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June 25, 2012, Taiwan

Part 11 - The real Alishan experience

In this 11th instalment of a 26-part series, GWENDOLYN NG mingles with Alishan’s indigenous tribe


MENTION the mountainous region of Alishan, and I’m reminded of a folk song that contains this phrase: “The girls of Alishan are as pretty as water.”

After years of humming the folk song without an inkling of just who these pretty lasses were, I discovered, on a trip to Alishan in March, that the girls are from the Tsou Tribe.

That’s according to my guide, Mr Shi Guang Jiang, 55, who hails from the same tribe.

The Tsous were the first people to settle in Mount Ali in central Taiwan – but their numbers are dwindling, with only about 3,800 members of the tribal community still living there.

“We’re an endangered species,” said Mr Shi, better known as Ah Jiang.

Bent on raising awareness of their unique culture and on earning a living in their hometown, the Tsou people are increasingly turning to tourism.

With deft hands and well-honed skills, Ah Jiang, for instance, recreated a small Tsou tribal village – Ah Jiang’s Home 23 Cafe (No. 129-6, Neighbourhood 4, Leye Village) – made up of quaint wooden and stone huts, complete with the culture’s fireplace, called a pupuzu in the Tsou language.

Walking under the entrance’s stone archway, a rich aroma hit me.

Hunched over a coffee-roasting machine, Ah Jiang’s wife, 45, was grinding and roasting fresh coffee beans harvested from a relative’s plantation in Alishan.

After the coffee break, I headed over to the nearby Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Village (No. 127-2, Neighbourhood 4, Leye Village) for traditional song-and-dance performances.

After a typhoon wrecked Alishan in 2009, the safe haven was set up to provide the Tsou people with employment and also a platform for their artistic talents.

I was drawn by the handmade leather wallets with intricate carvings that were available for sale. And the music CDs featuring the strong vocals of the boyband of the Tsou Tribe, Lei Hu Zuo, were striking, too. You can even buy the colourful traditional Tsou costumes worn by the staff there.

Yuyupas’ chief executive, Mr Yapsuyongu Tiakiana, 56, said: “Alishan is known for its six wonders – its sunrise, sea of clouds, sunset, cherry blossoms, forest, railway and night scene. But, to me, if you haven’t experienced the Tsou culture, you’ve not been to the real Alishan.”

There was certainly much more of the Tsou Tribe that I had yet to explore in Alishan.

One of them is Alishan’s largest Tsou Tribe village – Dabang Village, which was established over 300 years ago.

The village grounds are home to authentic kuba, thatched-roof gazebos where the tribe’s men gather and important traditional ceremonies take place.

Drop by the Dabang Visitors’ Centre (No. 6, Neighbourhood 1, Dabang Village), a well-preserved oriental-style wooden building belonging to police from the Japanese colonial era.

The enthusiasm and warmth of the Tsou people left me wistfully wanting to stay on to indulge in more – prompting Ah Jiang to jokingly ask me to marry one of the young men from the tribe.

I replied in jest, saying: “I don’t mind, but I can’t do housework.”

To which, he said, “well that might be a problem”, as I broke out in laughter.


VISITING the Tsou indigenous tribe in Alishan is easy with Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus Alishan Routes. Board the shuttle bus from Chiayi Railway Station or Chiayi High Speed Rail Station. More details can be found at the website 

To get to Leye Village, alight at the Shi Zhuo stop and make your own transport arrangements to the respective stops.

Exact locations can be found at these links: Ah Jiang’s Home 23 Cafe ( and Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Village (

For more information on other indigenous tribe spots, check out the Alishan National Scenic Area’s website at

Free-and-easy travellers can take their air tickets and hotelconfirmation details to the Taiwan Visitors Association Singapore (30 Raffles Place, #10-01 Chevron House) before departing for Taiwan to redeem freebies (while stocks last, on a first come, first served basis).

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Become one with nature at Shakotan

KAMUIMISAKI cape is located on the north-western edge of the Shakotan Peninsula in Hokkaido. I walked along a narrow path that looked like a mountain ridge going as high as 80m above sea level. I proceeded for about 20 minutes amid the ocean wind and then came to the tip of the cape, which overlooks the crystal-blue Sea of Japan. This beautiful colour is known as Shakotan blue.

As the horizon appears slightly curved at both ends when observed from the tip of the cape, you can see that the Earth is round. Though it takes about an hour from the centre of Shakotan by car, the spectacle is worth the trip.

The sea offers not only this impressive view but also a variety of seafood. The town is famous for its nama uni don (raw sea-urchin roe topping a bowl of rice). I was there, however, just after the fishing season, which is only from June till August.

Even so, a Japanese restaurant I visited for lunch offered steamed sea-urchin roe and I enjoyed the kaisendon sashimi bowl decorated lavishly with northern shrimp and seasonal salmon roe. The sea urchin roe melted in my mouth and I could taste its subtle sweetness. I felt a sense of the abundance of the sea.


Forests account for 80 per cent of the town. The rains that fall on the highlands are soaked up in the mountain areas and the nutrient-laden rivers flow into the sea. This process is believed to help the growth of seafood and seaweed.

In 2010, Japan Tobacco (JT) began a 10-year project called JT Forest Shakotan to help the conservation of these mountains. JT subsidises the costs of forest thinning, weeding and afforestation over 350ha within the reach of three rivers running through the town, including the Bikunigawa river.

“Ill-maintained forests are recovering,” said Shakotan Mayor Hideki Matsui, 68. “I want to scientifically prove that mountains foster the ocean.”

Experts on forests, rivers and seas have already started investigations in their various fields.

“I hope they will collect enough data soon so that we can properly explain to children, who will be responsible for the next generation,” Mr Matsui said.

Forests not only nurture the abundant sea, but are also helping the reconstruction of areas hit by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. About 2,000 trees, including Japanese larches, were cut down, sent to disaster-hit areas such as Miyagi Prefecture and used as foundations for temporary housing units in May 2011. The workings of nature help human beings, highlighting the importance of protecting nature.


The next day, I visited a traditional-style fishermen’s lodge in the centre of the town that was originally built for those involved in the herring-fishing industry. Its herring fishing was the boast of the town and there were many houses that accommodated fishing boat owners, their families and crew members. But these houses are almost all abandoned nowadays.

In 2008, residents in the town began activities to preserve these houses as sightseeing spots. Local volunteers including Noriichi Bessho, 67, renovated the lodge and named it Yamashime Banya.

The two-storey wooden house has a total floor area of about 420 sq m. A public interest corporation subsidised the costs of renovation, such as those for replacing the flooring.

The facility was opened to the public until late September, hosting events such as shamisen lute performances. It is currently closed in preparation for further restoration work but its reopening is planned for around May next year.

“I feel regret if tourists just eat sea-urchin roe and leave town. I want them to know the history of Shakotan, even if it’s just a little,” Mr Bessho said.

Though the town has a population of only 2,300, many local people I met love their home town.


It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes by plane from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to New Chitose Airport. Then, 1 hour 15 minutes by train from the airport to Otaru Station and 1 hour 25 minutes by bus from the station to Bikuni, the centre of Shakotan.

For more details, contact the Shakotan tourism association at (0135) 44-3715 (English inquiries accepted only on weekdays) or visit


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