Full Steam

October 2008, Discovery Magazine, China

Jo Baker takes the waters in Taipei


The air was dark and tinged with cool, old trees struck dramatic poses against the night sky and below them, a near-naked elderly man waxed lyrical about the stars. “This is a good place,” he said, a blue towel twisted jauntily around his head. “Out in the open air with the stars, the moon. It’s a very good way to relax.” The scene was a hopping Friday night at a Taiwanese public hot springs; the place, a sleepy town called Xin Beitou, just north of Taipei.

When the Japanese gave up Taiwan after World War II they left a number of lingering legacies, among them great sushi and a penchant for orderly queues. But their best loved hand-me-down is the onsen (in Japanese) or wenquan (Putonghua). The Japanese have been dunking themselves in steaming, therapeutic mountain ponds for centuries, and developments in ex-colonial towns like Beitou are long-standing tributes to this love affair.The minerals dissolved in geothermal springs are widely thought to have significant health benefits, and many cultures, from Roman to Maori have celebrated the restorative powers of a good, volcanic soak. Maladies from warts to wrinkles are supposed to be soothed by a dip, and though science may raise its proverbial eyebrow few doctors will dispute the good a hot bath can do for circulation, or muscular pain. Sophisticated complexes will feature water of varying temperatures and ph levels to keep everyone happy, however each district will vary.
With twenty or so semi dormant volcanoes hemming in Taipei’s northern edges, its forested vistas seethe with wispy puffs of steam. Hikers will rarely set off without a towel and hot spring resorts dot the region.  But for a steamy, laid back mini break under an hour from the city – and a pilgrimage to the roots of Taiwanese hot spring culture –Xin or New Beitou is the place to go.

‘Steamy’ was once the operative word for the town, which for some years after the Japanese became known as the place to procure many drinks and a lady for the night, particularly for US servicemen. However this has been a mixed blessing. While other Taipei spa towns have a polished, developed feel to them Xin Beitou’s revival came later, and it has a charmingly hodge-podge mix of old and new, in which old invariably seems to win. The place is walkable and very green, its roads hopelessly twisty, and public space is still hallowed. “That park was designed by the Japanese” says Tony Wang, director of Sweetme Hot Spring Resorts, pointing at a green in which old men played checkers, and locals splashed around barefoot in an adjacent stream. “It’s hardly been changed at all.”

The park is just a short walk from Xin Beitou MRT station, and a push through the usual gaggle of chain stores and past a rocky stream will bring visitors to the town’s oldest bathhouse. Longnaitang sits crouched, thatched and whitewashed in a light cloud of sulfur-scented fog, and Mr Lee on reception will happily chat about the area, his family home for five generations. As he speaks the sound of vigorous slapping keeps steady pace behind a curtain. Some kind of massage service? “No, they do that to themselves!” he said. “It’s part of the bathing tradition.”

For those that worry about the perils of onsen etiquette, the local council has put out an A4 sheet of ‘prohibitions and matters for attention’ in English, which Mr Lee keeps to hand. Many of the rules – such as, do not take pets into the baths and stay away if you have an infectious disease – are common sense, but it is worth noting that there should be a fifteen minute immersion max, and that a full body wash is expected before entering. Other potential pitfalls, such as whether to be clothed or not, or how best to brandish your little wenquan towel will usually come from other local bathers, happy to show newbies the ropes. Still, if being nude with an egg-smelling roomful of strangers pushes your pleasure threshold to the max, alternatives beckon.

Not far along Beitou’s steep, narrow alleyways, flanked by little houses are two old bastions of its hot spring history, with baths of the communal and in-room variety. Both catered to the Japanese military and ruling elite in its early-century heyday, and many a kamikaze pilot took their last dip here. The I-Tsun has been in the So family since the Japanese left, and both building and hostesses are ageing but gracefully hospitable. I-Tsun’s interiors are a fascinating mix of eras; architectural Kyoto-style detailing in wood and stone from the turn of the century, curtain and sofa fabrics that have hung on since the late eighties. Further up the hills, Whispering Pines Inn is more polished with Koi Carp ponds and tatami rooms, though still rather dated. At night the sounds of traditional nakashi bands waft up from its popular function rooms below, bolstered by electronic keyboard. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the renditions of ‘Please Release Me’ for salary man’s karaoke, rather than, as we were told rather severely, professionals charging NT$2,000 an hour.

Xin Beitou does have its modern side. McDonalds , Mos Burger, swish real estate offices and brash new hotels suggest that once the economy picks up again, the town’s landscape could see further changes. But where a few Las Vegas-inspired options let the side down, there are also those that offer affordable weekends away in tasteful three and four star comfort. Hotels such as Pacific Wellness and Spa Club and SweetMe Hot Spring Resort combine decent breakfast buffets with sleek design and modern hot spa complexes covering entire floors.

One place in particular has dramatically hoisted Xin Beitou’s chic credentials. Villa 32 was built by Taiwanese millionaire Chiu Ming-hung on a secluded side of town’s primordial Geothermal Valley; a steaming pond and popular tourist site. It was designed as a luxurious guesthouse but Chiu later spent years and millions of Taiwanese dollars converting it into a boutique hotel. He kept many of the personal touches of a wealthy home. Sleek, modernist hot spring complexes lie under century-old camphor and maple trees, and the villa’s five suites – three split-level in a European style and two with tatami mats, fusuma doors, both with sweeping private spas – are served by around 70 staff. The place rivals Taipei’s top luxury hotels, but for those unable to book a room, the Italian restaurant offers a fine lunch.

Diversions tend to be limited in Xin Beitou, but there are hiking trails, a museum of hot spring history and another of indigenous crafts, as well as modest night-market dining adventures to pull visitors out of the bath. Flitting in and out of Taipei is also easy from here. However once the pace of life has got you in Xin Beitou, it can be reluctant to let go. You’d be far better advised to lay back, give in, and sample the joys of a holiday in hot water.


Getting there and where to stay:

The drive to Xin Beitou takes around eighty minutes from Tauyuan International Airport, thirty minutes from Taipei’s main train station, and less by MRT, the user-friendly Tapei metro system.

The I-tsun Hotel
1 40 Wen Chuan Road, (02) 2891 2121-3

Pacific Wellness Spa & Club
No 1, Quiyan Rd, (02) 2893-1668 www.pacifichotel.com.tw

SweetMe Hotspring Resort
No 224 Guangming Rd (02) 2898 4505 www.sweetme.com.tw

Whispering Pine Inn
No.21, You Ya Rd, (02) 2895 1531

Villa 32
32 Zongshan Road, (02) 6611-888 www.villa32.com