Jiufen, Taiwan, is steeped in a thick, rolling fog as my bus comes to a stop at the busy station. Tiny raindrops, hardly differentiated from the mist, hug my clothes; tapping against my pink plastic poncho. The lugubrious day mutes all colour; except for the hints of red that tie Jiufen together like a thread; weaving in and out of market stalls, artisan shops and the brightly lit paper lanterns lining the mountain village’s winding streets and pathways.
Alighting from the bus, I join the throng of tourists heading toward the village’s centre. I’m pulled along like a raindrop dripping down a window pane, joining other drops until it forms a steady line. The collective heat from the crowd keeps me warm.
I’ve desperately wanted to visit Jiufen from the moment I heard rumour that it partly inspired Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, one of my absolute favourite films. The famed Amei Teahouse, pictured here, is said to have leant to the design of the spirits’ bathhouse; the film’s setting. While Miyazaki has purportedly stated that the village did not inspire the film, the rumour of its influence has taken on a life of its own.
An assault of sounds and smells great my senses as I make it to Jiufen’s main street. Between the densely packed restaurants and food stalls, kitschy Spirited Away souvenirs lining every nook and cranny, and array of handcrafted goods, I’m completely charmed. However, pulsing beneath the tourist-centric surface lies a deeper pull. A whisper. The mountain’s ancient voice chanting its own sacred intonations.
For whether or not Spirited Away was influenced by Jiufen, I don’t doubt that spirits have made their home there. They flit through the mist, run along stone steps, and bask in the glow of red lanterns. And if you listen, and look with your heart instead of your eyes, you might just see them.
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