In search of Taipei’s cat village, excellent oolong and a night market by the sea
From Houtong’s cat-themed cafes and Jiufen’s Hayao Miyazaki-like village to Keelung’s delicious street food, there’s more to explore once you venture out of the city.
I knew I had arrived in the right place, when I discerned a strong whiff of cat pee. I had been searching for Houtong’s Cat Village in New Taipei. A former coal mining town, Houtong is now known for its multitude of feline residents who lounge around the quiet little village, where cat-themed cafes and stores have set up shop among the older, slightly run-down buildings that house its human residents.
Although situated only about an hour outside Taipei, Houtong seemed like a different world – one I was genuinely excited to explore. I have been to Taipei more times than I can count in the last few years, both for work and leisure, and have only ventured out of the city, to nearby Yilan, once before.
This time, since I had one glorious day free before work began, I decided to peel myself away from my usual haunts in Taipei, like Raohe Night Market and the Eslite 24-hour bookstore, for a spontaneous day trip outside of the city.
‘HUNDREDS OF CATS’
Houtong, which came highly recommended by a Taiwanese colleague, became my first target. Since Houtong’s description on Google Maps read “Small village with hundreds of cats”, I had imagined that I would be surrounded by cats jostling for attention. But when I visited, on that sweltering summer morning, I counted only about 30 cats. Not quite the dramatic, cat-cafe-on-steroids scene I had been hoping for.
Still, it was great fun strolling around the little village, spotting the cats lying everywhere outside shops and houses, on window sills, and on the rooftops. Most alternated between napping and looking mildly irritated at the humans who had come from all over the world to take wefies with them, though the more friendly cats among them came up to rub their little furry bodies around my ankles.
I was surprised to see how incredibly well cared for, and certainly how well fed they were. In fact, they were offered such an impressive variety of treats, they ignored the dry liver cat nibbles I had brought specially from Singapore. (Yes, I took the rejection quite personally.)
It was around noon when I began to sense a surge in the number of cat admirers. And when the humans started to outnumber the kitties about three to one, I decided it was time to get some treats myself.
SPIRITED AWAY TO JIUFEN
Thankfully, getting around was easy, and astonishingly inexpensive. The train that had taken me from Taipei Main Station to Houtong cost only about 56NTD (S$2.40), although an Uber driver had told me it’d cost about 800-900NTD (S$35 to S$40) to hire a car, which would still be a sensible and affordable option for families.
After bidding farewell to the last, satisfyingly affectionate cat, whom I befriended using another tourist’s treats, I took the train back to the town of Ruifang where, after some nimble Googling, I discovered that Jiufen was only about 10 minutes away by local taxi.
Most tourists to Taiwan will recognise Jiufen’s signature red lanterns and old-fashioned, multi-storeyed tea houses from postcards and travel sites, or for its uncanny resemblance to the village featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and I was delighted to be visiting the mountain town for the very first time.
Immediately after I arrived, I found myself lost in its dizzying alleyways, filled with tea shops, souvenir shops and stalls selling popular Taiwanese street food items, like peanut ice cream rolls, taro balls and my favourite – freshly grilled Kurobuta sausages. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the heat and hordes of tourists, I ducked into a tea house that I found tucked inconspicuously away on a quieter street, steps away from the more famous, but also more crowded, A Mei Tea House.
It turned out to be an excellent decision, and serendipity at its best. Jioufen Teahouse, where I found myself, was housed in a 100-year-old red brick building that retained all of its historic and romantic charm. I was led to my own private booth, where I found utter quiet bliss. I ended up staying for hours, reading my book, sipping on cups of Jin Xuan – a lightly sweet, buttery variety of Oolong that is native to Taiwan – looking up occasionally only to brew my tea, or refill my own cup.
On my way to the bathroom – a trip made necessary after my fourth pot of tea – I discovered a ceramic art workshop in the basement of the tea house, as well as a display area filled with exquisitely crafted tea paraphernalia. There were some pretty pots I would have loved to take home, but much of what was being sold was far above what I could afford.
Still, I was thrilled to learn that the owner of the tea house was a painter and a ceramic artist who’d made all the teapots and cups used by guests himself, especially when I had so thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
FOOD TRIPPING IN KEELUNG
Rather than head straight back to Taipei, I decided to make one last stop at the port city of Keelung, via a 45-minute bus ride that cost me 15NTD (S$0.65). Keelung is known for sightseeing spots like Lover’s Lake and the Buddha Hand Cave, but I really had eyes only for its Miaokou Night Market, located right next to the Keelung Habour and, happily, the bus and train station.
By the time I arrived, at about 7pm, the night market festivities were already in full swing. It was absolute, organised chaos. There were so many people and so many things to see, I didn’t know where to begin. I even spotted a man pulling a small cart with his two children and toy poodles around the market, presumably because they would have gotten lost otherwise. I followed the sea of hungry visitors as it ebbed and flowed through the night market, trying to decide what I should eat, given my rather limited capacity for food.
There was the usual Taiwanese night market fare that can also be found in Taipei, like lu rou fan (braised pork rice), fried chicken, meatballs, shaved ice and oyster omelettes. But there were also numerous seafood stalls, selling everything from grilled squid to butter crabs. After much indecision, I settled for some grilled king oyster mushrooms, two servings of delicious fried sweet potato balls, and a delectable crab and mushroom soup, all of which added up to about 160 NTD (S$7).
It had been the perfect end to a perfect day out, filled with more tea and goodies than I should have stuffed in my body, and a renewed appreciation for Taiwan and all it has to offer. With my belly full of treats and a wallet still fuller than expected, I hopped on an express bus back to Taipei, where, taking a leaf out of my new feline friends’ book, I curled up in bed until the work week began again.