I only needed to hear the words “taro balls” and I was sold. Never mind that I had no clue what else Jiufen (九份) had to offer or what our itinerary would be. There would be taro balls. That was a good enough reason for me to spend the entire weekend there, with this bunch of crazy awesome people.
Jiufen is only an hour’s bus ride away from Taipei, making it the ideal weekend playground for Taipei’s tourists and residents alike. We hit the ground running, hiking up Mount Jilong (基隆山) when we arrived, in hopes of catching the sunset from the peak.
Climbing up the mountain is a bit like doing the StairMaster, but instead of sweaty gym-goers, you are surrounded by tall grasses and pretty white flowers. The climb up takes approximately 45 minutes, depending on how often you stop to stare at the gorgeous scenery.
We missed the sunset but still got a breathtaking view of the seascape and the city below.
Whatever calories we expended during our hike were quickly replaced when we descended, like ravenous hounds, upon Jiufen Old Street. First stop: Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan (阿柑姨芋圆). This shop is located near the end of the street but the long walk there is definitely worth it. Taro and sweet potato balls float atop a sweet soup delicately flavored with red and green beans. The balls are incredibly chewy and when eaten with the slightly mushy beans, the contrasting textures make for a delicious sensory experience.
Besides Ah Gan Yi Yu Yuan, we also tried Lai Ah Po Yu Yuan (赖阿婆芋圆), another of Jiufen’s famous taro stalls.
The flavors here are decidedly more modern; apart from the traditional taro and sweet potato flavors, they sell black sesame, green tea and purple sweet potato balls too!
My ode to taro balls could go on and on, but the narrow, cobbled streets of Jiufen deserve a mention too. Lined with swinging red lanterns, these very streets were the inspiration for Spirited Away, the much beloved Japanese animation film.
We spent the next day exploring the towns around Jiufen and picked up cat mania at Houtong (侯硐) a.k.a Cat Village. There were cats lazing about in every conceivable spot, from rooftops to suitcases and all of us were busy snapping away, trying to capture those cats up close.
Stupid humans pfft.
Shifen (十份) is Jiufen’s less glamorous sister town. The streets are smaller, and quieter compared to Jiufen, but Shifen is no less beautiful.
If Jiufen is famous for its taro balls then sky lanterns are Shifen’s claim to fame. We wrote our wishes on a paper lantern, lit the fire, and watched as it floated high into the sky.
Take the MRT to Zhongxiao Fuxing (忠孝復興) Station and exit from SOGO. Cross the road and take the bus to Jiufen from the bus stop outside NET.
Buy the one day rail pass (64 NTD) for the Pingxi Rail Line at Ruifang Train Station, which allows you to visit any of the stations along the line, such as Houtong and Shifen.