The tiny Taiwanese town of Jioufen – once a gold mining boomtown and now popular with tourists because of its quaint charm and great market – sits on a steep mountain overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The bustling Jishan Street (or Old Street) Market is one of the most amazing places I visited while in Taiwan. You wind down a narrow alleyway – each side filled with Asian food, teas, incense, trinkets and household items – as the vendors hawk their wares. If you are persistent and make your way all the way to the end of the alley, you can find a Jioufen gem – Jioufen Tea House. If you want an authentic tea service, this is the place to go.
Jioufen (also spelled Jiufen in English) was often called “Little Shanghai” and “Little Hong Kong” during its heyday because of all the shops and restaurants. It was during this time that the home was built that today houses Jioufen Tea House. It has a distinctive Japanese style (thanks to the occupation of the area by the Japanese) and was originally the Gold Mine Operation Headquarters. After the gold mines declined, the house became the Suei-Chi-Xian Clinic, which was a Chinese medicine clinic. In 1991, Taiwanese artist Hong Zhi-Sheng visited the area and fell in love with the house. He and his wife, a ceramicist, bought it and created the town's first tea house.
When you come upon the tea house, it looks nondescript from the outside, but once you walk in the door, you enter a quiet oasis in the midst of the market's chaos. I arrived with a group of journalists and had sensory overload from making my way through the market. It was during the week and we were assured by our guide it wasn't even a busy time. I can't imagine trying to navigate the narrow alleyway – dodging dozens of motorized scooters that wind through the crowds, shopkeepers yelling, the smells of a thousand different foods intermingled – with any more people there. It was a welcome relief to step back in time at Jioufen Tea House.
The house keeps many of its original features today, including Japanese-style wooden window frames and wooden doors crafted from Chinese cypress trees. On the main floor as you enter, the staff keeps about a half dozen steaming iron kettles, set on coals, for customers to enjoy a quick sample of the teas they might want to purchase. The walls are lined with ceramic jars containing tea and well-crafted tea sets for sale.
Rather than a quick taste before making a purchase, you can opt to order a pot of tea and snacks from the menu, which is served either downstairs or on the patio. We made our way downstairs and discovered an almost magical tea room. The room is filled with the owner's artwork, his wife's ceramics and large tables with coals in the middle for keeping teapots warm. There are tropical plants and water features set in the middle of the room and the rock walls made me feel as if I had stepped into another century.
After taking a peek at the menu, you might need some assistance picking out what you want. No worries. The staff at Jioufen Tea House will help you select your tea and show you the proper way to prepare it. You can sit as long as you like enjoying the quiet. If the weather is good, you might want to take your tea out on the patio that overlooks the Pacific. It was cold when I was there, so we were glad to sit at the table inside, warmed by the coals.
The owner's wife sat at the head of the table and carefully showed us the steps for preparing a perfect cup of tea. After she heated the water to a precise 85 degrees (some teas require hotter water, but the staff will direct you) and let the tea steep for the appropriate amount of time (it varies depending on the type of tea), she served us each with some of the best tea I've ever tasted. She also brought us plates of finger snacks to enjoy with our tea, including pumpkin seeds and charcoal peanuts, which I think are the best peanuts anywhere.
After an hour sitting there enjoying our tea, I made my way back upstairs and purchased a couple of teas to take home. Since returning home, I've never been able to make my tea taste as good as it did that cold, drizzly day in Taiwan when I sat in that historic building sipping tea, welcomed with open arms by the staff at the teahouse.
Jioufen Tea House
142 Jishan Street