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Published on : Sunday, December 1, 2013
The Beitou hot-spring district, now long enclosed within the borders of Taipei City, was voted one of Taiwan’s “Top 10 Tourist Towns” in a nationwide poll and expert survey concluded last year. Travel in Taiwan recently spent an afternoon with Yang Yeh, well-known Taiwan mapmaker, resident of Beitou since childhood, and expert on its history and culture.
To get to the hot-spring area, which percolates with resort hotels, public baths, and tourist attractions, take the Taipei Metro (“MRT”) to Xinbeitou Station. On exiting, you’ll see a long, narrow, valley directly ahead, sloping upward toward the high hills and peaks of the Yangmingshan massif looming behind. This valley was carved by the Beitou Stream, a hot-spring stream that gurgles and steams. It runs through long, narrow Beitou Park, which takes up the center of the lower part of the valley.
The metro station is, says Yang, the best place to launch a day-tour of the hot-spring enclave, because the area’s history as a resort was also launched here. The Japanese developed the valley during their 1895-1945 period of colonial rule over Taiwan, and built a large and lovely wooden railway station in 1916 on a spot right beside today’s metro station to serve as the terminus on a spur line specially built to deliver soakers from a then much smaller Taipei.
Old-time Beitou residents are very happy these days, says Yang, because government officials recently announced that the station, relocated to Taiwan Folk Village in Changhua County in 1992, is being returned to Taipei, and will be re-erected in small Qixing Park beside the metro station by 2016.
The entrance to Beitou Park is just across the street from the metro station. There are a number of small Beitou Stream waterfalls within the park. “Early on, before many facilities were developed, Japanese nationals would come here and soak in the pools below the falls – naked, in the Japanese fashion. This caused quite a stir with locals, and Japanese officials thought it best to stop the practice, to maintain Japanese dignity and esteem.” (Today only foot-soaking is allowed in the stream.) Small inns and baths began to pop up.
One of the earliest, a simple bathhouse called Longnaitang, is still in operation beside the park (244 Guangming Road). It was built in 1907, has separate male/female pools, and today requires swimwear. Two other places from the Japanese era are also still in business. The Yitsun Hotel, originally a private guesthouse for Japanese military officers, includes Sun Yat-sen among its famous guests (140 Wenquan Road). The pretty wood-built Whispering Pine Inn, built in 1934, is further up the valley, above the park (21 Youya Road).
In Yang’s view, of the many attractions in the hot-spring area, manmade and natural, the Beitou Hot Spring Museum (beitoumuseum.taipei.gov.tw), located just inside the park at its lower end, is a must-visit. This lovely Victorian-style building of red brick and white stucco originally housed the Beitou Public Baths, Taiwan’s first public bath and long East Asia’s largest hot-spring public bath. A Romanesque pool and columns have been restored, as has the original large, breezy tatami resting room, and there are many intriguing artifacts and info displays. Says Yang: “A highlight for me at the museum is the fine collection of black & white photos and documentary footage of Beitou and Taipei’s riverside areas in the Japanese period, which is great for visualizing what everything used to look like as you tour the area.”
Higher up in the park you’ll come to Plum Garden. This is an attractive Japanese-style villa made of timber, with Western elements, that was built in the 1930s. It was the summer home of the esteemed politico and calligrapher Yu You-ren from 1949 t0 1964. Inside the heritage home is a visitor information center, and there are displays on Yu’s calligraphy as well as the villa’s distinctive architecture and decorative elements. “The villa was originally built for the use of Japanese military officers,” says Yang, “and the basement has an air-raid shelter built with reinforced concrete during WW II. The external wall is a battlement-shaped structure, as if the Japanese expected the Americans to one day come fighting up the valley.”
In a very small side valley near the top of the park is Geothermal Valley, Beitou Stream’s sulfur-water source, popularly called Hell Valley. This is the heart of the hot-springs area. A deep, rock-strewn depression created by a volcanic burst long ago, it’s filled with what’s more a lake than a pool, the sulfurous waters bubbling and spitting, the steam sometimes filling the entire little valley on cool days. These are the Yangmingshan massif’s hottest waters, at about 100 degrees Celsius. Yang says that the Ketagalan called the mist- and steam-filled hot-springs area ‘Patauw,’ meaning ‘witch’ or ‘sorceress,’ and considered the enclave sacred. The Chinese place name ‘Beitou’ is a bastardization of the original name.
At the top of the valley on Youya Road is the lovely Beitou Museumhoused in a former Japanese hot-spring inn built in 1921 that served as an imperial officers’ club and once entertained kamikaze pilots on their final nights of mortality. The complex is among Taiwan’s largest examples of Japanese wood-built architecture, measuring about 2,500 square meters. Built in Chinese Tang Dynasty style, it was renovated top to bottom 2002~2007, and is a work of art in itself.
The museum has Beitou-theme exhibits on early Taiwan life and culture. Beitou was once a key area in Taiwan ceramics production, with well-suited mineral-rich earth, and the museum has many compelling high-end works, with historical background provided. Yang recommends the black & white photos from the area’s Japanese colonial-period heyday, when the developed valley looked nothing like it does today.
Beside the museum is the Marshal Zen Garden, also called the Shann Garden. This was, says Yang, for a time the home of the “Young Marshal,” Zhang Xue-liang, a Manchurian warlord best known for kidnapping Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in 1936. He lived to tell the tale, though under house arrest, and lived here while the home he lived in longest while under the Kuomintang’s care, elsewhere in Beitou and not open to the public, was built.
During the Japanese era, the aesthetically magnetic complex of Japanese-built wooden structures served as a hot-spring inn, officers’ club, and short-stay R&R retreat for kamikaze pilots. It is now run as a teahouse/restaurant/spa enterprise.
To get to the hot-spring resort area, take the Taipei Metro to Xinbeitou Station. To get around, consider taking one of the regular Beitou Museum shuttle buses (free) from the station to the museum, at the valley’s top, which will allow you to walk downhill during your exploration.
Resort Area Origins
“The native people who originally lived in this area, the Ketagalan, had no history of hot-spring soaking.” says Yang Yeh. “Neither did the Taiwanese, whose ancestors had come from China in the previous few centuries. The Japanese wanted to develop Beitou’s springs primarily for use by the military – for officers and injured servicemen, to help in their recuperation. The place really began to boom with the transport of many injured in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. Beitou Park, opened in 1913 along with the Beitou Public Baths, today home to the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, was sculpted in classical European style. After the Japanese left at the end of WW II it was returned to a more natural look.”
Off the Beaten Track: A Special Yang Yeh Recommendation
Travel in Taiwan: Do you have any special “insider’s touring tips” that our readers should know about?
Yang: Indeed I do. Virtually all tourists move through Beitou Park. For a time-capsule glimpse into old-time Beitou living, however, ascend the old, narrow stairway beside the Wellcome Supermarket near the park’s entrance and explore the community on the slopeland parallel to the park, along Wenquan (Hot Springs) Road. There are many old residences and other heritage architectural elements here that went up in the period after WW II. The ambience is akin to that in Jiufen (another of the Taiwan Top 10 Tourist Towns, an old gold-mining town on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific). Just where Wenquan Road comes down just above Beitou Park is a lovely old hillside church.