Best known for its therapeutic hot springs, Taipei’s Beitou district offers plenty more besides, from relics of the Japanese occupation to bucolic hiking trails that wend their way to wild geothermal pools.
Photographs by Naomi Goddard.
Nestled in the foothills of Yangmingshan, the northernmost of Taiwan’s nine national parks, Beitou offers a languid antidote to downtown Taipei, a 20-minute metro ride away. The heart of the district is the hot spring resort area around Beitou Park, a narrow belt of greenery that stretches uphill on either side of a bubbling creek. On weekends, tourists flock here to soak away their troubles and take in the sites, which range from Japanese colonial relics to the timber-clad Beitou Public Library, one of the country’s most eco-friendly buildings. Or you could, as I regularly do, eschew the crowds and delve into the delightful web of pathways farther up the valley. I’ve lived in Beitou for 13 years and still unearth surprises when familiar lanes, staircases, and trails diverge from and reconnect with one another in perplexing ways.
Here, amid tranquil subtropical greenery filled with the electric buzz of cicadas and the chirps of bamboo partridges as they skim through the undergrowth, the sulfurous steam from geothermal craters fills the air. Imputing the mists to an infernal sorceress, the indigenous Ketagalan tribe that once roamed the region called it Kipatauw, meaning “witch.” Over time, the name morphed via Taiwanese (a variant of Hokkien Chinese) into its current Mandarin transliteration, which is also spelled Peitou but pronounced bay-toe.
Outsiders were quick to seize on Beitou’s geological advantages. In the 1630s, Spanish missionaries established a sulfur trade with the Ketagalan. A Chinese scholar and adventurer named Yu Yonghe was commissioned to do likewise in 1696. Two centuries later, Canadian pastor George Leslie Mackay recognized the benefits of proselytizing in such surrounds. “Sulphur springs hiss and roar in the vicinity, and a warm medicinal stream runs within five minutes’ walk from our chapel,” Mackay wrote in his 1895 memoir Far from Formosa. “I had in view the establishing of a church there … for we knew something of the value of the springs. Scabies can be completely cured by bathing in these waters.” Built in 1912, the Presbyterian church that superseded Mackay’s wooden chapel still stands close to the Beitou Market.
It wasn’t until the Japanese colonial era (1895–1945) that the springs at Hokuto, as Beitou was then known, were developed, laying the groundwork for one of Taiwan’s most prominent resort areas. Now home to the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, the first major public bathhouse opened in 1913. The word “public” was relative: Taiwanese were excluded, as were Japanese women. The building’s completion came at the tail end of the Meiji era, when Japanese interpretations of Victorian design spawned curious architectural hybrids. With its red-brick and weatherboard facade, tiled roof, and stained-glass windows, this glorious mash-up is among Taiwan’s finest surviving structures from the period, and the lawn in front remains a favorite backdrop for wedding photos. Its ground floor contains the original baths as well as a gargantuan chunk of hokutolite, a rare and purportedly therapeutic radium-laced mineral first discovered here in 1907.
These days, soaking options are available to all in various settings, temperatures, mineral types, and budgets, with access to the baths at the 20-plus hotels on the mountainside costing from a couple of hundred to several thousand Taiwan dollars per session. Just up the road from the museum, Millennium Hot Spring is Beitou’s only outdoor public bath. Charging a mere NT$40 (US$1.28) for entry, the municipal facility is immensely popular even on weekdays, when visitors jockey for position in one of the cascading, rock-lined hot pools. These are filled not with the milky “white sulfur” water from deeper inside Yangmingshan that feeds most Beitou resorts, but with more acidic “green sulfur” water piped in from a nearby volcanic basin known to locals as “Hell Valley.”
The atmosphere can be raucous. On my frequent visits there, I see women walloping their thighs with rubber paddles (this supposedly aids blood circulation and weight loss) and men clad in Speedos banging their backs against the timber posts of the pavilion over the uppermost pool—a kind of blunt-trauma massage. One gentleman with an ostentatiously permed hairpiece serenades bathers with old show tunes; elsewhere, watchful attendants enforce a semblance of etiquette with angry toots of their whistles.
Most of Millennium’s regulars are retirees, but the clientele ranges from tattooed toughs to sporty young professionals and plump kids. It’s a multigenerational cross-section of Taiwanese society. “If you visit Beitou, you have to come here,” says Sonny Wu, a local restaurateur who can be found at the bathhouse any given afternoon after lunch hours. “This is the real Taiwan.”
Few of Taipei’s districts evoke colonial Taiwan like Beitou. A 10-minute walk from the hot spring museum lies another relic from the Japanese era: Puji Temple, a beautifully preserved hilltop sanctuary attached to the Shingon sect of Buddhism. One intriguing element is the Ksitigarbha statue enshrined in a pavilion outside. Popular in Japan, where he is known as Jizo, this deity is rarely seen in Taiwan. His presence here serves a specific purpose: to protect the women who worked in Beitou’s bygone red-light district.
The carnal pleasures for which Beitou was once renowned were documented in Andrew Harris’s Taipei After Dark, a salacious 1969 exposé of the sex industry that boomed when American GIs were stationed in Taiwan after World War II. According to Harris, “Taipei would not have half its current reputation … if it were not for Peitou.” It was in Beitou, he adds, that he “was first introduced to the joys resulting in the decision of the Japanese to train Taiwanese girls in Japanese ways.” Yet, unlike the seedy brothels of downtown Taipei, Beitou “was not really a short-time place, but rather a place for more extended, and more civilized pleasures.”
Ken Huang, whose family has run the Beauty Age and Kyoto Spring hotels (both a short stroll from Puji Temple) for three generations, explains, “Beitou was famous for its combination of services: wining and dining, music, and, well, the more intimate type. The girls poured wine, set tables and toasted guests, relaxing them. Then, a band played, they danced, and, when the mood was right, adjourned to another room.”
Dining and drinking establishments called jiujia (literally, “liquor house”) flourished in Beitou during and after the Japanese occupation. “Compared to liquor houses in … other parts of the capital, those in Beitou were more expensive and their customers wealthier,” authors Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung write in A Culinary History of Taipei. “The businessmen who frequented them demanded delicate dishes, so the neighborhood became a place where old Taiwanese haute cuisine recipes were preserved.” Jiujia favorites included squid and whelks in garlic soup, which “because of its heavy taste and the speed with which it could be put together … was considered an ideal menu item for customers who had had a bit too much to drink.”
A novel genre of music emerged as well. Blending instruments popular among Japanese club bands of the time (acoustic guitars, accordions) with Taiwanese folksong traditions, nakasi defined the Beitou scene. “Nakasi derives from the Japanese word nagashi, or ‘flow,’ ” says Huang. “This referred to the music’s origins with itinerant performers. Originally they went door to door, but when Beitou developed, they started playing at hotels. Many hotels soon had a house band and the whole service came at a fixed rate.” Eventually, electronic instruments were introduced as nakasi morphed into a sing-along that can be seen as a precursor to karaoke. A-lan, a 67-year-old former nakasi musician whom I track down, recalls with a laugh, “Politicians liked it because they could sing and have people tell them how good they were.”
Beitou’s heyday as an entertainment hub ended in the 1980s with the criminalization of prostitution. Likewise, nakasi is now heard only at prestige banquets, festivals, and the occasional roadside performance; the small amphitheater behind the Beitou Hot Spring Museum is a likely venue. Current incarnations usually comprise duos with electronic synthesizers replicating the old sounds and pop vocals in Taiwanese. Despite its dwindling popularity, nakasi’s “flow” remains synonymous with Beitou’s meandering creeks and trails. “This music played a big role in the history of our district,” Huang confirms.
Farther uphill, R&R of a different sort was once enjoyed by elite kamikaze pilots who reputedly spent their final hours wining and dining at a pair of elegant wooden hotels that now house the Beitou Museum and Marshal Zen Garden. The former exhibits folk art and, rather incongruously, indigenous artifacts alongside a tatami-floored restaurant that serves excellent vegetarian kaiseki meals, while the latter is memorialized as the onetime residence of Zhang Xueliang, a Manchurian warlord who had a hand in shaping modern Chinese history. Nicknamed the Young Marshal, Zhang famously kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in 1936 in order to force the Nationalist leader to cooperate with Mao Zedong’s Communists against the impending Japanese invasion. The gambit worked, but Zhang was taken into custody shortly afterward and later shipped to Taiwan when Chiang’s forces fled the mainland in 1949. Here he remained under house arrest until the 1980s. Given the splendid views from his former digs in Beitou—now a gourmet restaurant and hot-spring spa—I can’t help but feel that things could have been a lot worse.
Banking on the recuperative qualities of Beitou’s thermal waters, the Japanese also built a military sanatorium here at the close of the 19th century, just in time to treat soldiers wounded in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Now known simply as the Japanese Army Hospital, the historic relic is today part of Tri-Service General Hospital on Xinmin Road, a psychiatric institution whose in-patients help to guide tours as part of their rehabilitation. (The NT$50 fee funds training programs, so you can discover an obscure architectural treasure while helping the community.) Even if you don’t get to see inside, it’s a lovely spot, nestled in the shade of gnarled banyans. There’s also a small footbath under a pavilion out front, perfect for soaking tired feet.
Another curiosity is set on a terraced hilltop at the end of Yinguang Lane. The Shanguang Temple complex is, like the Puji, attached to Shingon Buddhism, with a distinctive beige stupa that contains the ashes of former resident monks. Some claim relics from the Buddha himself are enshrined within. The caretakers I’ve met deny this, but they tell an equally fanciful tale: some of the ashes contain sarira, crystal-like stones purportedly found in the remains of only the most pious individuals.
One thing is certain—during World War II, when an air-raid shelter existed at the site, Japanese families were evacuated here from neighboring Danshui. Among them was Hirokawa Norio, who, on a blog chronicling his childhood in Taiwan, recalls running for cover as American fighter planes strafed the area. Things are a lot more peaceful these days. The view from the pristine lawn is one of Beitou’s finest, and you’ll probably have it all to yourself.
For the more adventurous, Beitou is also a natural springboard for exploring Yangmingshan National Park, a 114-square-kilometer swath of forested peaks, volcanic craters, and wild hot springs. Among the latter is Houshan, a spring I’d heard about for years but only recently managed to track down. It lies beyond Zhuzihu—a village famous for its springtime Calla Lily Festival—and the spooky, smoking fumaroles of Xiaoyoukeng along a road frequented by troops of Formosan rock macaques, Taiwan’s only endemic primate. Not far from the shelter at the Taibao bus stop, a narrow trail cuts into thick forest and then descends into a tiny, secluded valley. There, two chalky, near-scalding pools sit alongside a cool stream. At the head of the valley, a larger and much deeper cold-water pond allows you to literally let off some steam with a plunge. Trickling down a rock face at the back, a small waterfall completes the idyllic scene.
Beitou’s pipe-fed baths are one thing. But lying in a steaming pool at Houshan, where the water emanates straight from the earth amid an amphitheater of ferns and moss, is nothing short of exhilarating, and a balm for those who seek it out.
Take the Taipei MRT Red Line to Beitou Station, then change to the train bound for Xinbeitou (“New Beitou”) Station, which is just across the street from Beitou Park.
Where to Stay
Exquisite and exclusive, Beitou’s Villa 32 (886-2/6611-3000; doubles from US$600) has just two Japanese-style suites and three well-appointed Western rooms, all equipped with private baths. The property also boasts private hot spring rooms and an adjacent open-air bath, as well as spa facilities and a gourmet Italian restaurant. In-room hot-and-cold stone tubs and outdoor thermal pools are likewise among the draws at Grand View Resort Beitou (886-2/2898-8888; doubles from US$380), an elegant 80-room hotel that’s just down the road from the Beitou Museum.
What to See and Do
No. 2, Zhongshan Rd.; 886-2/2893-9981.
No. 32, Youya Rd.; 886-2/2891-2318.
No. 34, Youya Rd.; 886-2/2893-5336.
Millennium Hot Spring
No. 6, Zhongshan Rd.
No. 112, Wenquan Rd.
No. 20, Yinguang Ln.
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Letting Off Steam”).