Taiwan, Travel Diaries

Eating my way through Taipei 

 Taiwan is one of the places that I have come to love  – there’s something about the country and its people that I have come to love. 

I’ve been to this beautiful island nation twice, but I have yet to see a lot especially in the provinces. In a way, it’s a blessing because it’s a sign that I should keep going back. 

One of the things I love about Taiwan is the food. They have the abundance of crisp vegetables, the sweetest fruits and the best grilled meats. Obviously, bubble tea and milk teas are everywhere as well as huge chicken fillets that are bigger than my face. 

We stayed in Ximending where it doesn’t matter if it’s 10PM or 2AM, you’ll be sure to find something to eat according to your liking: matcha Japanese cake, soft tofu, hot noodles, flavor shaved ice, little strawberries encased in syrup – there’s something for everyone

Japanese cake with matcha and red bean

 

shaved ice, condensed milk and tapioca

  
  

 

Combini shopping is one of the first things I do when I travel to check the merchandise – the 711 in my neighborhood in Ximending has tea eggs, fresh salads, sushi and milk. Nothing  beats the Life Supermarket in Tokyo where there is an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, salads and fresh produce. 
 

Like before, we found the time to go to one of Taipei’s neighboring counties. This time, I went to Jiufen, home of the famed neighborhood which was one of Hayao Miyazaki’s inspiration for “Spirited Away.”

   
 With its steep stairs and winding alleyways, looking for the famous “tea house” was an adventure in itself. This was also the surest way to get famished – perfect for the many treats I found along the alley ways of Jiufen

   
    
    
 
There were mochi, grilled mushrooms, ice cream wrapped in rice paper sprinkled with ground peanuts, hot red bean soup and many others. The problem was which one to eat first. 

   
    

steaming hot rice topped with stewed ground pork and paired with chinese sausage

 
There are a lot of themed restaurants in Taipei like the Modern Toilet (which I visited once and vowed never to return again unless for am eating for free), Jay Chou’s series of restos, the famed PS Bubu for Meteor Garden fans (two thumbs up), among others but for this stay, we decided to eat more of the street foods being offered. If you want to try fast foods, I recommend you go to MOS Burger: 

   
 
On our last night in Taipei, we splurged a little and had a quiet dinner in this nice hotel bar inside Ximending’s many alley ways. 

   
 
With its hipster vibe and laid back atmosphere – it was the perfect way to end a fun visit in Taipei. 

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Taiwan, Travel Diaries

Review: Diary of Ximen Hotel – Ximending

I will be very honest. Diary of Ximen is not our first choice after it has been confirmed that we are going back to Taipei. 

Our heart belongs to City Inn Plus Hotel Ximending, a boutique hotel who captured our loyalty with first class, five star service and personalized approach to guests. However, City Inn Plus was fully booked on the week we were supposed to visit. With our heart set on staying in Ximending district, we had to look for alternatives. 

Diary of Ximen, located on the 11th floor of an aging building a block away from the exit 6 of the Ximen MRT station, served as a good alternative.   



  • Location 

To get to the hotel from the Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, you have two options: 

A. Convenient transfer: If you are arriving on a late flight (or God-forsaken early morning) courtesy  of Cebu Pacific, you have to arrange for transfers from the hotel. Their transfers rate is 1,500NTD for two persons with two luggages (roughly 2,100 Philippine pesos). A bit expensive but worry free especially since the airport Terminal 2 where Cebu Pacific is assigned is unusually quiet and abandoned by midnight. 

B. Cheap transfer: take the KuoKong bus from the airport to the Taipei West Bus Terminal. From the bus terminal, take the MRT ride to the Ximen station. Take exit 6, make a small u-turn to your right, and walk straight heading to the direction of the high way. You will go past 2 Ximending side streets, a Converse and Doc Martens branches. The 12 story building beside the department store is where Diary of Ximen is located. Take elevator to the 12th floor where reception and check in is located. 
Diary of Ximen  shares the building with two other hotels: Muzik Hotel and Diary of Taipei(which occupies many floors), while Ximen has 10th,11th and 12th floor. 
Beyond the reception is an extensive dining floor where the daily breakfast buffet is served: 



  • Food 

The meals can be repetitive sometimes (in a course of 4 days) but the selection is strong and varied – there is bread, choice of spreads, various Taiwanese dishes with heavy emphasis on use of fresh veggies, a salad station, wanton noodle station, congee and fruits. There’s also choice of coffee, juices, tea and water at the many vendo dispensers on the beverage section. You get your money’s worth and you will have a full stomach when you go or to sight-see. The hotel will issue you food stamps which you have to present per day during check-in.

 

   

  • Hotel premises: 

Hotel is situated in the fringes of Ximending – exit 6 where most of the crowd are is just a 5 to 10 minute walk away. It’s along the highway so it’s safe – we usually go out even at 2AM for a 711 or a FamilyMart run and it’s safe and quiet. 

  • Security 

You have to tap your room access card in the elevator in order to get to your floor. So it’s safe and you still get a certain level of exclusivity even if the hotel shares the building with other establishments. 

  • Room Specs 

   
    

  

The room is big enough for two, with enough space to move around and even for me to lie on the floor to rest my very tired feet after a day of roaming around Taipei and the countryside. 

The bed is big and comfy, with enough space for two; pillows are soft and comfy as well as the sheet. Aircon is cold and can be adjusted based on preference. 

Bathroom is situated in an elevated area near the bed; encased in frosted glass. The hotel provides free shampoo/conditioner and body wash plus the usual hotel amenities of comb, toothpaste and toothbrush, shower cap, soap, cotton buds and free bottles of water and tea which came in satchet. 

  • Sound quality 

Our room had no windows so we are pretty much isolated from the craziness of Ximending. There are instances when we can hear people talking outside our door but maybe it’s because our room is so near the elevator. 

  • Transfers 

We arranged our hotel transfers through the hotel and found that we were quoted NTD1500 when it was promoted as NTD1000 on the dining floor. Maybe because we arrived very late  at night? 

  • Cost of stay 

We paid PHP13,000 for four nights stay – roughly PHP3,200 for two people. This already includes buffet breakfast for four days. Considering we were in Taipei right smack in the midst of the Holiday season, this is already a steal. 


My verdict 

Diary of Ximen is a good alternative and good option if you want to stay in the Ximending District. Sure, it sharing a building with other businesses (including an office!), but the safety measures the business has put in place makes up for it. 

We were initially taken aback by ads offering three hour stays for a different hotel in the lobby (its proximity to Ximending where people meet must be a factor) but considered it irrelevant to our stay. 

Honestly, we had the foremost pleasure of staying in Diary of Ximen and will not hesitate to recommend it to friends. 
Disclosure: Nothing to disclose. My stay in Taipei is a personal expense. 

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Taiwan, Travel Diaries

Spirited Away in Jiufen: An adventure in Yubaba’s Land 

The first thing you will notice upon reaching is the cats. There’s a number of them: lazing away on the village generator while giddy tourists take tons of pictures of them; there are cat posters and cat painting and little ceramic figures made up of cats. 

In a tourist town made famous by a drama (City of Sadness starring Tony Leung) and a legendary animated film Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – the cats, without a doubt, are the resident queens of Jiufen. No offense to Yubaba. 

    

When I finally had the chance to return to Taiwan, on top of my list was to see Jiufen, a small town on top of the mountains of the Ruifang District of New Taipei City near Keelung, Taiwan. 

Jiufen (or “nine portions” from the nine families who first settled in the area) used to be an old mining town from the late 1800s to the decline of the gold rush by the 1970s. When the mines was shut down, Jiufen faced decline, with the town possibly going the way of forgotten settlements. That is until it was featured as location of the seminal movie “City of Sadness.” The interest came after the release of the movie saved Jiufen from being a forgotten town. The interest only further intensified after the release of “Spirited Away” by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Jiufen was credited as the inspiration for the winding steep roads, the lantern laced alleyways and the magnificent bath house owned by Yubaba as seen in the animated film. 

 

Chihiro looks for hef parents in Spirited Away


 

Trying to find my way in the many alleys of Jiufen

  

How to get there 

There are two ways to get to Jiufen. First is you take the High Speed Railway going to Riufang county. From there, you can either take the cab to Jiufen or contract a fan who will serve as your tour guide to the many sights of the province, Jiufen included. Prepare to shell out at least NTD3,500 to rent the whole cab. 

Or you can do it my way, courtesy of mad research skills: 

Here’s a cheaper and more painless alternative to the option above. From where you are staying, take the MRT to Zhongxiao Fuxing Station under line 1. Take MRT exit 1, as you come out of the stairs, make a U-turn heading to the direction of the elevated walkway. The large SOGO Department store should be on your right hand side, with you facing the elevated MRT. 

Take the first left to the immediate intersection which you will reach in less than 60 seconds. Walk a few steps and you should see the pick up point for the 1062 Keelung bus headed for Ruifang and Jiufen. 

  
During weekends, expect a long line of local and foreign visitors waiting for the bus as Jiufen is a popular weekend destination. Ignore the touts offering their contracted service by saying there’s no bus going to Jiufen. Have your EasyPay tap card ready or NTS90 to cover the fare.

Eventually, the highway will melt away to reveal a rustic and peaceful rural scenery. 

   
    
 
The mural above celebrates the heritage of Jiufen as an old mining town. When you passed this, you are less than five minutes away from reaching Jiufen Old Street where you should alight. 

  
 As soon as you see 711 and the marker – this means you’ve reached Jiufen. It’s now time to explore the inner bowels of this town. 

The best way to enjoy Jiufen is to get lost and just enjoy the little nooks and crannies of the town, then marvel at the little discoveries you have along the way: 

Note: photo heavy post

   
    
    
    
     

And then you start seeing placed which remind you of  of Spirited Away:

   
   an old tunnel used by miners before   

   

    
    
    
   

Of course, the piece du resistance was the Ahmei Tea House, which bear a striking resemblance to the Spirit Bathhouse being ran by Yubaba. 

  

Here is the Ahmei Tea House in Jiufen: 

  
   
    
   

To say that I squealed when I found it was a gross understatement. I was so happy to find it (thanks to the hubby) after walking to the many windjng streets of Jiufen. The only let down is that dining inside the Ahmei Tea House is quite expensive: they expect diners to order a tea set for NTS300 or if it’s lunch, have the lunch set at NTS400. There are no Ala Carte order or an English menu. We chose to take our lunch elsewhere. 

When in Jiufen, you will be assailed by the delicious smell of cooking meat or the sweet aromatic smell of herbs anywhere you turn. It is a foodie’s haven and there is something for everyone, regardless of their meal preference:   

   
    
   
Our sumptuous lunch: rice with meat topping (NTS30) and a stick of sausage (NTS35)   

   
   

Jiufen is a good place for a day trip. However, there are also those who choose to spend the night here. There are many guest houses or home stays in Jiufen. All one needs to do is ask. Like the rest of Taiwan, the people of Jiufen are unbelievably nice. 

I can’t wait to go back to Jiufen someday. Maybe stay a bit longer? I hope it retains that authentic and quaint little town vibe that-in spite the hoard of tourists – makes the town a sweet place to live in.
  
 
 

 

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Taiwan, Travel Tips

Taipei Part 2 Series: Getting a tourist visa as a couple

 

Single entry tourist visas for the Hubby and myself


This year, my husband and I vowed to discover new things together. Fortunately, we are blessed to have the opportunity to travel together at the end of the month to Taiwan for a short vacation  and as an early celebration for our wedding anniversary. 
The truth is – I already visited Taiwan, particularly Taipei two years ago with my sister. It was one of the best places I visited: friendly locals, affordable and yummy food anywhere you go, interesting sights and culture, plus the opportunity to fan girl to Meteor Garden and Jay Chou (which my sister and I both did). 

So, when the hubby and I discussed possible trip destinations other than Osaka (we are still saving for it), we both agreed that Taipei is a nice place to discover (for him). We were lucky to land round trip tickets MNL-TPE-MNL for only PHP5,500 per person. The ticket was booked in August, three months before the planned trip. We paid for the tickets via SM Bayad Center (wait for a separate post on this), our flights were immediately confirmed upon payment – thus, the only thing left to do is get the tourist visa. 

In my case, I am confident that getting a tourist visa will be a breeze: I already had a prior tourist visa to Taiwan plus Japan and S.Korea (twice). What I was more worried about is the hubby who works freelance. While he already had prior visits to Singapore and HongKong, the hubby’s passport is new (hence no travel stamps) and his freelance work status means he has no ITR and Certificate of Employment — two things, in my opinion, that always seal the deal for any visa application. 

So how do you take your chances and apply for a visa when your traveling companion doesn’t have these very important requirements? 

Note: I have previously blogged about getting a visa to Taiwan, see here – this is the UPDATED version. 

  1. First thing I did is do my research and look up online if there are tips and to do’s for a situation like mine. There is none. That is the reason why I am writing this post – it is my means to give back for the good fortune of being issued a visa. 
  2. Prepare all documents needed – I always believed that in any battle, being prepared means increasing any chances of winning. Here are the documents needed in applying for a visa: 
  • Visa Application Form – to be filled in online. Head to https://visawebapp.boca.gov.tw/ Note that you will need to fill it up online and print on A4 size paper. The Taiwan visa will only accept computer-filled forms, avoid leaving any space blank (you can put N/A). 
  • Two passport sized photos 1.5″ X 2″ – should be taken within the last 3 months 
  • Valid passport (with more than 6 months validity) 
  • NSO-issued birth certificate 
  • Marriage contract issued by NSO (if applicable) 
  • Financial documents like bank certificate and ITR 
  • If you are employed, Certificate of Emplyment and Approved Leave form 
  • Supporting documents like airline tickets and hotel booking forms 

Have your documents photocopied. 

    3. Once you have the documents,  you are ready to submit it to the Taiwan Economic and Culture Office (TECO) located at the 41st floor of the RCBC Plaza in Makati. 

    Note: Due to the One-China Policy, Taiwan does not have an embassy in the Philippinss. TECO services all consular and diplomatic efforts in the Philippines 

      

    TECO accepts visa applications from Monday Friday’s from 9AM to 11AM only. Meanwhile, releasing of visa is from 2PM to 4PM. 

    Now that you’re at RCBC, here are some tips to make your visa application hassle free: 

      
    Be there early – this endeavor involved a lot of lining up: you will be asked to line up first in order to register your name for the giving out of numbers. This line usually starts inside the RCBC but only ten people can line up inside at any given time, so the rest will be asked to wait outside until the first ten has registered (see photo above) 

    Note that you will be lining up with applicants for work visas so be there early. 8AM is a good time. After you have registered your name, you will be asked to go back outside and proceed to the area near the entrance of the RCBC museum to wait for the distribution of numbers. 

    Have a valid ID with you – note that they are very strict when it comes to IDs – valid IDs are SSS, unified ID, Drivers License. Company IDs are not official government ID but you can use them provided you will leave a PHP1,000 deposit which will be returned to you after you have filed your application. 

    A TECO staff will approach the waiting area and will start calling name. Once your name is called, show them your ID, claim the queu stub and go back inside the RCBC Plaza to surrender your ID at the registration area where you will be finally issued building IDs and asked to go up the 41st floor. 

    Curve the urge to bring a companion with you if they are not applying for a visa also. They will not be allowed to go up TECO anyway. 

     

    The waiting game


    Once at the 41st floor, wait for your number to be called, proceed to the assigned window and submit your document. 

     Once the documents are perceived to be in order and received by the staff, you will be asked to wait for your name to be called by the cashier. 
    Pay the visa application fee – single entry tourist visa is PHP2400 per pax. A receipt will be issued to you upon payment – the receipt contains the date of release of your passports. Please note that you may or may not be issued a visa, depending on the evaluation of the consul. TECO reserves the right to withhold reason for denial. 

    Do you have valid visas to the US, Japan, UK, Australia or Shengen? If yes, you don’t need to apply for a visa. You just need to fill out a special form which you can get from this page.

    In the end , the hubby and I were issued single entry tourist visas. I guess what did the trick was that the hubby and I were able to provide substantial financial capacity through our bank certificates, we submitted a certificate for our joint account and another one for my savings account. I was also able to prove strong ties to the Philippines through my CoE. Lastly and for good measure, I took the risk of writing TECO a letter expressing that while my husband has no ITR and COE, we are confident that we can fund our trip and assured them of our intention to return. 


    Note: this is based on my experience applying for a tourist visa for Taiwan. Outcome of individual visa applications may vary, depending on the evaluation of the consul. 

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      Preps and Research, Taiwan

      Changing hotels: why a 24-hour concierge is important to me

      After the glow and excitement of going to Taipei with the hubby has finally subsided. I took stock of the hostel I reserved and asked myself if I am really happy with the available amenities.

      The first hotel I booked, Mr.Lobster’s Secret Den seemed like a good deal and even ranked high both at TripAdvisor and at Booking.com. I have never been too picky when it comes to hotel stay. I’ve always mentioned that for as long as there is a good flushing toilet and a room that guarantees my safety (and without bed bugs!) — then everything is just icing on the cake for me.

      Unfortunately, this hotel, in spite of the fact that is promises a relaxing stay — does not have a 24 hour concierge. Concierge is available half day only – from 9AM to 2PM (I think) which became the deal breaker for me.

      Using the country’s top budget airline also means arriving in Taipei Taoyuan International Airport at a very ungodly hour. Factor in the one hour travel from Taoyuan county to Taipei City and this leads to a strong possibility of arriving in Taipei and at our hotel at 1:30 to 2:00 AM.

      This situation alone calls for the presence of a concierge who will check us in, get our details, usher us to our room. At an ungodly hour, with the possibility of a sleepy husband who is a first-timer in Taipei, I don’t want to be blindly looking for rooms.

      Photo not mine

      Photo not mine

      In a wired world, what is the concierge is for? The concierge is there to make the stay pleasant and to ensure that all your concerns are answered.

      A good concierge provides you insights on your planned itineraries, provides tips and tricks to maximize the stay and even at night, answers your questions on where is the best neighborhood joint open even at an ungodly hour.

      I immediately wondered how are we going to get checked in at 1:30AM. I am sure there are already SOPs in place, but I am also the type that needs a semblance of order and the familiar. I don’t like to entertain what if’s and if paying extra means having the convenience of a 24 hour concierge who will answer our questions and be our first line of defense during emergencies — then I am definitely changing hotels.

      Good thing that I booked my first choice at Booking.com which allowed me to cancel the first hotel and choose another without any hassle. I will be paying an additional PHP1,000 but that came with my 24/7 concierge and a free buffet breakfast AND a strategic location right at the middle of Ximending.

      So far, I am happy with my choice. Though note that I am still looking. This is the benefit of having Booking.com — it gives you the opportunity to shamelessly look for the best option for stays without the guilt and expense.

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      Taiwan

      Going to Taipei in Nov-Dec? Book your hotels now

      With the confirmation of the upcoming anniversary trip with the Hubs, I went on full OC-mode and started looking for a place to stay in Taipei this morning. Never mind if it was already 3AM, I have to find a room at Booking.com.

      800_booking.com_logo_blue_1000

      Booking.com is a blessing to budget travelers – it allows fast, easy and convenient booking for hotel rooms, BnB’s, hostels and inns anywhere in the world without the hassle and minus the need for a credit card. Booking.com has been my partner in countless visa applications.

      For this trip, I immediately sought my favorite CityInn Plus Hotel in Ximending but they are already fully booked during the time of our stay. I considered going to their other branches, particularly the one at the main station who kindly arranged for our car transfer and endorsed us to Keymann’s two years ago — but alas, the dawning of the Christmas season resulted to really steep rates, reaching to almost 20K in Philippine peso for a 4 day stay.

      Persistency really pays off. One of the well-reviewed hostels in the Main Station area is the (amusingly named) Mr. Lobster’s Secret Den, located across from the Taipei Main Station. The reviews are all great both in Trip Advisor and Boooking.com which led me to book our stay there. Mr. Lobster is located in a less-touristy neighborhood, apparently surrounded by locals and mom and pop shops — something which I always loved discovering.

      With my mad researching tendencies in full swing — I will certainly fill you in on the mystery of Mr. Lobster.

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      Japan

      Next stop: Osaka

      credit to owner

      credit to owner

      If you can DREAM it, you can ACHIEVE it.

      This early, I am already claiming this blessing. Finally decided to stop pining and stalking SkyScanner like mad without doing anything at all. Mad planning for Osaka begins now!

      Some background information about Osaka (other than it’s the location of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter):

      “Osaka is located on the main island of Honshu, roughly in the center of Japan. Osaka City, which was incorporated in 1889, has a population of 2.6 million and an area of 221 square kilometers. Osaka Prefecture, which includes Osaka City (its capital) and 42 other municipalities, has a population of 8.8 million and a total land mass of about 1,890 square kilometers. Although Osaka is Japan’s second smallest prefecture by size, its population represents 7% of the entire nation, making it the second most populous prefecture after Tokyo. Furthermore, 15.6% of all non-Japanese residents live in Osaka.”– from www.osaka-info.jp

      Goal settings for this trip:

      1. Fare for the Hub and I – budget for the plane fare should only be PHP9,000 all in per pax, return; for a total of PHP18,000
      2. Length of stay – goal of one week (in order to have time to see Kyoto, and if the Hub will get enticed, fly via Peach Airline to Tokyo and stay there for 3 days)
      3. Accommodation – AirBnB or hostels along the central area, with a budget of PHP3,000 per night for a full room = PHP21,000
      4. Target sights – take advantage of what is offered through the Osaka One-day or Two-day pass:

      Obvious destinations include: Universal Studios Japan for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter; Osaka Castle, Tombori River Cruise, Osaka Zoo, among many others. Also includes quick jaunts to Kyoto and nearby areas.

      5. Budget for two persons for 7 days: PHP70,000 (or PHP35,000 each) excluding airfare!

      Let the planning begin!

      I will make you possible! (credit goes to owner)

      I will make you possible! (credit goes to owner)

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