A short flight from Japan, Taiwan makes an ideal trip for foodies and adventurers alike
By AYA ICHIHASHI | Stars and Stripes | Published: November 8, 2018
When I asked my daughter what she would like to do to celebrate her junior high school graduation, she knew immediately where she wanted to go: Taiwan.
Her main goals for the trip? Visiting Jiufen, a town famous for its connection to the popular Studio Ghibli animated film “Spirited Away”; visiting the town of Shifen to launch a paper lantern into the sky; and, most importantly, to eat as much Taiwanese food as possible.
Just a little under an hour flight away from Naha Airport, Taiwan is closer to Okinawa than Kyushu, the southernmost main island of Japan — and it usually costs less to fly there, too. Many popular budget airlines like Vanilla Air and Tigerair offer flights between Naha and Taiwan, but we chose Peach Aviation, another budget-friendly option for our flight into Taoyuan International Airport. Citizens of the United States, Japan and several other countries are eligible for the country’s tourist visa waiver, which allows you to remain in the country for up to 90 days. The waiver is free and issued upon arrival at the airport in Taiwan.
Because Taiwan’s transportation system is well-developed and relatively affordable, I opted to plot out the details of the trip myself instead of relying on a pre-planned tour. We stayed near Taipei Station because of its convenience and close proximity to the city’s popular night markets and tourist attractions. And, for our first meal in Taiwan, we visited Din Tai Fung — an internationally renowned restaurant famous for its xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. Din Tai Fung now has locations all around the world, but the main branch near Taipei’s Dongmen Station is the birthplace of this much-beloved institution.
Unfortunately, Din Tai Fung’s popularity means diners often must wait to be seated at the restaurant. Faced with a two-hour wait, my daughter and I chose to explore the area around the restaurant to kill time. While exploring, we stopped to try one of the many tea stands found on almost every street corner. Although I am more of a coffee lover, I enjoyed indulging in a cup of fruit tea with glass jelly (50 New Taiwanese Dollars, or about $1.50).
When we finally did make it into Din Tai Fung, its soupy, juicy and perfect xiaolongbao did not disappoint. I recommend anyone to go at least once. A standard xiaolongbao, which contains pork and vegetables, is 105 NTD for 5 dumplings. What makes Din Tai Fung different from other restaurants is the consistently high quality. The restaurant requires its dumplings, which are made fresh on-site, have extremely thin dumpling skin — so thin that it is easy to see the fillings inside. A special item on offer at this Din Tai Fung location is the truffle xiaolongbao (450 NTD for five pieces). The aroma from the truffle was the perfect complement to the minced pork, making this dish a highlight of the meal.
The restaurant also offers other dishes, including various vegetable side dishes and stir-fried items. Due to its popularity among foreign tourists, Din Tai Fung is kept very clean — but the facility is also extremely crowded with steep and narrow staircases. Families with small children or those with disabilities might want to consider dining elsewhere.
For some great shopping and dining experiences, Taipei offers several night markets — but by far the biggest one and most famous is the Shilin Night Market near Jiantan Station. The market offers a wide variety of food, shops and game vendors, making it a perfect place for visitors of all ages. Most vendors at the market begin to open around 4 p.m., with peak activity happening around 9 p.m.
My daughter and I visited Shilin Night Market’s popular underground food court, where we dined among locals and tourists. We decided to order several Taiwanese specialties, including lu rou fan, or minced pork over rice (35 NTD); tsao mi fun, or stir-fried rice noodles (50 NTD); and seafood dumpling soup (35 NTD). Lu rou fan is an extremely popular dish in Taiwan, and my daughter and I enjoyed it so much that we ate it nearly every day of our vacation. Each restaurant has its own unique take on the dish — but most variations feature pork braised in sweet soy sauce with a blend of spices. Taiwanese cuisine relies heavily on star anise, which adds a flavor similar to cinnamon- in chicken and pork dishes.
After visiting Taipei, my daughter and I began our journey to Shifen. With the assistance of an English-speaking ticketing agent at Taipei Station, we purchased train tickets to Ruifang Station (76 NTD, or about $2.50, for a reserved seat). Upon arriving at Ruifang, we had to transfer trains and purchase an onward ticket to Shifen (19 NTD). In total, our journey from Taipei set us back about an hour.
Shifen, famous for its tiny, narrow alleyways and the old coal mining train tracks that run through the middle of the town, is a popular day trip from Taipei. Shifen is known for sky lanterns, which can be purchased for anywhere from 100 to 150 NTD from one of the many vendors in town. Four wishes are written on each side of the lantern before it is released to float into the sky as it is believed that doing so will make the wishes come true. The train tracks in the area are still in use, so visitors should use caution to avoid oncoming trains.
Another popular Shifen tourist spot is its waterfall, accessible via taxi from the city center. The waterfall offers a stunning view and a nice escape from the town center.
After exploring Shifen, we returned to Ruifang Station to board a bus headed to Jiufen. Travelers can take a cab from Jiufen Station for 205 NTD or bus for 15 NTD — but the latter requires having exact change. My daughter and I decided to split the cab fare with another pair of Japanese tourists for the 20-minute ride to Jiufen.
Jiufen is a picturesque old town located on a hill overlooking the ocean with narrow staircases winding throughout the village. The town’s A-Mei Teahouse is famous for resembling the setting of the Japanese film “Spirited Away,” so my daughter and I decided to stop there for afternoon tea (300 NTD). The teahouse is the perfect place to take in the sunset and watch as the town’s many lanterns begin to illuminate.
Traveling in Taiwan was easy due to its efficient public transportation and kindness of its people. The delicious food and delightful sights made for a great way to celebrate my daughter’s graduation. Launching a sky lantern with our wishes and sharing tea overlooking the ocean are memories that my daughter and I will share for a lifetime.
DIRECTIONS: Flights to Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport, located on the outskirts of Taipei, are available from most major airports in the Pacific region. In Japan, a variety of low-cost carriers operate regular flights to the island, starting as low as 2,980 yen (or about $26.30) plus taxes and required fees during special promotions. From Okinawa, the flight is about 1 hour. From Tokyo, the flight is around 4 hours.
COSTS: Be sure to carry enough cash with you throughout your trip for smaller purchases, transportation fare and snacks.
FOOD: Food throughout Taiwan is relatively cheap and affordable, although higher-end options are easily found in larger cities.