There's a store in Taipei where you can get food, drinks, coffee, a cell phone, drop off your dry cleaning, book plane tickets and get your taxes done. This magical place? 7 Eleven.
The fact that you can find so many services in one store gives you an idea of the efficiency a busy Taipei local's life demands. The city has an electric liveliness to it at any hour of day or night. Every street corner and tiny back alley has someplace where people are on the move or lined up for the most popular hole in the wall restaurant or wrestling with an unruly toddler. Even in the city parks, gangs of grandpas are busy at their gambling hustle. But if you know just where to look, Taipei is rich with little pockets of experience where life slows way, way down.
Our first day in Taipei started with what seemed to be a relaxing jaunt to the well endowed National Palace Museum. We quickly learned, however, that the crowds all jostling each other in the lobby and on the stairwells came to the museum for one sight and one sight only: the magnificent Jade Cabbage. We'd never heard of it until now, but apparently it's a pretty big deal in Taiwan. Loads of kids on school field trips slowly filed past it for a look, and we joined up with them to see what all the fuss was about. And while in the end it didn't necessarily seem like something worth flocking to in such numbers, the piece was an expertly carved and striking stone paired to exactly the right purpose.
Image from Wikipedia
By this time, we were eager to take a load off, so night market food wasn't on the menu for us. But we still wanted something classically Taipei and somewhat special. Enter Din Tai Fung.
Okay, we know it's a chain and we know there's one in Seattle. But Taipei is where it all began for them, and they didn't grow to be this popular for nothing. Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) are the name of the game here, and we loved watching an army of chefs preparing the brothy, meaty packets of goodness just feet from our table.
Full of dumplings and joy, we started our chilly walk home under the glow of Christmas lights and the neon of Taipei 101, what was once the world's tallest building.
The next day, we set off on a little excursion to Jiufen, a tiny seaside town about an hour's bus ride from Taipei. We tried our luck on the market street, but after nearly losing an eye to the crowd's umbrella tips, we decided to slow things down.
We retreated straight to Jioufen Tea House, a traditional place where we learned the finer points of brewing oolong tea and waited out the afternoon rain. When we finally emerged, admittedly a bit waterlogged, we were amazed at what we saw.
This sleepy hillside town has an almost mythical quality about it, especially at night when all the red lanterns dotting the eaves of the houses get lit up. Once you visit, it comes as no surprise that the town was the basis for the ghostly setting in Miyazaki's Spirited Away.
Image from Spririted Away
Our stomachs were growling for something more substantial than pineapple cake, so as soon as we stepped off the bus again in Taipei we headed to the Raohe Night Market for some grub.
Almost as soon as we entered, we were overwhelmed by deliciousness. We could see that there would be a wait for some of the more popular stalls, so we quickly queued up for some pork pepper buns (hujiao bing) baking in a gigantic Chinese tandoor oven and let the sights and smells wash over us.
About 3 different savory foods and two ridiculously rich chocolate wheel cakes later, we were full, happy, and ready to lumber home for the day.
Ancient places, ancient appetites
We set some pretty modest goals for our next day so we could do a bit of sleeping in: a visit to Longshan Temple and some famous beef noodles.
When we hopped off the subway at Longshan Station, the scene before us felt much the same as the rest of the city-busy, hectic, and a little bit misty. But stepping through the front gate of the beautiful and meticulously detailed temple, it felt as if we'd checked the hustle and bustle at the door. Sure, there were a lot of people physically in the space, but the calm and quiet nature of their worship gave the place a very spiritual feel.
Once the growl of our stomachs started punctuating the stretches of whispered prayer, it was time to recuse ourselves and make our way to Yongkang Beef Noodle. Though we arrived for our dinner at the absolute last lunch sitting, the rich and spicy broth, falling-apart beef, and delightfully toothsome noodles had us satisfied through the evening. And we didn't even have to wait in line! We were a little nervous at how easily we'd slipped into the early bird special routine, but any time can be time for a great meal in Taipei.
Our final stop(s) of the trip! We can't believe it's coming to an end so soon, but we're going out with a bang in Japan.