Thursday, November 22, 2012

Day Trip to Beitou, Taipei (北投)

While my sister was here visiting, hubby's Japanese colleague A-san also dropped in for a few days. Of course that gives us the most perfect excuse to explore Beitou's famous onsens, so we took off on a cool and rainy afternoon when the weather was just right to be soaking in a hot bath.

The train ride to Beitou is pretty straight forward. You get on MRT Red Line and get off at Beitou Station, then take another special touristy train to Xinbeitou Station ^.^

Not only the train is special on the outside, it's very different on the inside too! Every single car was different inside! Ours was painted to look like the inside of a wooden steam room. Then next car was painted to look like it was under water. Neato!

And in every car, there was a seat with a special interactive screen for you to explore the different attractions in Beitou. Since our car was the "steam room," this screen was in what looked like a wooden bathing tubs that people used to soak in ^.^

Arriving into Xinbeitou Station.

We made a brief stop to see Taipei Public Library Beitou Branch, which is famous for its eco architecture. However, our afternoon's schedule was quite packed so we didn't go inside.

The onsen we wanted to visit, Radium Kagaya Hotel & Onsen, happened to be right across the street from the library, which was very convenient. Umm, not sure why there's a "radium" in the hotel's name and I sure hope it has nothing to do with the actual radioactive chemical element *laughs nervously* O.o At least the hotel was recommended by the Japanese guide book A-san had.

The place looked fantastic inside, fancier than any hotel onsen I've ever been to in Japan! Their check-in lobby is on the 3rd floor, and in the corner there was a small section with a traditional Japanese koto on display. When we arrived, from inside of the elevator we could see a woman in kimono playing the koto!

Of course, by the time we were done with our baths, the performance was over.

But we were able to take a picture of the koto itself (no flash allowed!). On the other end of the lobby is a shelf with a dizzying array of choices for yukatas. However, these are available only for overnight staying guests and you cannot even rent them, which I thought was quite strange since it's standard to lounge around between soaks in yukatas!

The entrance to the men and women's baths faced the elevator shaft. Inside bath house, the bath pools were on one side and the other side had rows of showers for you to wash off before soaking in the bath.  The baths were only mineral water and not sulphuric hot spring water, but still the water were super hot as they should be. The showers looked just like those in the Japanese onsens and I can see that the hotel went way out of its way to *try* to be authentic. 

However, there were a few key shortcomings that, to me at least, were telltale signs of imitation:
- Even though there was a sign that says bath sheets (the big Western bath towels, not the tiny and super thin Japanese "courtesy" ones ^.^) are not to be taken into the bath house, this rule was not enforced at all and therefore was completely ignored. And the guests who took the bath towels into the bath house subsequently piled them everywhere, on the edge of the waist-high wall separating the showers from the baths, on the floor, even on the edge of the water! Worse, the ladies who work there came in and out of the bath house completely ignored these piles of bath sheets and did not pick up after their customers. Yuck.
- Even though there was a sign that says no food or drinks inside the bath house, again this rule was not enforced and was also ignored. Guests were free to take their hot tea (provided in the changing room) into the bath house, even into the baths themselves! Again, the ladies who work there ignored this and did not pick up after their customers. I remember soaking in a tub next to my sister, nervously eyeing the paper tea cup on the edge right next to us, with the tea bag still steeping in it! Eeps.
- There were tatami mat benches along the wall of the changing room facing the TV's for you to relax and unwind. However, because the hotel does not rent out yukatas for guests to lounge in between soaks, people ended up having to sit and lie around on these benches butt-naked! It's one thing to soak in a super hot bath, but it's something else entirely to sit on a tatami mat bench. Urgh.

I know I sound totally pretentious with my complaints, but I'm not the one billing myself an "authentic Japanese experience" here, complete with a price to match. Kagaya charges NT$800 (~$US27) for just 2 hours of bathing, whereas this price would have been the whole day rate (baths only) for a vast many onsens in Japan! And with a Japanese onsen, the scenarios I described above would never ever happen. Not only people there are generally respectful toward public spaces, they are fastidious when it comes to cleanliness (and pretty much everything else too, which is a double-edged sword, but that's a whole other issue). 

Anyway, the building itself has 14 floors, with the check-in lobby on the 3rd floor and the onsen on the 4th floor. The below 2 floors have shops, game rooms, massage parlors, and restaurants.

Here's the entrance to the outdoor foot bath on the 4th floor, which was really nice because no one was there ^.^ Too bad it didn't have any massaging stones on the floor of the foot bath, but my sister and I still had a blast waddling around in the water with our leg pants rolled up way past our knees. Now that I think about it, this was the best part of our time there at Kagaya, having the foot bath all to ourselves!

This is the tatami mat bench right next to the foot bath entrance. The changing room had the same benches, which my sister and I didn't dare to sit on LOL!

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