Houtong: Home of the Cat Village and Taiwan’s Tastiest Pineapple Cakes

After hiking Elephant Mountain and paying a visit to Laomei Reef, I decided it was time to travel to Houtong━a village in Taiwan renowned for its high population of cats.  Similar to the origin of the rabbit island I visited last month in Japan, this was originally an old mining town that has attracted hundreds of cats (the former was a nuclear testing ground that is now overrun by rabbits).  Fortunately there are a number of residents, volunteers, and tourists that look after these cats every day.  If you are an feline lover, this is simply a day trip that cannot be passed up in Taiwan.

Getting to Houtong from Taipei is quite easy; from Songshan Station you can take a cheap 40 minute train directly to Houtong Station.  When you get off at the station, you will notice there are two exits; one goes up into the hillside of the village where most of the cats lounge around and play, and the other leads to the roadside with nearby souvenir shops and restaurants.  If you are eager to see the cats like I was, I would recommend taking the stairs to the hillside first.  In fact, you may even see some furry friends lounging around in the station!

There are a number of things about this village that really charmed me.  First of all, I loved how the cats acted like they owned the place.  They weren’t afraid of humans at all and some of them were actually very friendly despite having to put up with us invading their space every day.  I also loved the Neko Atsume cookies and pineapple cakes they were selling here.  The shops had so many free samples that I tried every flavor (the chocolate pawprint-shaped pineapple cakes happened to be my favorite).  I was informed by the shop owner that apparently these are the most delicious cakes in Taiwan, so I decided to bring back some souvenirs for my roommate and friends in Japan.  They definitely had the cutest shape out of all of the pineapple cakes that I had seen here!

I also enjoyed the simple decor of the village.  You could tell that the volunteers put effort into making helpful signs and guides for tourists as well.  These adorable cat-like ornaments were hung in the station:

It really doesn’t take that long to explore the village; I spent about an hour and a half doing photography and exploring the shops.  However, cat-watching is definitely something that you could spend all day doing.  You can purchase food for them at any of the shops or cafes (I stopped by one to order a vodka latte for myself so I could warm up).  I enjoyed watching this kitty run across the souvenir table:

Houtong truly reminded me of a mountain town in Japan because it was peaceful and had the same kind of atmosphere.  Other than the cats, there is a river and a number of temples that you can see nearby.  It is considered to be rural but the trains run here pretty frequently.  On the way back to Taipei, I decided to stop by the Golden Waterfall that you can reach by bus from the nearby Ruifang Station.  You could also combine this with a trip to the Jiufen lantern town if you want!

Unfortunately it was pitch dark when I reached the Golden Waterfall, but this is the best picture I managed to take:

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The Golden Waterfall at dusk.

Afterwards, I decided to go back and relax at my hotel.  This is trip is a great way to see the countryside east of Taipei and also see the unforgettable village run by cats.  Since Jiufen inspired Spirited Away, I can’t help but wonder if Houtong inspired The Cat Returns

Making a Wish and Getting Spirited Away: Exploring Lantern Towns in Taiwan

After exploring Yehliu Geopark, I traveled to the small railroad town of Chifen where I was able to paint my wishes on a lantern and set it off into the sky.  Chifen was originally used as a hub to transport coal, but it has now been re-purposed into a district of lanterns and shops that travelers can stop by on their way to Jiufen.  It’s a very quaint town, but is definitely worth seeing as it has a lot of history.

Most lanterns are available for purchase at 200 Taiwanese dollars.  You are then handed an ink brush by the shop keeper and are free to write whatever you wish on your lantern.  I was surprised at how large the lanterns actually were!  The staff will assist you with safely lighting it, then it will gradually inflate and soar into the sky.  Here is a video of me with my lantern just before it flew away (it was a very happy time for me):

Although this activity definitely falls into the tourist category, it was an extremely fun experience for me after living in Asia for over 4 years, not to mention a great beginning to 2020.  I like to spend my New Year’s doing different things each year and this was definitely unique.

The colors of the lanterns have slightly different meanings which you can see below.  You can choose to customize the colors of your lantern if you have enough time:

Afterwards, I took the bus to the nearby town of Jiufen that inspired the famous movie Spirited Away.  This mountain town actually resembles a lot of places I’ve traveled to in Japan, but the illuminated lanterns at night make it an entirely new experience.  It was once a prosperous area of Taiwan filled with gold mines but was then abandoned shortly after WWII when the gold rush ended.  It went through a period of depression, but now it has grown into a bustling area full of shops, street food, hotels, and sightseeing.  There are a number of places that you can hike to from here as well (I recommend seeing the Golden Waterfall which I’ll talk about later).  Arriving here at night/dusk is ideal so you can see all of the illuminations:

I was amazed at how much this town resembled scenes from Spirited Away!  They had Miyazaki souvenir shops everywhere to pay homage which was cute.  It’s truly inspiring how much this place has transformed.  Since I came here on the 2nd day of January, it was extremely crowded and difficult to move up the hills due to the sheer amount of people, but fortunately I was able to see the majority of the town within 2 hours.  If I ever come back to Taiwan, I definitely want to come to Jiufen again.  It’s actually quite small, but each time you climb the hill you start to notice new things so I think it takes multiple trips to see it all.

Now when I watch this movie trailer, I can’t un-see all of the sights I saw in Taiwan:

I definitely had my Chihiro moments as I wandered aimlessly around the illuminated streets, looking for a way out but also captured by the charm of this beautiful new world.  Last year I went to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Japan, which also inspired Spirited Away.  One reason I love traveling in Asia is because it brings back so many memories of things I watched in my childhood.  I never want to leave!  One of my unwritten wishes is to continue immersing myself in culture so I can continue to learn more about the world and about myself.

TO BE CONTINUED…