It's kind of odd that Nana and I, after having lived in Japan for eight months now, had to go to Taiwan for our first hot springs experience. Hot springs, or onsen, are right up there with sushi, sumo, and kimono in the "most Japanese thing ever" sweepstakes. But there aren't many bathing-suit-friendly onsen near Fukuoka, and neither of us has worked up the nerve to hit the baths in our birthday suits, instead.
Luckily, thanks to a combination of favorable geology and 50 years of Japanese occupation (1895-1945), onsen are also pretty popular in Taiwan. Plus, Beitou, the oldest spa town in the country, sports several bathing-suit-friendly outdoor baths, right on the outskirts of Taipei.
Naturally, Nana and I had to go see what it was all about.
Our visit to Beitou began with a subway transfer onto the one-stop spur line between Beitou Station and Xinbeitou ("New Beitou") Station. The spur line had a very Disney-esque feel to it.
The outside of the car was decorated with cartoonish scenes of Beitou tourism . . .
. . . while half of the interior was done up to look like a hot spring . . .
. . . with the other half done up in honor of Beitou's mountain hiking trails.
After getting off the train, we walked up into the narrow valley where most of Beitou's hot springs can be found. Partway up, we stopped at the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, a converted bathhouse from the Japanese Colonial period.
This free museum gave a brief introduction to Taiwanese hot springs, as well as a short history of the Beitou area.
The real star was the building itself, though. Painstakingly renovated, it's a rare and fascinating example of Japanese Colonial architecture. Also a great illustration of how hard the Japanese Empire worked to be as much like the Brits in nearly every way: aside from the tatami room, you could pick that building up and drop it in India or the Caribbean without anyone batting an eye.
|Roman-style architecture . . . check.|
|Stained glass window perfectly situated for longing gazes out onto a garden . . . check.|
|Private room for hiding all kinds of naughty things from others . . . check. |
Congratulations, Imperial Japan! You have successfully copied Victorian Britain!
After the museum, we went for a soak in one of Beitou's outdoor hot springs. I have to say, even despite the bathing suit, it was still one of the most awkward experiences of my life (at least at first).
First, we were pretty much the only white people in Beitou, let alone the only white people in this particular bathing area. Second, you may not have noticed, but I'm incredibly hairy. Third, Nana and I are both incredibly pale. As a result, every single eye in the place must have been on us as we ducked into the changing stalls, then must have been blinded by our shimmering pallor as we emerged. Even thus blinded, though, they could easily keep track of us, as despite our best efforts to keep quiet, we were by far the loudest people in the place.
Luckily, people did stop staring after a few minutes, and we were able to enjoy the baths. (No cameras allowed, though--hence, no pictures.) All in all, it was a really relaxing experience: we could move among three different hot baths and two different cold baths, which meant we could keep cool in the hot sun and still loosen up our poor, travel-worn legs.