Sunday, November 21, 2010
Jiaoxi Hot Springs 礁溪溫泉
Yilan is probably the best place in the world .... except when it rains. Which it does a lot. Unlike Taipei, almost everything worth doing in Yilan is outdoors.So when it rains, Yilan is pretty boring. Fortunately, there's one activity which is perfect for rainy or cold weather - the hot springs in Jiaoxi. Large numbers of people come here from Taipei each weekend during the winter to soak in the hot springs, and the town is dedicated to hot spring tourism.
The hotels in Jiaoxi have improved a lot in recent years. The town used to be pretty seedy and the hot spring hotels were associated with prostitution. Even now I hear that if a male visitor stays alone at a cheap hotel, the staff will hint about helping him hire a prostitute. But seedy hotels are on the decline, and some very nice hotels and hot springs have been built in recent years.
The hot spring water in Jiaoxi is superb. In Taipei some hot spring areas have been overbuilt and lack enough water, so the spring water can sometimes sit in the pool for quite awhile. Once I went to a hot spring on Xingyi Road in Taipei which had murky water which I thought was pretty unhygenic. Fortunately, this is never a problem in Jiaoxi. The hot spring here produces an enormous amount of water, so water in the pools is constantly flowing and very clean.
Most of the hot springs around Taipei are known for their sulfur, so some of them have a pretty strong smell. In contrast, the Jiaoxi spring is almost odorless, but is very high in calcium carbonate.
There are basically four ways of experiencing a hot spring in Taiwan: in your hotel room, spa, double room, or communal pool.
First, you can stay in a hotel which has hot spring water in the guest rooms. This way you can take a hot spring bath in the comfort and privacy of your own room. Almost all of the hotel rooms in Jiaoxi have hot spring water.
Second, you can go to a hotel which has a so-called "spa." In Taiwan this word has a different meaning from English. Here a spa refers to a hot spring which is like a swimming pool. These spas often have water slides and other diversions for kids, and are very popular with families. As these are often in the public areas of hotels, you wear a swimsuit in the spa. If you stay in a hotel with a spa, you can use it for free, but they are almost always open to outside visitors for a fee. Avoid these if you don't like having little kids splash you with hot water.
Third, you can rent a private room (tangwu 湯屋). These are usually big enough for two people to enjoy a hot spring together, although you can also rent one for yourself if you're alone. They usually come with a bed so that the couple can "rest" before relaxing in the hot spring. This is the best option if you're bashful. Price and quality vary enormously. You can get one of these rooms in a cheap old hotel for just a a couple of hundred NT, while a double room in the Evergreen Hotel (the best in town) is very luxurious and costs more than NT 1000. You usually get 60 to 90 minutes for your money, although if it's a weekday and business is slow you can ask for more time.
Fourth, you can go to a communal pool (dazhongchi 大眾池). This is my favorite. These pools are single sex and everyone soaks in the spring completely naked. While these are very popular in the hot springs around Taipei, people in the other parts of Taiwan seem to be more bashful about being naked with strangers, so there aren't many communal naked pools in other parts of the island. Communal pools usually don't provide towels, so you sould bring a little towel with you (Taiwanese just bring a little hand towel - it doensn't have to be very big.) You can buy little towels in most of the convenience stores in Jiaoxi. Don't feel shy if you aren't a gorgeous physical specimen. Most of the guys in the men's pool have beer bellies, and I'm sure the women's side isn't any better.
If you are bathing with strangers in a hot spring, particularly a communal naked pool, it is very important to observe proper hot spring etiquette.
The most important thing is - wash yourself thoroughly before you get in the hot spring!!! I can't emphasize enough how important this is. Not washing yourself off before getting in a hot spring is probably the biggest faux pas you can commit while visiting Taiwan - Taiwanese would find this utterly appalling. In Western culture, this would be akin to deliberately vomiting on someone's living room sofa.
When you enter a communal hot spring, there will be a row of low faucets and low stools near the entrance. After you take off your clothes and put them away, you should sit on a stool and wash yourself thoroughly. And I mean very thoroughly - sometimes people sit there for an incredibly long time scrubbing every single crevice and pore. So if anyone is watching, you should make a big show about how carefully you're cleaning yourself, and take your time.
This isn't just an arbitrary taboo. Hot springs aren't chlorinated. Since the water temperature is so high, bacteria can breed very quickly if the water is contaminated. So everyone has to cooperate to keep the water clean and safe.
There are a few other rules to consider:
Take off your shoes as soon as you enter the hot spring. There will be a cabinet or shelf for shoes as you enter.
Don't ever get soap or shampoo near the hot spring pool.
While you wear a swimsuit in a spa, don't ever wear a swimsuit in a communal naked pool. People consider any sort of cloth to be full of germs which will contaminate the hot spring.
Don't get a towel near the pool - Taiwanese suspect towels of being germ magnets. Just leave your towel with your clothes.
You should bring a bottle of water or tea. Sitting in the hot water will make you extremely thirsty. (For some reason it also increases the appetite).
If you ever take a hot spring bath in a closed room that doesn't have climate control, be sure to open a window. Hot spring water sometimes contains small amounts of poison gas. If you're in a communal spring - don't worry - the management has already taken care of that problem.
Don't soak in a hot spring if you're drunk or have heart problems.