Hot springs are getting to be a habit with me, a habit I’m happy to indulge. I’m not used to having luxurious baths in steaming, sulfurous water every weekend, but it so happens that with a bit of foresight and planning, I can enjoy something that I would have nearly no idea how to accomplish in the US. Bathhouses aren’t a thing in the US, for a bunch of reasons. Why go to a public bathhouse when you can have a private bath at home, after all? Well, people are missing out on the communal hot springs experience, I tell you.
— Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning) September 4, 2016
This weekend, I started off my trip by dipping in at the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, which is a good way to explain what’s going on here. Since the Japanese ruled over Taiwan, a century ago, they brought with them their own traditions of onsens, or hot spring baths, from Japan to Pautauuw. The native Taiwanese aboriginals near Taipei called this area Pautauuw, which means witch’s cauldron, because the area’s hot springs emit steam and a sulfurous smell. Over the years, the name was Sinicized to Beitou (which kind of means northern reach). In 1913, they built what’s now known as the Beitou Hot Springs Museum, but what was then merely one of the first formal onsens for government officials and important people of the like. The Victorian structure with brick and wide windows and terraces has been thoroughly restored, and inside, you can see the main bath, an open pool circled by pillars, which was for men only. A side wing features smaller pools for women. Inside the museum, you have to exchange your shoes for slippers that you wear throughout the museum, a nod toJapanese sensibilities. In one area, there is a large topographical model of how further north, waters from the actual thermal pool is piped down to spas, hotels, and hot spring locations. It was tempting to look at every single detail, but this weekend, I merely took some quick photos, and left gazing at artifacts and such for a longer visit.
— Connie Ma (@ironypoisoning) September 4, 2016
Last summer, I first made a trip with Kara to Millennium Hot Springs, which charges a lofty 40 NT ($1.30 USD) for entry. It’s just a little slice of publicly available heaven that I’ve made my way to three times in the last three weeks. There are three large cascading pools, and the steamy sulfurous water is piped in at the very top, with the result that subsequent pools are cooler and cooler (but not by much). They’re all around 40 something degrees Celsius, and all very warm. There are also two smaller pools filled with cold tap water that are heaven to sink into after a long immersion in the hot baths. There’s a lot of etiquette to observe: you need to wash yourself thoroughly before you get into the baths, and wear a swimsuit. Once inside, don’t immerse your head/hair in the water, and settle your entire body into the bath – the lifeguard (yes, there is one) will blow his whistle at you if you just put your legs into the water and sit on the ledge. Save the soap and scrubbing for your shower – this is just a place to soak up the heat and enjoying the reputed healing qualities of hot springs. In the daytime, it’s incredibly hot (at least in the summertime). There are a few dozen people lounging around, mostly grey-haired grandpas and grandmas, taking a few minutes in the hot pools, and then moving to the cold pools, and back and forth and so on. All around the pools are vivid green banana trees and jasmine bushes that send out a sweet scent at night. It is pretty awesome.
This weekend was the third time I’d been this summer, but it kicked off to much excitement. While I was preparing to enter one of the pools, I saw a commotion at the top tier of pools, where the water is the hottest (I don’t actually dare go in there). A man had fainted inside, and slipped into the pool. While most people watched interestedly, the lifeguard blew his whistle, and helped a few others heave the man out of the pool. The man in question was probably 70-something years old, as most people who go to these springs are grandmas and grandpas. One person grabbed the man’s legs and held them in the air to encourage blood flow to his brain, while another raced to fill up a basin with cold water so they could splash it on his face. I hesitated for a few minutes, not sure whether they needed help, but the lifeguard was not whistling for an ambulance or anything. When I drifted into the pool finally, the older men and women around me clucked their tongues while still gazing. I hazarded a question as to whether had fainted, and they nodded rather casually. The man beside me noted with relish that this happened “quite often”, when they stayed in for too long. Although he hastened to mention that I was young and lively, and had nothing to fear.
That was the beginning of a longer conversation. I hadn’t noticed this in the past, but generally, Taiwanese only need me to say two or three words in order to notice that I’m not around here. I had to explain where I was from and what I was doing here, and why Steve wasn’t with me. This man avidly explained that he had a nephew in Pennsylvania who was doing social work, and that we were actually half 老乡(being from the same place originally), because he was born in Beiping (北平), which means “northern peace”, and was the name given to Beijing between the Qing Dynasty and the KMT fleeing to Taiwan. Then he gravely offered his hand to me underwater, and we shook hands while I suppressed a grin.
Such encounters are not uncommon at the hot springs, because this is really a lovely social activity that gives a chance for old-timers such as himself to meet newcomers to Taiwan – there are also quite a few foreigners around sometimes, including Koreans and Japanese. Millennium Hot Springs has definitely become a sort of tourist destination, because it’s the cheapest public hot springs in the area. How can you turn it down at 40 NT, anyway? It’s fast becoming one of my true favorites in Taipei.
Side note: Beitou is slightly frustrating to navigate at the moment because of a high concentration of Pokemon Go Pokestops. It has caused a truly tremendous amount of people to cluster in Beitou over the weekends, and I have found it rough going to even walk 400 meters between the MRT station and Millennium Hot Springs. Everyone seems to have a phone in their hand (if not two!), and are just head down, absorbed in that black mirror. We need not worry about Armageddon and the advent of zombies – they are already here. In fact, enjoy this video from Beitou several weeks ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoYjVTbLWyo
We have had a lovely few months in Taiwan so far, and when we get a chance, we’ll try to write more comprehensive posts about other things we’re doing. Next up, we’re taking a trip to Okinawa this weekend for our first visa run (really!), and expect to have some great reports from Japan’s southernmost island.