Saturday, February 9, 2008
Welcoming in the Year of the Rat in Tansui and Hokutō Onsen 子年の旅行：淡水、北投温泉
The Lunar New Year 旧正月 is upon us, and the Year of the Rat 子年 has started off on a cold, wet foot. I have only a week off from my various jobs this year, but I'm not complaining, as this most important of Chinese festivals usually impacts negatively on my financial outlook. In other words, the shorter the break, the better off I am (it helps 2008 is a leap year うるう年 too). The Lunar New Year is generally an awful time to travel - traffic is worse than usual, all sightseeing spots of note are packed to the gills, and restaurants and hotels hike their prices considerably. We usually take a short trip at the beginning of the holiday, before things get too crowded and expensive, and this year was no exception. This time we spent two nights in Tamsui (Tanshui/Danshuei) 淡水, a sea-side town in T'aipei (Taibei) County 台北県. It rained non-stop, and the temperature rarely rose above 10C (50F), the entire time we were there, but it was a fun visit nonetheless.
We left Fengyuan (Fongyuan) 豊原 on Wednesday 水曜日, which was the first day of my vacation, and the eve of the Lunar New Year. This day is an important one for Taiwanese, as families get together for a big feast, much like Thanksgiving 感謝祭 in the United States or New Year's Eve 大みそか in Japan. As a result, traffic on the freeways is relatively light, and hotels are still charging their regular rates, as most people have not yet started out on their travels. This makes the Lunar New Year's Eve a perfect time to visit someplace before the chaos begins.
We arrived in Tamsui in the middle of the afternoon, and checked into our hotel, The Fisher.
For our first night there, we were given a large corner room with views of Fisherman's Wharf 漁人碼頭 and Kuanyinshan (Guanyinshan) 観音山 - except that the poor weather kept visibility pretty low most of the time. The charge for the night was about 2600NT ($80 or ￥8730), a rate that doubled for the next night (the first day of the new year, and the day when most people hit the road for their destinations), which is why we switched rooms for the second night, to a much smaller one on the same floor (the 7th, but because the pronunciation of the number 4 in Chinese 四 sounds the same as that for the word "death" 死, "ssu [sih]", we were officially on the 8th floor, as the 4th floor didn't exist), but on the opposite corner. The charge for the second night's room was also double the usual rate, which in our case meant we paid another 2600NT. Note the contrasting views from our two rooms:
Soon after checking in, we ventured out into town, via the hotel's courtesy shuttle bus. Tamsui had once been a major port, but by the beginning of the Japanese era 日本統治時代 in 1895, the estuary of the Tamsui River had begun to silt up, and it was becoming difficult for large boats to enter the harbor. As a result, the Japanese governor-general 総督府 decided to develop the port in Keelung (Chilung/Jilong) 基隆, and along with the railroad that had been laid between Taipei and Keelung, harbor operations shifted away from Tamsui, which did manage to remain a local administrative and cultural center. Tamsui is now thriving as a tourist spot, noted in Taiwan for its Western architecture, namely a Spanish-built fort, an old British consulate and the island's first Western-style university. It's most famous among Taiwanese, however, for food. Kungming (Gongming) Street, in particular, is filled with food stalls 屋台 selling all kinds of snacks, and is usually full of people. On the Lunar New Year's Eve, however, few places were open and the streets were empty. Even the McDonald's マクドナルド shut its doors between 6 and 8pm so its employees could go home to have dinner with their families. We wandered around for a while before finding a hot pot 鍋料理 restaurant that was open for business. After dinner, we took a public bus back to the vicinity of our hotel, and called it a night.
The next day was Thursday 木曜日, and the first day of the Lunar New Year. Following breakfast in the hotel's restaurant downstairs (where we met a member of the news team at ICRT, Mike Woodward, a very friendly man who charmed my daughter), we rode Taipei's excellent MRT subway 台北捷運 from Tamsui to the hot spring resort area of Peit'ou (Beitou) 北投. I could see myself living in a place like Tamsui, with its close proximity to the ocean and the mountains, and using the MRT to commute to work in central Taipei. It probably wouldn't be much different from the way I used to live in Tōkyō 東京.
And speaking of places reminiscent of Japan, a walk through Peitou's hot springs area hardly feels like being in Taiwan at all. This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the Japanese developed Peitou as a hot springs resort, starting with the first inn being opened in 1896 by a merchant from Ōsaka 大阪. Walking up from the MRT station, the first notable building we came across was the Beitou Hot Springs Museum 北投温泉博物館, which was originally a public bathhouse built in 1913:
Unfortunately, the building was closed for renovation, and isn't due to reopen until the beginning of March. I wonder which genius came up with the brilliant idea of shutting the place up during the busiest holiday time of the year. We continued up the hill to Hell Valley 地熱谷, a large pond of hot, bubbling spring water. At least I think it was, as the pool couldn't be seen through the clouds of steam coming off the water. The air reeked of sulfur 硫黄:
After lunch, we walked over to see P'uchi (Puji) Temple 普濟寺, which was originally built as a Shingon sect 真言宗 temple back in 1916. Sadly, not many Japanese Buddhist temples remain in Taiwan, which is a shame as the architecture is very pleasing, especially in comparison to some of the garish Taoist or grandiose Buddhist structures that are more commonplace here:
We finished off our visit to Peitou in a fitting way by renting a private bath for an hour at the appropriately-named Kyōto Hotel. Ah, what I wouldn't wish to have a sunken bathtub in our apartment in which I could take a long, relaxing soak after a hard day's work.
Following our family bath, we left Peitou and returned to Tamsui on the MRT. In contrast to the previous night, this evening the stores were all open, and the holiday crowds were out, though not in the crushing numbers I was dreading, probably due to the rainy weather:
Like everyone else, we walked around and ate a few snacks (fish ball soup and fried mushrooms, in my case), though at my insistence, we also bought a few donuts at Mister Donut ミスタードーナツ. Walking around the streets also gave me a chance to photograph some more signs:
On Friday 金曜日 morning, we checked out of the hotel and drove over to Fisherman's Wharf. It looks like a fun place to hang out during warm, summer evenings, but cold, winter mornings are another matter. Still, the view looking towards Kuanyinshan was good.
Next, we drove on Highway 2, which goes along the north coast of Taiwan. A few years ago, Pamela and I drove from Tamsui to Keelung, so we didn't feel the need to do the entire circuit again. The weather progressively got worse, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the drive. Our first stop was Fukuei (Fuguei) Cape 富貴角, the most northerly point in Taiwan. The weather was atrocious (driving rain, strong wind, bone-chilling cold), but that didn't prevent us from getting out of our car, and walking over to the lighthouse there. I was thrilled taking in the fresh air, and watching the waves crashing over the rocks down below. It was one of those moments where I thanked the 神 for the opportunity just to be alive to enjoy these moments. Pamela, being the more realistic one, just wanted to get back to the car as soon as possible! Amber showed signs of being more like her Daddy :)
After taking some time to dry off while having a seafood lunch at the nearby Fuchi (Fuji) Fishing Harbor 富基漁港, we continued down the coast to the Temple of the Eighteen Lords 十八王公廟. Unlike in Japan, where many temples and shrines are popular because of the architectural beauty of the structure and the atmosphere of its grounds, many of the most popular temples in Taiwan are not that much to look at. This one is no exception. The temple is approached through a long arcade that once must have bustling with shops and visitors, but which has clearly seen better days. The temple itself is hidden behind a number of food stalls. But what it lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in activity, being packed with worshipers. The 18 Lords refers to 17 sailors who died at sea, and a faithful dog who committed suicide out of grief. There are two dog statues on either side of the tomb representing the lords. Touching their mouths, feet and head supposedly will ensure general good luck, great wealth and a very smart child, respectively. We'll see what happens in future. The temple may not be much to see, but the stormy ocean opposite was dramatic.
And that was that. We returned in the direction of Tamsui, making a brief stop at the Shihmen Cave 石門洞, a naturally eroded stone arch that wasn't feeling very photogenic in the lousy weather. We drove on through Tamsui, and then, not knowing what the traffic conditions were like on the freeway, we went along the western coast for a while, before joining up with the No. 3 Freeway just past Ch'iting (Ciding) 崎頂 Beach for the last leg back to Fengyuan.
I'm off until next Tuesday 火曜日, but I don't have any plans for the rest of the Lunar New Year, other than to take it easy before going back to work. Until then, let me wish everyone a "Hsinnien k'uaile (Sinnian kuaile)" 新年快樂 and a "Kunghsi fats'ai (Gongsi facai)" 恭喜發財!