A few weeks ago I took a day off from work to spend with a good friend who was visiting from Australia. It was a beautiful, early spring day so we decided to head for the hot springs town of Jiaoxi (also spelt Chiao-hsi or Jiaosi), near Yilan (also spelt Ilan). Jiaoxi is only a short 45 minute drive from Taipei, yet it feels like another world. Ever since our day-trip I have been raving non-stop to anyone who will listen about our hot springs bathing experience. I believe we have found the best Japanese-style hot springs bathing house. And the best thing is that hardly anyone knows about it — yet.
There is no shortage of hot spring bathing opportunities in Taiwan. There are 129 hot spring areas in Taiwan, and most of them have multiple upmarket resorts vying for competition. Most (but not all) of Taiwan’s hot springs are sulphur based, but Jiaoxi’s unique hot springs are odourless and colourless. The hot springs looks like normal water, yet it is rich in minerals. I was amazed how smooth my skin and hair felt after a soak in the Jiaoxi hot spring waters.
The Senlin Fenglu (森林風呂), which literally means ‘forest baths’ in Japanese, opened in January 2011. It is part of the Jiaoxi Hot Springs Park complex that includes the Tourist Information Centre of Chiao-hsi, near the Evergreen Hotel. There are three different hot spring baths within the Hot Springs Park. The first are a collection of thermal pools right near the Tourist Information Centre where you can stick your feet in for free. This is lots of fun, especially if you don’t have a lot of time, and there are usually several groups soaking their feet. But this is not the penultimate hot springs bathing experience.
Wander past the foot pools to the base of the Hot Springs park, and you will see a fence separating an outdoor thermal swimming pool complex. The entrance is only NT70 (cheaper for those entitled to discounts), which makes it popular with locals and young families. There are also some nice, natural looking rock settings in the thermal pool complex, whichare also featured on the tourist centre’s website. While these pools rival those of many resorts, the park has another hidden secret that is even better.
Continue past these pools, walking up a slight incline in the direction of the lush, green hills. Follow a path that meanders up along a little creek running through a formal oriental-style park. Before too long, you will come to a wooden boulevard which hides the Senlin Fenglu bathhouse. Walk along the wooden path, and eventually you will see the entrance. It costs NTD150 to enter the Japanese-designed baths. They are separate male and female baths, and unlike the usual practice for Japanese-style segregated bathing, patrons must wear bathing suits and bathing caps. (My husband told me that the male baths have an ‘experimental’ nude section, which is enclosed to ensure privacy.)
The thing I liked about these baths was their natural beauty. The pools are set amongst subtropical gardens, and from the main pool I could gaze undisturbed on the verdant hills rising up behind Jiaoxi. The Japanese-themed wooden architecture was classic and uncluttered, with only a few natural-style jets that complemented rather than distracted from the relaxation theme. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos because they prohibit taking shots inside. But I promise it is really beautiful.
Senlin Fenglu sets a limit of 80 patrons at a time to each bathing house. Yet it rarely gets that busy. When I visited, my friend and I had the place virtually to our selves. It was a weekday, but staff told us it is usually very quiet on weekends, too, because most visitors have not yet heard of these baths, or mistake them for the other, more open baths. The Yilan Government has not yet developed a website to promote the baths, although there are some pictures if you search hard enough on their website devoted to local scenery.
And food options for afterwards? The staff at the bathing house said Evergreen does a good quality lunch buffet for NTD500, and a good value afternoon tea coffee and cake combo for NTD160. But if you are after something more local, do what we did and try hard-boiled eggs cooked in hot spring water or thick noodle soup (geng). There are also some park benches and seats inside, so you can take some snacks with in case the hunger pangs hit during a long hot-spring bathing session.
Edited to add that we returned back to the baths again for an afternoon soak on 7 July. Once again, there were hardly any people there — despite it being school holidays. Here are some more pictures that we took in the near-empty baths.