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Why Tainan is the Gem of the South

Immersing yourself in flashing lights, pulsing music, and smoke machines can indeed be a grand way to celebrate the weekend. That being said, it can also be immensely rewarding to unwind by another route: to step back from the sometimes relentless, never-ending motion of Taipei City life, treat yourself to a quick getaway, and soak up some sun and culture. There’s no need to book a flight, hop on a plane, and jet over to the nearest white sand beach just so you can de-stress, either – which is ironically quite stressful in itself. Sometimes, the greatest treasures are hidden in our own backyards. 

Just recently, Taiwan Observer joined MyTaiwanTour (click the link to find tours like this and more) on a trip to Tainan, the oldest city and one-time capital of the island. Tainan’s love for timeless recipes, the genuine hospitality of its locals, and its vintage, time capsule-like quality are just a few of its charms. Here are some of the attractions you don’t want to miss:

 

Huoshan Biyun Temple (火山碧雲寺)

Nestled about midway up Zhentou Mountain (Pillow Mountain) in Tainan’s Baihe District, the sanctuary bears all the hallmarks of a classic Taiwanese temple – from its remote location and mystical aesthetic to its own unique folklore. The temple, which features a blend of Japanese and Fujian architectural styles, has remained largely untouched since its debut 221 years ago; some of the red bricks and wooden beams used in its original construction are still visible. Next to the temple is a cluster of boulders with a small cavity in its center. Legend has it that rice magically streamed out of the hole year round, providing the temple residents with ample food day in and day out. That was until a gluttonous monk attempted not only to take more than his share, but to hoard all the blessings. Never again has a single grain of rice tumbled out of that hole.       

 

Guanziling Mud Hot Springs (關子嶺溫泉風景區)

Those looking for a twist on the traditional hot spring experience or to unleash your inner swine will want to check out the Guanziling Hot Springs, home to the only mud baths on the island. Japanese soldiers brawling with local anti-Japanese forces stumbled upon one of these unusual springs in the late 19th century. Specialists who were convinced by the medicinal properties of the mud pools aided in propelling Guanziling to the forefront of the hot spring game; it was soon crowned “Taiwan’s Number One Hot Spring.” 

The rejuvenating mud baths are replete with natural minerals and antibacterial sulfur that are said to eliminate toxins, fortify the immune system, alleviate joint pain, and soothe certain skin conditions and minor ailments. Take a dip in the velvety pearl-gray waters, whip up a creamy lather, and bask in the sun like a majestic seal. Be prepared to emerge fully relaxed with all the negative energy flushed out of your system and buttery-soft skin to boot.      

 

“Salt Town”/YanXiang B&B Restaurant (鹽鄉民宿餐廳‧古早味風味餐) Traditional Beimen Cuisine

The restaurant owner, Mr. Hong, who has become something of a celebrity in these parts, decided to return to Jingzhaijiao years ago to launch a business that would celebrate the underrated culture of his beloved hometown. The rustic interior is a throwback to simpler times and offers the kind of warmth associated with visiting a dear relative or old friend, but its award-winning dishes are the stars of the show. Be sure to try their signature crispy boneless milkfish, milkfish sausages, oyster rice noodles, and a steaming plate of extra-large, deliciously juicy clams. Postcards and letters from happy customers are proudly displayed under the glass tops of the dining tables. 

 

Beimen Saltworks

After lunch, we were given a tour – via a miniature train – of the Beimen salterns (北門鹽場) and the old saltworks by Mr. Hong himself, which included a stopover at Saltern No. 16 to sample some edible grass. The Beimen Salt Works Administration Office, listed as a historic building, is easily one of the most standout structures within the saltworks complex. The turquoise timber structure, which features quintessential Japanese Colonial and British building techniques, was constructed in 1923, and was the former center of the surrounding salt fields, overseeing taxes as well as the sales and distribution of the hot commodity. 

 

Mercy’s Door Free Clinic

In the wake of the 1957 outbreak of blackfoot disease that swept across Beimen and other neighboring townships, Dr. Wang King-Ho (also spelled “Wang Jin-He) and Presbyterian missionary Lillian Disckson, on behalf of the Mustard Seed Mission, co-founded the Mercy’s Door Free Clinic. The blackfoot epidemic, which resulted in raw, pus-gushing lesions, blackened and mummified gangrene-riddled appendages, and a host of organ-specific cancers, was most likely caused by the locals’ 80-year exposure to “artesian well water” tainted with arsenic. The clinic opened its doors to the public three years later with Wang as head physician, and between 1960 and 1986, served as a safe haven for sufferers of the terrible disease, who received medical treatments free of charge.    

 

Jingzhaijiao Tile-Paved Salt Fields (井仔腳瓦)

Set against a backdrop of the glittering Beimen Lagoon, the Jingzhaijiao Tile-Paved Salt Fields are a spectacular sight. The salt ponds, the oldest of its kind in Taiwan, are neatly spread out across square mosaic tiles, hence its name, with conical mounds of lace-white salt seated within each square of the glassy grid. The iconic salt fields were first developed in 1818 during the reign of Qing Emperor Jiaqing, and was originally known as the “Laidong Salt Fields.” Salt miners ingeniously sprinkled broken pottery fragments over the salt ponds to keep salt crystals from clinging to the soil. 

The salt ponds were temporarily abandoned when the local salt industry crashed in 2002, but the salt fields were soon resurrected and transformed into a popular tourist attraction. Be sure to catch the salt ponds at sunset, and keep an eye out for the enchanting swirl of birds fluttering over the lagoon. Visitors can also shimmy across the walkway, and receive blessings of peace, love, and good fortune in the island’s only pig goddess (豬母娘娘) temple. After a mob of villagers decided to drive a pregnant sow off a cliff, as the legend goes, local farms and farmers became cursed by a string of bad harvests and inexplicable illnesses. They quickly erected a shrine dedicated to the sow, and only then, they say, was the curse finally lifted.

 

Zhuxinju Restaurant (筑馨居)

Dine like a true Qing dynasty local in this century-old house, which features most of its original doors and roof tiles, and brick walls adorned with vintage plaques, paintings, and shelves lined with old pottery and spice jars. The restaurant’s lack of a fixed menu only makes the dining experience all the more memorable. Expect textbook old-school Tainanese cuisine, which primarily focuses on seafood, local produce, and flavorful broths. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Chou, was kind enough to introduce us to his prized antiques collection, among which included a portable general goods store mounted onto the back of a bicycle, an old-fashioned cash register, and an assortment of medicinal jars and vials.   

 

Thinking Homestay/Bed & Breakfast

We topped off our trip down memory lane with an evening at Thinking Homestay. Each room of the stunning old manor-turned-bed-and-breakfast boasts a distinctive decor and layout, and is furnished with Japanese-era antiques and heirlooms. Guests can also grab a nightcap at the old-timey, no-menu bar, manned by an effortlessly cool bartender, behind the reception area on the ground floor.  

 

Wushantou Reservoir (烏山頭水庫)

In 1919, Japanese hydraulics engineer Yoichi Hatta took on the ambitious task of designing and building an irrigation system for the Chianan Plain. Construction of the Wushantou Reservoir began the following year and was completed in May of 1930. The sprawling reservoir, which had a capacity of 150 million cubic meters and was fitted with a powerful, earthquake-resistant dam, was once the largest reservoir on the continent. Hatta’s innovative irrigation system tapped into Coral Lake, where over 30 rivers collide, and regularly supplied water to over 100,000 hectares of farmland, turning the once sterile plains into a thriving center of rice cultivation. Today, it is the only reservoir in the world that actively employs the “semi-hydraulic fill technique.”   

Statues and shrines devoted to Hatta and his family are scattered across the Yoichi Hatta Memorial Park. Tragedy struck twofold when Hatta’s ship, en route to Manila, was sunk in a World War II submarine attack in 1942; a portion of his ashes were buried on reservoir grounds. Unable to cope with the sudden loss of her husband, Hatta’s inconsolable wife, Toyoki Yonemura climbed onto the red bridge above the reservoir and leapt into the surging waters three years later. 

Visitors can also enjoy a dreamy cruise on Coral Lake, studded with 100 scenic isles and peninsulas, explore quaint Japanese-style houses, and (if you’re lucky) a lovely serenade from a local zither master.

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