Visitors explore Jiufen's tight winding alleyways lit by traditional hanging lanterns

Exploring the magic of Taiwan’s ‘Spirited Away’ city

A photographer tells us about returning to the enchanted city of Jiufen, perched on a mountain overlooking the sea.

Alleyways that twist up the mountainside come alive in the glow of lantern light. Such surreal scenes in Jiufen, Taiwan, seem to mirror those in the film Spirited Away.

I’ve always been drawn to dreamy places. As a photojournalist who’s passionate about capturing unique experiences and perspectives, it’s become part of my job to chase settings that seem to live in-between worlds, straddling reality and fantasy.

With its cliffside teahouses, steep streets crowded with vendors selling hot food, and the glow of red lanterns, Jiufen, Taiwan, is one of those enchanting places. Having visited since childhood, I know this seaside mountain hamlet well. It’s a 90-minute bus ride from where I was born in the capital city of Taipei. 

Caught between a traditional past and a bustling present, Jiufen is a quintessentially Taiwanese city. Yet some of its most striking features are of its past colonizers, namely the Dutch (in the 17th century) and Japan (in the early 20th century). It’s a small village with home-cooked delicacies like sweet, chewy taro balls, but it also carries a worldly mystique. By day it’s an outpost clinging to the side of the mountain and a tropical paradise bathed in sunlight. Nighttime brings a different feeling—the village takes on a darker allure, as if you might run into spirits prowling for a late-night snack.

With the development of gold mining here in the late 19th century, relatively quiet Jiufen became a bustling village during the Japanese occupation, which lasted until 1945. Reminders of that period can be found in traditionally styled inns and other buildings across the city. Among the lush foliage hanging from structures stacked up the mountain, look for kawara, Japanese traditional tiles, adorning iconic curved and elongated roofs.

Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyakazi denies that Jiufen was an inspiration, but many have drawn a connection between the town’s striking appearance and its resemblance to the settings in the 2001 film Spirited Away.

That Oscar-winning animated feature tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro, who becomes trapped in the spirit world and is tasked with saving her parents from a terrible curse. Along the way, she befriends animal spirits, bathhouse maids, the boiler man and his soot sprites, the enigmatic No Face, and others, who help her on her quest across a mesmerizing dreamscape.

Chihiro makes a deal to work at the towering red bathhouse to rescue her parents, but as a result, she almost forgets her name after she’s assigned a false, shortened moniker. A similar fate befell her friend, Haku. The masked spirit No Face cannot speak unless he takes on the traits of the spirits he consumes. These are just some of the moments where identity and belonging take center stage in the film.

Although themes like these are experienced universally, it makes sense the movie resonated so strongly in the West, especially in America, a country of immigrants. Spirited Away and all of Miyazaki’s work hold a special place in my heart.

(Look inside Taiwan’s ‘cat village’.)

I was three when our family moved from Taiwan to Toronto, then to California. Today, I say I’m Taiwanese American, though like many others, I often feel like I’m too American to call myself Taiwanese, and too Taiwanese to call myself American.

As often as we could, our family made trips back to Taiwan to visit my grandparents, the root of our family who stayed in Taipei, and gathered with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Jiufen was a favorite stop that became a mainstay in a collection of special Taiwan moments—reading comics with grandpa at the library, accompanying him on his 5 a.m. walk in the park, and grandma seemingly always cleaning up the kitchen.

My sister and I felt the cultural divide deepen as we got older, but food brought our family together and created lasting memories. A favorite for my sister and me was classic pearl milk tea from street cart stands and hole-in-the-wall spots. We took trips for ice cream with grandpa. I constantly nagged my parents for niu rou mien, beef noodle soup, a national staple. Our family bonded over soy milk and fan tuan, a glutinous rice roll wrapped around you tiao, a fried dough, preserved vegetables and pork floss.

Many of these favorites can be found along Old Street in Jiufen, one of the country’s most iconic night markets. Although delicious snacks draw crowds here around the clock, the street comes alive as the sun sets, much like the opening scene of Spirited Away, when Chihiro and her parents come upon lines of food stalls teeming with fresh noodles and roasted meat. In the film, as in real life, hot steam mingles with the glowing lanterns lighting each stall.

(How Singapore’s endangered street food culture got international recognition.)

Along the meandering Old Street, a similarly extravagant spread awaits. Visitors can find fried fish, chewy, handmade sweet potato and taro balls in syrup, Taiwanese sausages on skewers, peanut ice cream rolls, steamed pork dumplings in sweet rice wrapping, and endless noodle soup offerings.

At the town’s peak, the golden light spilling from the grand Amei Teahouse crowns Jiufen. The century-old institution occupies a repurposed blacksmith’s shop and is perhaps the city’s strongest link to Spirited Away. The building’s ornate Japanese architecture bears a strong likeness to the film’s bathhouse, the main setting of the film, where spirits come to relax and where Chihiro finds work.

Amei teahouse offers little sweets like mung bean cakes with a traditional tea experience, a delightful pairing made better by sweeping views of the East China Sea. Many smaller traditional tea houses dot the cliffside, offering similar views and a broad selection of local teas.

For so many, Miyazaki’s films feel like a warm hug, and my return to Jiufen felt the same. Much has changed since I was last here—including a catastrophic pandemic, my grandma’s passing, my new career in photography, and a renewed interrogation of what it means to be Asian American. Despite all that has changed, this mountain village has retained all its charms and reminded me of the food, moments, and people that root me.

Mike Kai Chen is a Taiwanese American documentary photographer based in San Francisco. You can find him on Instagram.

Allie Yang is a travel editor at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter.

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