A Trio of Offbeat Hotels

Couple blending old tradition and new media in the spa at the Radium Kagaya. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

If three solid months traveling around the island researching a new memoir/ travel book while introducing Taiwan to my partner Stephanie has taught me anything, it’s this: Taiwan marches to its own beat.

From a massive spherical shopping mall to a humble countryside church that happens to resemble a gigantic glass slipper, the Taiwanese have a penchant for creating venues that are unique and often downright quirky. The trait is particularly noticeable in the hospitality industry, and for a small nation Taiwan boasts an outsized number of hotels whose weirdness is either immediately evident or lies just beneath the surface.

True, the majority of these are places where for a reasonable nightly price (or an even more reasonable “take a rest” rate) one can spend time romping on a roundish bed in a room resembling the one in which Batman meets Catgirl every Thursday afternoon after dropping Robin off at his violin lesson, or performing intimate Cosplay scenes with partner(s) of choice in a HelloKitty-themed love-nest. But such motels are already well-documented, the stuff of internet legend and literary low-hanging fruit for a publication of this caliber. So in this article, we’ll focus only on places that are strictly high class – or at least high concept.

We begin in Taipei with an unexpected game of dress-up:

Samurai Night Fever at The Radium Kagaya
(Radium Kagaya Taipei, Tel:2891-1111, 236 Guangming Rd., Beitou District, Taipei).

Suiting up for our tour. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

“Welcome to the Radium Kagaya. Would you care to remove your clothing?” This was the first sign that we were in for an unusual experience, so Stephanie and I followed our Kimono-clad hostess into a large, brightly lit room where we dutifully exchanged our street clothing for garb that could have come off the set of a Kurosawa flick. The Beitou hotel’s Nipponese bona fides was apparent from the lobby’s Japanese-themed lobby, in which porcelain artifacts with delicate gold leaf were on display.

It’s here that I should interject that suiting up in the manner of Japan of Ye Olden Days is a bit more complicated than slipping on a hastily purchased 7-11 rain jacket; there’s an art and order to each step. As Stephanie is a costume designer whose resume includes working on the only English-language Kabuki show ever held in the greater Portland area, I’ll let her describe the process:

“After we undressed down to a base layer, our female attendant assisted us in arranging the multiple folds of the kimonos in the correct order. Once this was done, our new look was completed with a perfectly tied obi around each of our waists, followed by a hantan robe. Finally, we were given split-toe tabi socks to wear between our bare feet and the geta (wooden sandals).”

Suitably clad in our semi-samurai garb, we clacked on wooden shoes alongside hostess Kiwako, whose hand gestures and walking stride were perfectly orchestrated, hinting at both long hours of training and a serious commitment to her art. As we walked through the public areas of the hotel, Kiwako told us a bit of the hotel’s history. Though the Kagaya’s current incarnation goes back only as far as 2010, its Japanese hot spring roots run deep, having been built on the site of the Tiangoan, a favorite of Japanese officials during the colonial period.

The most beautiful (and exquisitely Japanese) of the Kagaya’s public areas is its interior garden, complete with Bonsai trees, bamboo, and a Zen rock garden (of course there’s a Zen rock garden). Inside the garden, we posed for photographs alongside other suitably dressed guests, kneeling stoically on tatamis or sitting beneath paper umbrellas. The Asian men did their best to channel Toshiro Mifune, while I did my best not to channel John Belushi.

The dress-up aspect is but one of the selling points of the hotel, which has amazing Japanese-themed rooms and suites (all with private hot springs and some with private butlers), spa packages, aromatherapy, and of course very posh public hot springs. There’s a fabulous Japanese restaurant, and a lounge offering a wide variety of libations, including (naturally) saké.

Our second excursion brings us to a hotel in Taichung with a rather noteworthy swimming pool:

In too Deep at the Dive Cube
(The Dive Cube, 69 Anhe W. Rd., Xitun Dist., Taichung. Tel: 04-2355-2208).

“It’s difficult for people in this city to get out to the ocean, so I decided to bring the ocean to them.”

Had I not been in Taiwan long enough to know proposals of nigh-impossible proportion are often followed by and let me tell you how I did it, I’d have nodded politely and jotted “subject appears to have delusions of grandeur” in my notebook.

But there was no reason for Jim Wang, the CEO of Taichung’s newly opened Dive Cube Hotel, to provide a follow-up explanation. As we sat drinking coffee in the lobby of his hotel, we could watch through a floor to ceiling window something rarely …nay, never…seen in hotel lobbies: Guests swimming in full scuba gear.

Technically speaking, the guests weren’t in the lobby so much as level with it, having swum down to the first floor from the swimming pool on the third. They waved at us, then moved on, presumably to explore sections of the hotel accessible only to guests with swim-fins, masks, and air tanks.

Sleek and urbane, the Dive Cube is located on the western edge of Taichung City’s Xitun neighborhood, and if unique is the benchmark for this selection of tales, then the Dive Cube fits the bill by virtue of being a singularity: It’s the only hotel on the planet built around a 70-foot-deep scuba diving pool.

A life-long scuba enthusiast, Wang is a man with a mission, specifically to have Taiwan considered a scuba-diving destination on par with better-known Asian diving destinations. Trips to Europe, which boasts a number of very deep urban dive pools, convinced him that Taiwan deserved no less. Though his original idea was to replicate the urban dive pool concept in Taichung, Wang decided to take the idea one step further.

“Taiwan doesn’t have the same level of hospitality catering specifically to scuba divers as other places,” he explains. “You can go to Kenting or Green Island to dive, but there aren’t really hotels catering specifically to divers.”

And so the idea came to Jim to build the world’s first hotel with its own deep diving pool. It had never been done before – Why not do it in Taiwan?

However, noting that all that stood between our pleasant coffee shop chat and 660,430 gallons of water extending three vertical stories in both directions was an eight-inch pane of glass, I hinted at what might be considered a sensible answer to “why not Taiwan?” with a question of my own. “What about earthquakes?”

Wang had heard it before. “We considered this before even beginning the project, and for this reason chose this site specifically after conducting a geological survey in 2004. This area is particularly safe, with bedrock all the way down.”

Wanting to experience the Dive Cube in its full underwater glory, we headed upstairs to the third floor to meet Harry, a PADI-certified dive instructor with decades of experience leading scuba expeditions (only the last couple of months of which had been done inside a hotel). Stephanie and I were both given 30 minutes of safety training that would allow us to do a guided trip, in our case a quick dive down to the coffee shop (but not into the deeper pool below), with a bit of interior exploration on the side. Dive pools, unlike oceans, are completely controlled environments, and offer a great place to dive for those fearing seasickness, open ocean, or sharks.

Stephanie dives to the coffee shop

Claustrophobia, however, is another issue, and while I was fine diving down to the second level for a quick wave out the window at the Taichung skyline (which was a deeply surreal experience), my fear of drowning in enclosed spaces (which almost never comes up in the course of daily life) drove me to tap out rather than accompanying Harry and Stephanie into the faux-shipwreck area on the second floor.

As Stephanie described it: “We swam through a doorway into a wooden chamber filled with crates and luggage, jewel-filled barrels, and black and white photographs of people from a decidedly earlier era. We swam up a set of stairways into a narrow rectangular area with an air pocket where we were able to take our respirators out and chat before swimming back down the stairs and through a number of interior caves just past the coffee shop where we’d been sitting earlier.”

She, too, found the experience deeply surreal.

Rooms at the Dive Cube are submarine chic. Cozy, with nicely appointed bunk beds, each outfitted with its own cubbyhole closet, brand-new LCD screens, and small but serviceable bathrooms done up – naturally – with full nautical blue tile. The Dive Cube is not a hotel built solely with resting in mind.

Rooms at the DiveCube are submarine chic. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

Our final excursion brings us to Tainan, and a multi-faceted interactive inn:

The Many Faces of Jia Jia West
(Jia-Jia West Hotel ,11 Zhengxing Street West, Central District, Tainan. Tel: 06-2209866).

At first we thought we’d stumbled into a high-end bohemian fashion boutique, since the check-in desk was less prominent a feature than the elegantly positioned rack of Chinese slippers, shawls, dresses, and assorted fashion accouterments, all exquisitely made, and many created from recycled materials.

But we’d arrived at the right place, as evidenced by the warm greeting received from Kino Tsai, architect, interior designer, and creator-in-chief of the interactive experience of Tainan’s Jia Jia West Hotel, a hotel that raises the uniqueness bar not merely by being decidedly different from other Taiwanese hotels, but by being markedly different from itself room to room.

As we began our tour, Kino explained that her vision was to have each of her hotel’s 30 rooms offer visitors a distinct cultural and artistic experience. To do this, she invited separate artists, history buffs, interior designers, and film personalities to create each room individually.

Rooms on the second and third floor share an “old Tainan” theme, with each channeling a different aspect of the city’s history. Huai-shan Room is a traditional Taiwanese apothecary whose Qing-era furniture (including a set of antique medicine drawers) offer an interesting juxtaposition to the wall-mounted LCD screen. Guests staying in Huai-shan also enjoy in-room reflexology privileges.

Red is the dominant theme of the Zhinu Thread Room. On the floor sits a pre-war sewing machine wrapped in a red cord that snakes elegantly around the room, symbolizing the god of marriage Yue Lao, who counts among the items in his bag of amorous tricks a red thread used to connect lovers. The bed is comfortable, the shower area intimate, and a personalized map in the room guides visitors to Yue Lao’s temple in Tainan, should guests feel the need to consult the god during their stay.

Things get decidedly more esoteric on the upper floors. Fans of film director Tsai Ming-Liang can come close to experiencing what it’s like to be him in the two-story Soaking in Image Room. Tsai designed the space for personal comfort (specifically his own), with a writing desk built to his specifications, a DVD collection of his favorite movies connected to a flat screen monitor next to a beautiful bed, and a bathtub shaped to match the curve of the director’s body. Kino’s own design sketches of the room adorn a downstairs wall, adding to the overall meta vibe of the room.

The Soaking in Image room. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

The Architecture of Pavement Room was not designed specifically for comfort, but as a reflection on homelessness. The dominant image on the wall behind the bed is a wall-to-wall photo of a man sleeping on a park bench while passers-by pointedly ignore his presence. Guests sleep with a comforter which resembles pavement, and can relax on a park bench featuring and pillow-versions of sewer drains draped in silkscreen fabric featuring newsprint (specifically a 2014 issue of the Taipei Times). It’s a paradoxical experience, to be sure. “Some guests find it a powerful meditation on an important social issue,” says Kino. “Others have complained about having paid money to spend time in a room intentionally made to resemble one of life’s harsher realities.”

What better escape from life’s harsh realities then in cinema? Guests staying in the room called On Air, Please Smile can expect to do so literally between the hours of eight and ten p.m., when a camera records all action inside the room. This room was designed by actor Lee Kang Shen, who wanted people to experience what film stars feel like living under the camera’s scrutiny. Though the camera still runs during the appointed hours, the filming process is no longer being compiled by Lee, who turned the first two months’ worth of footage into an public exhibition that ran in the hotel’s common area.

The Architecture of Pavement room. Photo: Stephanie Huffman

This interactivity extends past the rooms, but as I was too lazy to participate in most of the classes offered, I’ll pass the keyboard to Stephanie.

“During our stay we took part in a couple of in-house courses including one in traditional Taiwanese cooking, creating a lovely vinegar cucumber salad, Ai Yu Jelly and Wa Guo, a savory rice pudding with braised pork, salted egg, and pickled mushrooms. Josh was less interested in the other offerings, a class in dressmaking and another in classical Chinese shoemaking. I came away with a lovely pair of Chinese slippers.”

The overall experience at the Jia Jia is that of being pampered guests at an urban sleep-away camp designed for the deeply sophisticated children of artists. If that’s not worth experiencing, I don’t know what is.