Head south-east out of central Taipei for a short 20 minute drive, and you’ll be in the foothills of Wenshan district, which offers much more than gondolas and tea. With historical towns, trails that seem to never end, night markets, and well-hidden spaces, Wenshan is a quirky respite from Taipei city life that offers plenty without sacrificing convenience. In fact, my love for Taiwan started here almost 6 years ago when I first arrived, and it’s all thanks to a number of hidden gems I’ve found while moseying about understated Wenshan.
From Tao to Tea
Many people have heard of this giant temple, Zhinan (or Chih Nan指南宮) but the reason why I find this place special is as much for its legend as it is for sunset views over the mountains.
Zhinan’s patron deity, Lu Dongbin (呂洞賓), one of the Eight Immortals, was known for his sexual prowess. His semen is said to be so pure of yang energy (陽氣), that Lady Bai Mudan (白牡丹), upon contact whilst laying with Lu, turned into an immortal herself! Honestly, Taoist legends are as entertaining as they are instructive, and the lesson I take from this is that immortality is attainable without bane of earthly delights. Which I find rather comforting.
But if that doesn’t entice then perhaps the temple grounds will.
Situated on the slopes of Houshan (猴山 Monkey Mountain), it used to be quite difficult to get to until its own dedicated gondola station came to being. I first set foot on Zhinan in the quiet of a rainy night when all but a few devout visitors have left. It’s intoxicating, how mystical it gets, when you’re walking alone amongst glowing red lanterns and to the low hum of prayers.
Come here for warm sunsets over green hills, then walk through the temple grounds and its famous Stairway of 1000 Steps. You may happen to arrive at a village where a particular modest shop belonging to a well-respected tea master unassumingly stands.
Though there is a plethora of tea shops in Maokong, this is one of my favourites. Master Zhang Kun Lin (張崑林) has won numerous awards for the well-loved tieguanyin tea (鐵觀音茶), which he roasts himself. Take your time savouring and learning about the teas of the region, and the hard labour that goes into making it before it fills your cup. You could choose the amount you wish to buy, and have them vacuum-sealed to bring overseas too. Apart from the throat-soothing tieguanyin, his assam is also a pleasant surprise.
Zhinan / Chih Nan Temple (指南宮)
No. 115, Wanshou Road, Wenshan District
Master Zhang’s Teahouse (張崑林,指南茶莊)
No.68, Wanshou Road, Wenshan District
Inspiration Handmade at A.C.I.D Lab
A.C.I.D stands for Artist, Craftsman, Innovator, Designer. Hidden in a small alleyway from the usual surrounds of Muzha, ACID Lab (岸汐職人聚落) is a co-working workshop and storefront which exists to help passionate creators break through the challenges of independent production; all the while making what they do more accessible to the local community.
The space though small, easily inspires, and invites you to develop your own skills and knowledge in the fields of fashion, design and handicrafts. Here, you can liaise with artists at work, buy a number of bespoke pieces such as leather goods, jewellery, and shoes, then chill in the little courtyard with a couple of drinks.
ACID Lab (岸汐職人聚落)
No. 8, Lane 103, Section 3, Mushan Road, Wenshan District
Pho, Ca Phe, and More
When I am sorely missing my mother’s cooking, I head to the next best thing – Jingmei Night Market (景美夜市). The market probably boasts the highest number of Vietnamese eateries anywhere in Taipei, and in my opinion, offers more authentic choices.
For pho (Vietnamese beef noodles), goi cuon (cold rolls), banh beo (steamed rice flour cakes with shrimp) or hu tieu nam vang (Phnom Penh noodles), head here:
Quan An Viet Nam – Jingmei Night Market Vietnamese Eatery (景美夜市 越南美食)
No. 176, Jinghou Street, Wenshan District
The next one has no name. A true hole-in-the-wall, set in one of those rundown alleys not far from Jingmei Night Market. However, the lady-owner makes one of the strongest ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with milk) I’ve ever had, and if you’re after something other than beef noodle soup, I highly recommend the bun rieu, which is vermicelli in a tomato-based broth, usually served with seafood, frothed egg, and other goodies as in this place’s case, pig’s blood. Yum! Ngon lam!
G’day Taiwan’s recommended No-name Vietnamese Eatery (我介紹沒有牌子的越南小館）
No. 19, Jingmei Street, Wenshan District (approximation only!)
Another Coffee, Please.
The closure of one of Taipei’s best-loved cafes, Cafe Junkies, needn’t be a sad turn of events for its fans. The same founder has instead, opened Ruins Coffee Roasters on a certain section of Muzha Road. With rotating guest ‘celebrity’ baristas and local artists, the once abandoned warehouse now converted into a hip cafe and roaster boasts quite a cult following. What it delivers on coffee, it also delivers on atmosphere. With a light-filled loft, chilled courtyard, and interiors of handmade tables and mottled walls, Ruins has a wonderfully laid-back feel it. Spend your day blogging, or hang out with a couple of mates, and expect very good single-origin coffee.
Ruin Coffee Roasters
No. 242, Section 3, Muzha Rd, Wenshan District, Taipei City, Taiwan 116
Of Secret Spaces and Peaceful Places
There is an outdoor amphitheatre tucked away in the mountains not many people seem to know about – at least not to non-locals. Located in Laoquan Mountain (老泉山) of Wenshan, it is the the only one of its kind in Taiwan.
The revered space is definitely quiet for one with such a stellar reputation. Famed Liu Ruo Yu (劉若瑀), art director of the renowned U-Theatre (優人神鼓) wanted a minimalist space so that his performers could contemplate and move in peace. Liu decided upon the 1000-acre mountain-top location and he and his students put themselves to work. The wooden structures in its rehearsal areas were hand-laid by U-Theatre’s own performers. Here, dance meets zen as the artists immerse themselves in drum rehearsals, martial arts, as well as meditation. The 500-seated amphitheatre also allow admirers to watch debuts of the troupe’s annual masterpieces, and to take part in a zen and drumming experience. Honestly, it’s probably the best value-for-money retreat you’d get.
If you further crave a sense of zen, then not far away is a restaurant, that will leave you not too full, but well satiated. Adopting the kaiseki cuisine of Japan, Feng Lin Shi Can Tian Di (鳳臨食養天地), has no menu but provides quiet, pleasant views with its meals. After eating, take a peaceful stroll along Feng Lin’s gardens to get more in touch with your inner serenity.
U-Theatre’s Mountain Theatre (優人神鼓山上劇場)
The Theatre is situated along the Zhanghu Trail (樟湖步道). Click the above link for exact coordinates.
Feng Lin Shi Can Tian Di (鳳臨食養天地)
No. 27, Lane 26, Laoquan Street, Wenshan District
Snow in May
Head to mountainous Wenshan between April and May and bring your camera, because the well-loved tung oil trees will be blossoming their best. Petite and white, the blossoms look like snowfall on the hills – hence it’s aptly appointed nickname of snow. Wenshan, blessed with countless trails, is an ideal place to make the most of the season celebrated by the Hakka Tung Blossom Festival.
It can feel oddly romantic walking through flower-covered paths, and for those looking for a date with a difference, I’ve mentioned here in my romance-related post of hidden trails at the 24 hour Yao Yue Tea House (邀月茶園), which happen to intersect these beautiful trees. This blog post by Josh Ellis will also inspire you to start walking this season if you haven’t done so already. Other trails in Maokong worth mentioning are:
Zhanghu Camphor Lake Trails(樟湖步道) – also where U-Theatre’s Mountain Amphitheatre is located.
Zhangshu Camphor Tree Walking Trail (樟樹步道）- not to be confused with the aforementioned.
Four Dragons Waterfall (四龍瀑布) in Shenkeng to Houshanyue (猴山岳), or vice versa, as mapped out by Richard Saunders.
All trail heads are indicated on G’day Taiwan’s Mini Mosey Map below.
For more of my Mini Mosey Guides, head over to this page.