Like several other places located on the Asia-Pacific “Ring of Fire,” Taiwan’s landscape was shaped by tectonic forces and volcanic activity.
Yangmingshan National Park, which overlooks Taipei, includes volcanoes that last erupted 20,000 years ago, and fumaroles that continue to belch steam. Across the Danshui River stands Mount Guanyin, a 616-meter-high extinct volcano named after the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. And all but one of the islands making up the Penghu archipelago emerged from the ocean during a series of seabed eruptions between eight and 17 million years ago.
Just below the surface, the main island of Taiwan still seethes with geothermal warmth. Scalding mineral-enriched springs bubble to the surface at approximately 120 locations in the north, east, center, and far south. The precise number of such springs varies from year to year, as landslides triggered by typhoons have been known to bury or choke off existing springs or unearth new ones.
Luxurious hotels have been built at some of these locations, allowing hot-spring devotees to stay overnight and soak in the comfort of private suites. Other springs, by contrast, remain just as Mother Nature intended, and can only be accessed by 4WD vehicles or hikers.
Taiwan’s original inhabitants – the aborigines whose Austronesian cultures enliven the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung, as well as destinations closer to Taipei such as Wulai – certainly knew about and enjoyed these natural spas. Yet modern Taiwan’s love affair with hot springs is in part a result of the 50 years (1895-1945) of Japanese colonial rule.
In early 1896, less than a year after the Japanese takeover, a businessman from Osaka opened Taiwan’s very first hot-springs hotel in what is now Taipei’s Beitou District. By the 1930s, Beitou had established itself as one of the colony’s four main hot-springs resorts, along with nearby Yangmingshan, Guanziling (in what is now Tainan City), and Sichongsi, which is near Kenting National Park in Taiwan’s far south.
From the international tourist’s perspective, Taiwan’s hot springs hold certain advantages over their Japanese counterparts. Whereas nudity and segregation by gender are the norm at many of Japan’s onsen, swimsuits are worn at the majority of public hot-spring pools in Taiwan. Families can splash and soak together in these places, many of which are open-air and set against a backdrop of mountains and forest.
As in Japan, each hot-spring guest is expected to wash his or her body thoroughly before getting in the water. In many springs, the temperature exceeds 45 degrees Celsius, so before getting fully immersed, you should gradually acclimate your body to the temperature by pouring small amounts of water over yourself, then slowly lowering yourself in, one limb at a time.
Many first-timers are surprised when told that after indulging in a hot spring, they should not shower before dressing, but rather let their skin benefit from the trace quantities of sulfur, sodium carbonate, and other minerals the water contains.
One reason why Taiwan’s hard-working population adores hot springs is that so little energy is required to make the most of them. Apart from taking the occasional sip of water from a bottle, or adjusting his or her towel, the typical bather hardly moves. Nevertheless, bathers usually emerge from the waters with a healthy appetite. The relationship between hot springs and good food has been compared to that between movies and popcorn, but it goes much deeper. Because the tradition of soaking and then partaking of a fine repast dates back to the Japanese occupation, the food usually served at hot springs is Japanese delicacies such as soba noodles and tonkatsu.
To raise the international profile of Taiwan’s geothermal attractions, in recent years the government’s Tourism Bureau has been organizing an annual Taiwan Hot Spring Fine-Cuisine Carnival. The 2015 edition kicked off October 2 and will run through January 31 next year.
Hot springs throughout Taiwan are celebrating the carnival by offering special packages that include access to bathing facilities, a top-notch dinner, and one night’s accommodation with breakfast. Details of participating businesses can be obtained from the carnival’s Chinese-English-Japanese-Korean website, www.taiwanhotspring.net. Alternatively, pick up a free pamphlet from any visitor information center. (These centers can be found in airports, railway stations, and close to major attractions.)
Featured again this year is one of central Taiwan’s best-known hot springs, Guguan in Greater Taichung. Since around 1907, this little town has depended almost entirely on tourists drawn by its weakly alkaline and potable carbonate spring. Turbid and somewhat foamy, the water is slightly salty, and is around 60 degrees Celsius when it emerges from the ground.
For those who love nature, Guguan is superbly located – just a few kilometers from the Baxianshan National Forest Recreation Area, where visitors can hike and take in views of Mount Jade (Yushan), the highest peak in Northeast Asia.
In addition to offering excellent mountain scenery, Qingquan in Hsinchu County has intriguing historical and cultural attractions. Between sessions in the village’s clear, odorless 48-degree Celsius spring, visitors can learn about the customs of the local Atayal aboriginal people, or tour the restored villa where Chang Hsueh-liang (Zhang Xueliang) and his wife lived under detention for more than a decade. Chang, known as the “Young Marshal,” played a pivotal role in Chinese history in the late 1930s, briefly kidnapping Chiang Kai-shek in what was known as the Xian Incident.
Much closer to Taipei is Jinshan on the north coast. By the early 1990s, many of Jinshan’s facilities were out of date, and tourists were few and far between. However, a determined effort to restore the town’s fortunes is showing fruit. A good example is the Governor-General’s Hot Spring (www.warmspring.com.tw; Tel: +886-2-2408-2628; open 9 a.m.-midnight every day).
Built in 1939 by the Japanese colonial authorities as a place to entertain visiting dignitaries, the building sits on a strategic location overlooking the coast, causing it to be used as an army post for much of the postwar period. After a complete renovation, it once again serves its original purpose. Hot-spring aficionados can enjoy a range of facilities, including private rooms, outdoor pools where swimsuits are required, and gender-segregated ocean-view pools on the fourth floor where swimsuits are not worn.
If you wish to stay overnight in Jinshan, www.taiwanhotspring.net suggests Sakura Bay Spring Resort (www.sakurabay-hotel.com.tw; Tel: +886-2-2498-0007), which has its own restaurant. The resort’s open-air pools and swanky spa facilities can be used by non-guests.
For additional information about visiting Taiwan, please contact the tourism hotline at 0800- 011-765, or go to the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw).