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[SMALL-TOWN CHARM] Small Towns of “Slow” Character

Date:2019-02-13 Number of Visitors:1877

Four Pleasant Taiwan Destinations Crowned with Coveted “Cittaslow” Status

Text: Rick Charette
Photos: Vision

An introduction to four small “Cittaslow” towns where life is good and which by no coincidence are much liked by, and most accommodating to, visiting travelers.

 Exploring an old neighborhood in Dalin, Chiayi County

What is Taiwan to you? This floating mosaic of beautiful islands is home to a ruggedly mountainous main island and scores of offshore islands. Each of the latter presents travelers with culture, terrain, and scenery a world apart from that found on the big island, and that found on each other.
The main image many travelers have of Taiwan, before first visits, is of an industrial dynamo with big busy cities and humming factories crafting “MIT” (Made In Taiwan) products ranging from industry-vanguard microchips to the Giant and Merida bicycles so in demand around the globe. Before these cities appeared, however, Taiwan was a land of towns and villages – and international visitors delight in finding this Taiwan world remains very much alive.
In these thriving communities visitors find venerable traditions, colorful temples, age-old festivals, lively processions, and old shops selling traditional medicines, snack treats, and crafts. Yet at the same time their citizens are embracing the best of the modern, filling their lives with public artworks and cultural-creative enterprises and proudly introducing themselves to outsiders with unique guided tours, bicycle touring routes, DIY experiences, and other enticements.

Four towns in Taiwan, all on the big main island, have been recognized with prestigious “Slow Town” status by Cittaslow International (www.cittaslow.org). This influential Italy-based association, inspired by the “Slow Food” movement, promotes a slow-paced lifestyle. Its goals are quality improvement in daily living through the slowing down of overall pace, a more people-friendly flow of humans and vehicles through public spaces, environmental conservation, sustainable development, and Slow Food culinary habits.
Fenglin, Taiwan’s first recognized Slow Town, is in Hualien County on the pristine East Coast in the verdant, farm-carpeted East Rift Valley. The setting is stunning, with the Central Mountain Range on the west and the Coastal Mountain Range on the east. This farm-market town is notably quiet and peaceful, the cycling experience in and around the community especially pleasant.
Nanzhuang, in hilly Miaoli County in Taiwan’s key cluster of Hakka settlements, sits in the foothills of the majestic Snow Mountain Range. Once a logging and coal-mining center, it retains many vestiges of its Japanese colonial era heyday, notably many a building clad in clapboard.
Sanyi, southwest of Nanzhuang and also in Miaoli’s rolling hills, is Taiwan’s woodcarving capital and also renowned for its old-time Hakka culture. Browse through hundreds of shops, some of which double as artist studios, filled with superb artworks ranging from religious figurines to household furniture items.
Dalin is a small rural town on the southwest plains, in Chiayi County, surrounded by flat farmland where rice, pineapples, orchids, and much else is cultivated. Steeped in heritage shops offering traditional Chinese medicines, stinky tofu, etc., it is also rich in old-time architecture, including a restored movie theater and old sugar factory ruins. A guided walking tour is your best route into and through this inheritance.

Let’s spend a little more time in each location.

Dalin

The old core of this somnolent farm-region center is before the small Dalin Railway Station, a stop on milk runs. Opened in 2003, this was Taiwan’s first “green architecture” train station. Most of the town’s attractions are within easy walking distance of the station, and the best way to take them all in during a single-day visit is on a guided walkabout tour.
One is a well-restored wooden Japanese-style station master dormitory, located immediately north of the station. The main commercial street, which starts directly before the station, serves up heritage buildings home to long-in-place family-run eateries selling traditional savory snack foods such as stinky tofu and a Chiayi County specialty, turkey rice. There are also a family-run traditional eyewear shop and Chinese-medicine pharmacy that both double as mini-museums. Nearby is the Wanguo Theater, devotedly restored by local workers, with a facade covered with hit-movie posters and ticket prices from the town’s old glory days.
Much of said glory poured forth from the Dalin Sugar Factory, off the town’s edge, from which mass-produced sugar made from local sugarcane once poured forth. The complex is still well worth a visit (there’s an operational Taisugar retail outlet), and a pleasant 7km bike route around the complex and along flat farmland backroads starts here.

  • Bicycling in Dalin

    Bicycling in Dalin

  • Osmanthus Alley in Nanzhuang

    Osmanthus Alley in Nanzhuang

Nanzhuang

Nanzhuang sits amidst an exceptionally charming setting, spread out on the flat floor of a narrow, curving valley around the point where two mountain rivers flow out and become one. This is a Hakka settlement; around 15 percent of Taiwan’s Han Chinese population is of Hakka descent. The town’s main tourism attraction is narrow Nanzhuang Old Street, dense with old shops and eateries, many in business a half-century or more, many run by the founder’s descendants. Among the delicious Hakka culinary must-try staples served are braised pork with plum leaves and dried-radish omelets.
Parallel to this is another tourist-focused old street bubbling with commercial activity, christened with the pretty nickname Osmanthus Alley. Spring water gurgles along at its base in an open stone-lined channel once used by local ladies to wash clothes. There are also many types of gastronomic treats sold here, but the specialty is gems made with guihua niang – honey flavored with osmanthus flowers: cakes, ice creams, shaved-ice desserts, teas, vinegars, and more.
Other much-photographed key town draws include the wood-built Nanzhuang Old Post Office, erected during the Japanese colonial era, the movie poster-bedecked Nanzhuang Theater, which dates to the post-colonial era when the local timber and coal-mining still poured in wealth, and the main center of worship, Yongchang Temple, established in the same period.

Sanyi

Sanyi is the hub of Sanyi Township, a hill-area enclave where traditional Hakka culture, old-time crafts and industries, and railway-building pride are celebrated. Dubbed the Taiwan Kingdom of Woodcarving, the local hills once teemed with camphor and other trees of value as timber. Extensive logging was conducted during the Japanese colonial era, tea farms afterward bloomed on the cleared land, local Taiwanese took to using the dug-up trunks and roots as decorative ornaments, a commercial sculpture industry slowly took root, and in recent decades many full-time artists have moved in.
The town’s two tourism icons are its approximately 200 wood-sculpture studio shops and the first-rate, modern-architecture Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum. The shops display works of startling variety, from artworks through furnishings and utensils, with international travelers most intrigued by the intricate Chinese-pantheon religious statuary.
Most day-trippers also include Shengxing Railway Station and the Remains of Longteng Bridge on their itinerary, both located near the town. Until recent times the Hakka have primarily been a hill people, deeply involved in this region’s logging, tea farming, and mountain-railway work. The cottage-style station and the bridge were part of a now-defunct railway, used to haul mountain-region resources, built by the Japanese in the early 20th century. The soaring red-brick viaduct bridge, which vaulted across a narrow valley, was shattered in a devastating 1935 earthquake, leaving today’s 60m-long remains. This area’s section of the defunct Old Mountain Line is popular with walkers/hikers, and now has a new attraction – rail-biking.

  • Remains of Longteng Bridge in Sanyi

    Remains of Longteng Bridge in Sanyi

  • Hakka-style cuisine in Fenglin

    Hakka-style cuisine in Fenglin

Fenglin

When the Japanese controlled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, they set up 10 Japanese-immigrant villages in the East Rift Valley. Today, the locale with the best cluster of intact vestiges of this time is on Fenglin town’s northern/northeastern side. A cash-crop tobacco industry was launched to help the immigrants support themselves, and experienced Hakka tobacco-industry workers from Taiwan’s western side were brought over. Explore the local history at the Hakka Cultural Museum, not far from the town’s railway station.
The flat land and wide, quiet roads inside and around the town beg for another mode of exploration – the bicycle. Quality rentals are available around the train station. Among the best-preserved historical buildings in the old Japanese-immigrant area are the quaint cottage-style tobacco drying sheds, old residence buildings, a police station, and a school.
In adherence with Cittaslow’s Slow Food guidelines and support, local farmers are encouraged to utilize natural farming techniques. The delicious, healthy results can be enjoyed as cooked ingredients in local-eatery dishes, and bought uncooked at local shops. Key area products are rice, bananas, watermelons, and corn.

More Info

In recent issues, Travel in Taiwan has covered the four towns introduced above with full individual articles, and also covered other towns popular with international tourists. These can be found at tosto.re/travelintaiwan. Beyond Cittaslow recognition, other forms of distinction sprinkled among the various selected towns are a plethora of Michelin travel-guide stars and inclusion in the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s list of Taiwan Top Ten Tourist Towns.
Find more information on how to get to the towns, visit tourist sites, go cycling, join guided tours, and more in the aforementioned articles, and on the official Taiwan Tourism Bureau website.

English and Chinese

Fenglin 鳳林
Hakka Cultural Museum 客家文物館
Nanzhuang 南庄
Nanzhuang Old Post Office 南庄老郵局
Nanzhuang Old Street 南庄老街
Nanzhuang Theater 南庄戲院
Old Mountain Line 舊山線
Osmanthus Alley 桂花巷
Sanyi 三義
Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum 木雕博物館
Remains of Longteng Bridge 龍騰斷橋
Shengxing Railway Station 勝興車站
Wanguo Theater 萬國戲院
Yongchang Temple 永昌宮

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    Last update time: 2019-05-15
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