen open at 10 and it starts to get busy after noon. If you don’t like crowds, it might be better to go to Jiufen first in the morning. Even at its peak, between 1 and 3 pm when the tour buses arrive to Shifen, the crowds are still manageable.

With pubic transportation, my local friend suggested I take the train to Shifen first, continue on to Jiufen, and then take a bus directly back to Taipei. I followed this plan and it worked out perfectly.

Alternatively, if you like the organization of a tour group with transportation, Klook has a discounted join-in option that departs from Taipei Main Station, and visits the Shifen Waterfall, Shifen Town, Jiufen Old Street, and returns to Taipei Main Station. You can choose other options that adds on a visit to the Yehliu rock formations.

Getting From Taipei to Shifen

By car or taxi, it takes roughly 45 minute to drive from Taipei to Shifen. Expect to pay around NT$1200-1300 ($35-40 USD) in a taxi.

Public transportation takes about 1 hour and 20 minute, but costs around NT$70 ($2 USD). It is fairly easy and straightforward.

Take a train heading east from Taipei Main Station to Ruifang Station (45 minutes).You will arrive at platform 1 or 2 and you’ll need to cross to platform 3 to transfer to the Pingxi Line. Take it southbound to Shifen Station (30 minutes).

TIP:  The train from Ruifang to Shifen leaves once an hour, so try to time it.

Shifen train on tracks

Getting From Shifen to Jiufen

By car or taxi, it takes about 40 minutes to travel between Shifen and Jiufen. A taxi will cost around NT$1300 ($40 USD).

With public transportation, you will return to the Shifen station and board the train on the opposite platform you debarked from. Head north back towards Ruifang (30 minutes). This train leaves once an hour too, so make note of the departure time using Google Maps.

TIP: Head to the front car for the best views heading out of town and along the old tracks.

Train tracks in Shifen

At Ruifang, you’ll walk out to catch the 1062 bus to Jiufen Old Street (12 minutes).

To return to Taipei from Shifen, the 965 bus is the fastest and most direct route to the city. That journey takes about 45 minutes.

With transportation out of the way, let’s go back to the list of things I had to do and eat in Shifen.

Exploring Shifen

The first thing you’ll notice as you slowly pull into Shifen are the last stragglers clearing off the train tracks and the crowd of people taking photos of the train’s arrival. The station is old but charming, but you’re immediately pulled along with the crowds across the tracks and towards the wafting smell of something delicious.

Try The Local Cuisine

Stuffed Chicken Wings. Do not sleep on these plump chicken wings stacked one on top of another. Each soy-marinated wing has been completely deboned and stuffed with a mixture of glutinous rice, minced pork, and shiitake mushrooms. I could have eaten half a dozen of these easily, but I had to save room for the other treats.

Peanut Ice Cream Roll. Ice cream with shaved peanut brittle and cilantro rolled up in a thin rice pancake may sound like a weird combination. It is, but it’s also amazing.

Hot Pot Soup. Nothing hit the spot better on a cold day than a hot bowl of this broth breaming with soft daikon and a flotilla of various fish balls and rolls.

Grilled Sausage. Taiwanese-style sausages are juicier and sweeter than their Western counterparts. In Shifen, you’ll often find these grilled to glistening perfection.

Sweet Pork Jerky. You’ll find a shop offering samples and selling sheets of jerky. It’s not like the dry jerky you might be used to. These things are addictive.

Stinky Tofu. This fermented tofu dish known for its pungent aroma is not for everyone. But if you like it, it’s almost an unspoken rule in Taiwan to try as many different versions as you can find. The tofu here was crispy, with lots of pickled cabbage and a concentrated pungency to it. I loved it. The tofu in Jiufen was soft with a lot of cabbage on top. Its flavor was much more mild, but in a good way.

Walk The Shifen Railway Tracks

The railway tracks, themselves, are a photographer’s dream. Souvenir shops and food stalls alternate with stores selling colored lanterns. Sure, it’s a bit touristy, but it’s still a beautiful merging of a quaint past and a lively present.

Lanterns being released on Shifen train tracks

Cross The Jingan Suspension Bridge

There’s an old suspension bridge with views of the surrounding landscape. You can’t miss it along will the many photo-hungry tourists who want a shot at the start of the bridge. Surprisingly, not as many people cross, so if you do, you’ll be rewarded with a breather from the crowds.

Hike To The Shifen Waterfall

At the “end” of the town, there’s small incline detouring towards the Shifen Waterfall. It’ll take you through a quieter backstreet with a few vendors before connecting with the main road. From the Shifen Visitor Center, it’s a casual 10-15 minute walk to the Shifen Waterfall. The Guano Suspension Bridge is a great spot for photos that runs alongside the train tracks.

Suspension bridge near Shifen waterfall

Most people will stop at the viewing platform, but there are trails further on if you want to experience this nature area to yourself.

Shifen waterfall

Make A Wish And Release A Sky Lantern

Every year, the Pingxi Lantern draws hoards of visitors together to launch lanterns into the sky. In Shifen, the tradition continues yearlong. The origin of the lanterns is an interesting story.

When villagers traveled down to the station town for supplies, they would launch a lantern visible in the air to signal to the others that it was safe from bandits. Over time, they started writing their wishes as they let the lanterns fly towards the heaven.

When you head back into town, find a friendly looking shopkeeper and buy your own lantern to set free. You can choose from 1, 2, 4, or 8 color combinations. Each colors represents a different wish. The sky lanterns at Shifen usually cost NT$200 for 1 color, NT$250 for 4 colors and NT$350 for 4 colors. I found a 4 colored lantern for NT$200.

What Do The Sky Lantern Colors Represent?

Red: Health and Peace

Yellow: Money and Wealth

Blue: Career and Promotion

Purple: Study and Examinations

White: Future and Brightness

Orange: Love and Marraige

Green: Vigor and Success

Magenta: Attraction and Popularity

Pink: Joy and Happiness

Writing Your Wish On The Lantern

The price of your lantern will include the tools required to paint your wishes and the service of the shopkeeper who will help you take photos and videos of your launch. It was very convenient for a solo traveler like myself.

After picking one with Red (Health and Peace), Yellow (Money and Fortune), Blue (Career and Business) and Pink (Joy and Happiness), my lantern was hung up on a frame in front of the shop. There are brushes and ink for you to write your wishes. Looking around, I was a bit jealous of everyone’s Korea and Chinese lettering. I had to settle with writing wishes in English.

I wrote the names of my family members on the red side and asked for creative and fulfilling projects around the world on the blue side.

Once lit, it only takes about a minute for hot air to fully inflate the lantern. Keep it level and release, hoping that it will have a steady and true path directly upwards.

Unfortunately, quite a few veer off course and fall right back down into the trees and river. I can’t imagine it’s a very environmentally friendly practice, but I will reserve judge.

Exploring Jiufen Old Street

From Ruifang, the air shifts from city exhaust to misty mountain breeze, as you ascend to the seaside mountain outpost of Jiufen. The Old Street is the main attraction and best explored on foot. The labyrinth of alleyways are crowded at all times, but that’s part of the charm.

Every corner offers a new surprise – from artisanal shops selling hand-crafted goods to vendors offering all the famous Taiwanese treats. Like Shifen, I could not stop taking photos. The narrows street feel like they are closing in on all the passerby’s and there’s a buzzing energy to all of it.

Desserts To Try In Jiufen

Jiufen will delight food lovers, especially towards with a sweet tooth. From the famous chewy taro balls to the peanut ice cream rolls, every bite connects you to the rich culinary heritage of the region.

A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll. I already had one in Shifen, but this is the place to go for this treat. The three ice cream flavors are typically pineapple, peanut, and taro. Don’t pass on the chopped cilantro, unless you genetically cannot stand it.

Lai Ah Po Taro Balls. This is the hot spot for the soft and chewy Taro balls dessert. You can get it hot or with ice. I recommend the latter. I was worried the syrup would be too sweet, but it was just right. The seating area next to the stall looks busy, but seats open up pretty quickly.

A-Gan-Yi Taro Ball. If you’re intimidated by the crowds at Lai Ah Po, head up the stairs to this other spot. I had to try both places and got the mixed bowl with practically everything in it. So good.

Which Teahouse Should You Visit In Jiufen?

A-Mei Tea House. This is the teahouse that you see in every photograph of Jiufen. I have mixed feelings about this iconic teahouse. But, I mean, you can’t really visit Jiufen without stopping at the famous A-Mei Teahouse. Despite the denial from Hayao Miyazaki, you can see how the teahouse and its red lanterns could serve as an inspiration for his animated film, “Spirited Away”.

Perched on the side of the mountain, the views of the water are spectacular. With your tea order, they guide you through the traditional way of preparing tea and the treats pair well. Unfortunately, the whole thing felt a bit rushed due to their popularity. Check it out, but don’t feel bad if you don’t want to wait for a seat.

Skyline Tea House. This teahouse sits across from A-Mei and is where you will get the famous view of the A-Mei Teahouse with the mountains in the background. The lines here are incredibly long, and you’ll need to secure one of the balcony spots well ahead of time, especially around sunset.

Jiufen Teahouse. Of the three teahouse I visited, this felt the most traditional and authentic. The wooden interior is warm and inviting. It’s incredible how stepping into this teahouse can instantly whisk you so far away from the hustle of the Old Street. I found it a bit on the pricier side, but the tea service here was more of what I was expecting. Jiufen Teahouse is my recommendation for the best teahouse experience in Jiufen.

Last Thoughts and Tips

Visiting Jiufen and Shifen, or either, is a must-do day trip when you’re in Taipei. Considering how easy it is to get here, it should be on everyone’s list of things to do when visiting Taiwan.

I ended missing one of the trains and ended up spending 3 hours in Shifen, which was nice. I think you can comfortably visit Shifen and the waterfall in 2 hours. I spent about 4 hours at Jiufen, with long breaks at the teahouses. I would dedicate more time to slowly meander about in Jiufen. Give yourself 1-2 hours to wander through the streets and another 1-2 hours for a teahouse experience, including the wait time.

Narrow streets of Jiufen Old Street

If you are taking the bus back into time, keep note of the last bus so you’re not stuck paying for a taxi.

Lastly, you can also finish your day with a visit to the Keelung Night Market. There are direct trains back to Taipei.

Enjoy your visit to Taipei, and if you need more travel ideas, check out my long bucket list for inspiration.

Updated on May 23, 2024

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