Saturday, September 6, 2008

Old Man's Tea: Teahouses in Taipei and Around

Tea set in Pinglin

This is by no means a comprehensive list of teahouses in the Taipei area - it just makes note of a few of my favorites. I was posting it on LP Thorn Tree and thought, "hey, this oughta be a blog post!" So here it is.

Pinglin is where the tea museum and many teashops and at least one good teahouse are (as well as chances to see tea grown, picked and sorted). The main drag is basically an agglomeration of tea shops, many of whom sell tea harvested from their own fields near (or in) town. A half-box of tea will cost about 400NT, and full boxes usually go for more than that. Smaller canisters are often available. You can also buy "green tea" gooey things with pickled vegetables inside, tea candies, tea caramels, tea-flavored-goop filled cakes and other assorted goodies.

The entire area is decorated with a "tea" theme, as well - especially the bridges.

The museum has good English signage with some amusing twists - the machine that turns the tea leaves over, for example, is called the "turnovering machine". When you pay the NT 100 entrance fee, you get a complimentary bag of silk sachet local tea.

Next to the museum is the shop that sells high quality tea at high quality prices. They also sell tea products - tea caramels, tea and chocolate gummy cookies etc. etc..

"Tea bridge"at Pinglin

Next to that is a lovely traditional-style teahouse. Prices are per person, not per packet of tea. One packet will happily sate two people, but the rule is that you have to buy one packet for each visitor.

Tea shops in town will often let you drink tea for free if you buy some, or will charge you a few hundred kuai if you don't.

There is also a gold Guanyin and small shrine at the top of a nearby mountain - to get there you have to walk behind a middle school and up a lot of stairs. Along the way you'll see tea being grown and harvested. A walk along Pinglin's backstreets will similarly yield people sitting casually in their doorways sorting picked leaves.

Venture out of town to find more tea planting areas as well as a lovely river with many swimming fish. You can easily walk along the river and it rounds out a pleasant day's trip.

Views from the Guanyin in Pinglin

To get to Pinglin, go to Xindian MRT and as you exit, turn left and head up the road. Past the 7-11 there is a bus stop where all Pinglin-bound buses stop. They come approximately once every 30min to an hour. The trip takes approximately one hour. The last bus leaving Pinglin for Taipei departs around 6pm. There are also buses to Yilan earlier in the day.

Closer to the city, you can go to Maokong in Muzha district of Taipei. There is a cable car up there from Taipei Zoo MRT station. Take the bus or walk a ways to get away from the touristy area and you'll run into some wonderful tea houses.

Us at a teahouse in Maokong.

The "Tea Receation Area" (sic) and the teahouse near it both have spectacular views of Taipei. (We usually go to "山茶館" - the unoriginally named "Mountain Tea House" in this complex. "Redwood Tea" (紅木茶) also looks nice.

If you find yourself in Mountain Tea House - fantastic. I recommend the sweet potato leaves, mountain pig and lemon diced chicken.

A few kilometers away from the gondola - yes there is a bus - there are more tea houses. These are quieter and often more intimate, but they lack the wonderful views of Taipei city.

There are also several hiking trails in the area, and Zhinan Temple makes for a good stop.

There are tons of teahouses off the last stop of the gondola - feel free to walk and take your time.

To get to Maokong, take the MRT brown line to Taipei Zoo and turn left as you exit. After a strip of touristy spots you'll come to the gondola. Come early on weekends because lines get long. You can also take a bus from Taipei City Hall MRT (BR15) or from other parts of Muzha (BR10) A taxi from Xindian or Taipei Zoo MRT will cost 150-200 NT.

In Taipei city, some good teahouses and shops include Wang's Tea near Dihua Street (it's not right on the street) at #26 Lane 24 Chongjing N. Road) where you can see tea production machines in the back though they are usually not being used. I recommend their High Mountain Oolong and Oriental Beauty - Wenshan Pouchong is good too. Their matcha is the best value for money I've found. I often buy their teas sold in round tins as a gift for people back home, and it is always appreciated. This is also a good place to pick up tea accessories, cups and other items.

There's also Wistaria House, which was closed for renovation when I originally wrote this post, but is now open, and I do intend to go soon. This is a landmark of Taipei, a historic site in its own right, has been featured on film and is a great way to experience old Taipei.

I particularly like Yue, a teahouse on Wenzhou Street near the Gongguan branch (NOT Shida branch) of Bastille. It's just north of Wenzhou St. Lane 86 and there's a willowy tree outside. Good tea, free snacks, food served, and the teahouse itself is beautiful. Japanese style cushions, some tables have fishtanks inside, hanging lotus lamps, and giant painting similar to temple doors, to name a few attractions. To get there, walk north along Wenzhou Street from Gongguan and on the left just past Bastille.

The sign for Yue is not in English. It looks like this: 玥 and it means "relic" (presumably made of jade). The food - especially desserts - here is pretty good, and you can sample many kinds of Taiwanese and Chinese tea. I recommend the kinds where you get a portion of loose tea and a mug - more expensive than a pot of tea at a regular cafe but fun to drink and easier than trying to do the whole "Gongfu" tea making process.

Watermoon is a popular old Shanghai-style teahouse near MRT Technology Building: Fuxing S. Road Sec. 2, Alley 180 #2. It specializes in aged Pu Erh tea. Prices are reasonable but there's a minimum charge - don't feel bad about coming hungry as the food is pretty good.

And finally, there's a teahouse in Bitan across the suspension bridge near Xindian MRT. It's on the left after you cross the bridge and looks out over the river. Good tea, set price 400 NT for leaves, water and your choice of 2 snacks.

To get there, take the MRT to Xindian and upon exiting, turn right and walk past the bus parking lot. Head left and eventually, after a small market, you'll come to a suspension bridge on the right. Cross that and the teahouse is really obvious on your direct left.

You can also buy and drink good tea at Ten Ren shops across the city, or eat a meal of food cooked with tea at their high-end restaurant chain, Cha for Tea. I'm a big fan of their pu-erh based beef noodles.

You might also consider a trip to Jiufen - it's not a famed tea-growing area; in fact, it's famed for its now-depleted gold mines! The old houses there, however, are quite evocative with lovely views, and they do serve good tea. I'll write more about Maokong in another post, but did want to mention it here.

Two photos from Jiufen are shown here.

To get to Jiufen, take a train fromTaipei Main Station to Ruifang and hop on a bus from there. Alternately, you can take a bus from just outside Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT exit 2, at the bus stop in front of the green SOGO.

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