Located in southwestern Taiwan, Chiayi, sometimes spelt as Jiayi, has a fascinating history as reflected by its multiple names. It was known as Kagee in the late Qing dynasty and Kagi during the Japanese colonial period from 1895 and 1945.
Chiayi is synonymous with Alishan. It is often viewed as a getaway to popular attractions in Alishan National Scenic Area where travellers tend to make a brief stop. During my first trip to Alishan, I remembered the city of Chiayi only as a transportation hub for me to get to the mountains. I later discovered that this under-the-radar city deserves more than a transient stay.
As the cultural and food capital of Taiwan, Chiayi city has so much to offer! Follow me on a 72-hour tour of Chiayi and discover the secrets of this small but surprising city.
Chiayi is easily accessible from different parts of Taiwan. You can choose to either take the local train operated by Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) or the high-speed train run by Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR). It is a 1.5-hour ride on the high-speed train from Taipei and 30 minutes from Kaohsiung. A complimentary shuttle bus connects the Chiayi THSR station to Chiayi TRA station in just 20 minutes.
Chiayi Train Station
Start your exploration of Chiayi by spending some time admiring the architecture of the historic Chiayi train station (TRA). Chiayi train station is the gateway to the city. Flocks of tourists descend here to take the Alishan Forest Railway to Alishan National Scenic Area as Alishan Township is part of Chiayi. This station is the focal point where Alishan Forest Railway and local trains intersect. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, Alishan Forest Railway was built to facilitate the transportation of resources like cypress wood from the mountain ranges. The logging business brought much prosperity to the city in the past, and now the railway provides a scenic ride for travellers.
You can find out more about how trains are integral to the evolution of Chiayi and purchase some train paraphernalia from the station shops. Do not be tempted to board the Alishan Forest train as you should leave Alishan mountains for another visit. Stop by the tourist information booth to take brochures and maps which will be useful for the next few days.
North Gate Station
Continue the affair with trains by walking to the North Gate Station (or Beimen). Chiayi is a very walkable city so your legs will be your best friends as you traverse the city. You can also cycle around the city or take public buses.
Once you reach North Gate Station, you will be struck by the serenity of the space. Constructed in traditional Japanese style using mainly materials from Taiwanese red cypress trees, the station was a prominent centre during the logging era. Businesses related to the trade grew around the busy station. Today, the station is a sightseeing attraction. As you step into the station’s waiting room, you can almost imagine the hustle and bustle during the prime of the forestry trade.
Next, take a stroll through the nearby Sleeping Forest and relish in quiet moments amongst adorable statues of sleeping animals. The statues do not have any significance other than resting in the park that has been around since the Japanese occupation period. The adorable Beimen Forest Railway Story House facing the park caters to children who like trains.
Fuel your body for the afternoon tour with Chiayi’s legendary turkey rice or chicken rice. A visit to Chiayi is not complete without devouring this ubiquitous dish. The bowl of white rice is crowned with succulent chicken slices and drizzled with chicken stock and fried scallions. Every local has a favourite turkey rice stall. One of the recommended stalls is Liu Li Zhang Ji Rou Fan that has been feeding hungry locals with their special chicken rice for generations. As you savour the fragrant rice with tender chicken pieces and a special order of egg, you may not be able to resist the second bowl of Chiayi goodness!
You may feel like you have been transported to Japan when you enter Hinoki Village. The area was formerly a residential area with Japanese style dormitories for the people who worked in the forestry industry. In recent years, Hinoki Village has been rejuvenated into a cultural and creative park. The recreational area has a range of arts and craft shops and restaurants enveloping a picturesque pond. Relax and spend an idyllic afternoon browsing the shops and nibbling on snacks in quaint cafes.
Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park
Before you start to hunt for dinner, check out the interesting Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park. During the heydays of the forest railway, steam trains designed to conquer the steep mountains were mostly imported from the USA. The park showcases an extensive collection of decommissioned trains, locomotive facilities and equipment that will excite any visitors, especially train aficionados.
Wenhua Night Market
End your first day in Chiayi with a feast at the Wenhua Night Market. Situated on Wenhua Road, the night market with its sumptuous offering of classic Taiwanese delicacies is frequented by locals. Other than food stalls, the streets are lined with different types of stores to fulfil any shopping desires. Immerse in the market’s vibrant atmosphere and join the locals as they tuck into local snacks and drinks. Don’t miss the popular stall selling charcoal grilled dried squid!
Chiayi Cultural and Creative Industries Park
Begin your second day with Chiayi Cultural and Creative Industries Park that is a stone’s throw away from Chiayi train station. This vintage complex housed the Chiayi Brewery that was opened by the Japanese government in 1916 to produce sake and other products. After the war, the building was converted to make kaoliang liquor. The brewery closed in 1999 and underwent major conservation and renovation. There is a small but informative museum where you can learn about the history of the brewery. Look out for storage barrels decorated in creative designs as you explore the space. If you visit on weekends, you may have the chance to participate in special events and performances.
Syuan Noodles and Coffee
Pamper yourself with an early lunch at Syuan Noodles and Coffee. The cosy shop is a labour of love by a friendly couple. They specialise in vegetarian noodles and premier quality coffee. The springy noodles are soaked in a gratifying blend of soy milk, miso and vegetable-infused broth. Complement this hearty bowl with exquisite coffee to be energised for more activities in the afternoon!
Chiayi Cheng Huang Temple
Learn more about Chiayi’s culture and heritage at Chiayi Cheng Huang Temple or Chiayi City God Temple. This important place of worship is dedicated to Cheng Huang, the guardian of the city. Admire the intricate craftsmanship of the temple when you are inside the building. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the pavilion’s octagonal caisson ceiling. One of the most prized artefacts is the wooden palanquin ornamented with eight lion figures.
Red Hair Well
Not far from the temple lies a historical relic: the Red Hair Wall. This curiously named well was built by the Dutch rulers when they controlled Taiwan. The locals referred to the Dutch and most westerners as “red hair men” due to their appearances. According to local myths, this enduring wall never failed to provide water even in difficult times.
Get ready for a meal of a lifetime at Smart Fish, a trending restaurant that attracted international acclaim after it was featured in Netflix’s Street Food. Try to beat the crowds by going before the usual dinner hours. The restaurant’s showstopper is the fish head stew. This famed dish’s lead character is the silver carp fish head that is accompanied by bountiful vegetables like cabbage, mushroom and bean curd. While the dish may not be the most photogenic, it triumphs with its intensely flavourful broth.
Venture further on your last day with a trip to Chiayi Park. This spacious park was developed during the Japanese era. There are many interesting historical spots in the park that will entertain you for an entire morning.
Firstly, marvel at the 62 metres tall Sun-Shooting Tower. The tower is designed with shapes and colours inspired by Alishan’s sacred trees. The earthly aluminium facade resembles the texture of the trees while the interior structure is associated with the “sun-shooting” legend of the aboriginal tribes.
Chiayi City Historical Relic Museum and Ruins of Kagi Shrine
Next, explore the ruins of the Kagi Shrine left behind after the Japanese’s rule. Just beside the ruins, you can refresh yourself at the purification pavilion before entering Chiayi City Historical Relic Museum. The areas where the shrine’s main office and hall once stood are now part of the museum. The museum has various exhibitions illustrating the developments of Chiayi.
Chiayi Confucius Temple
As you wander through the park, pause and look at the trees and their fluttering shadows on the ponds. Before you leave the park, pay a visit to the Chiayi Confucius Temple that is dedicated to Confucian teachings and blends with a zen-like garden.
If you are interested in baseball, walk over to the gigantic baseball monument in Kano Park. The park celebrates the inspiring high school baseball team that is affectionately called Kano, a nickname of their school. The legendary team consisted of Taiwanese, Japanese and aboriginal players who made history by advancing to the Koshien Championship in Japan.
Award yourself with local cuisine after an active morning in the park. Hop over to Gongyuan Old Shop for Chiayi’s quintessential cold noodles. Topped with generous scoops of specially made mayonnaise and sesame sauces, the cold noodles are so invigorating and satisfying on a hot day.
Chiayi Old Prison
Designated as a National Historical Site, Chiayi Old Prison is one of the better-preserved prison buildings in Taiwan. The prison structure was built using materials like cypress wood and methods introduced by the Japanese rulers. The radical design of the prison provided maximum surveillance as the warden occupied the most strategic location in the compound. Navigate through the prison maze and learn more about the evolution of Chiayi’s history.
Do not forget to buy some Chiayi specialities on your last day in the city. If you are lucky to spot some Fu Yi Shan products, grab a few packets of yummy egg rolls and pepper biscuits from the oldest biscuit factory in Chiayi. Limited quantities are available daily and “enterprising” buyers peddle the biscuits at higher prices near the official shops.
Return to Wenhua Night Market and spot the Central Fountain anchoring the roundabout. Before night falls, try to grab a few shots of the revolving life-size sculpture of Wu Ming Chieh, the respected pitcher of the Kano team. The victorious team made a stop at this landmark during their parade after their triumphant return from Koshien.
As you fill your stomach with more snacks from the night market, soak in the spirit of Chiayi. The city embodies the persevering spirit of the Kano team by embracing its identity fiercely and not yielding to external influences. Even as other cities change rapidly around it, Chiayi moves confidently and quietly to its rhythm and tune. I hope this itinerary has inspired you to include Chiayi in your next trip to Taiwan!
Chiayi is a compact city with more independent hotels rather than big chains. It is highly recommended to stay near Chiayi train station so it is easy to transfer from other cities. I stayed in Travel Art Inn, an affordable hotel with an artistic vibe, which is a short walk from Chiayi train station. Maison de Chine Hotel Chiayi and Orange Hotel are pleasant dwellings near Wenhua Night Market. Slightly further from the city centre, Teacape Hotel boasts an infinity pool and rooftop bar.