1 February 2020.
It’s not often, or ever really, that I find myself standing in my birthday suit in front of a group of equally nude strangers, and yet today, that is exactly where I’ve ended up.
Nestled in the foothills of Yangmingshan National Park, I’ve come to the district of Beitou in northern Taiwan. Built at the base of a dormant volcano, this fertile valley is brimming with greenery and has given rise to the country’s most popular cluster of hot springs.
It’s a misty November morning, the air is laced with the chill of early autumn and a traditional Taiwanese bath sounds like the perfect antidote, bare-skin and all.
As I enter the small steamy room, my pale, freckled skin and shock of blonde hair draws the raised eyebrows of several patrons, but I’m equally as surprised by the scene that greets me.
In the corner, an elderly woman with a wispy bun wrapped in a pink flannel scrunchie swings her legs to and fro with surprising vigour before folding over to touch her toes and then returning upright to begin the movement all over again.
Beside her, another woman pounds her tiny fists against her slender arms and legs. In response, a chorus of deep, throaty burps rumble from her mouth. The pummeling continues with increased urgency, as does the belching.
No one bats an eyelid. Apparently this is all perfectly normal bathhouse behaviour.
I briefly consider throwing caution to the wind and joining my fellow bathers by flailing my limbs about with wild abandon or rehearsing my own vocalised tune but quickly decide against it.
Nearby, a pair lay back against the stone wall of the steaming pool lost in whispered conversation. This is far more my speed.
Having just been given a thorough explanation from the hostess, I scuttle past with what I now I realise is a pathetically inadequate hand towel and dutifully attempt to follow the correct hot spring etiquette – shower, rinse, soak.
With the first two steps complete, I move towards the toe-tinglingly hot pools and lower myself in. A counter on the wall has the temperature set at 46°C, the equivalent to a scorching Sydney heatwave I muse, but as I lower myself in I realise it’s far too hot for me and I’m forced to scooch on over to the slightly cooler 44°C pool instead.
Enveloped in the deliciously hot water, all naked awkwardness forgotten, I sink down to my neck, close my eyes and allow the healing waters to work their magic. Rich in minerals, these natural hot springs are widely believed to offer health benefits such as improved circulation, reduced stress and the soothing of aches and pains.
Fingers crossed they can wash away the last few months of long haul flights and heavy backpacks.
While I’ve been preoccupied with following the rules in my hopes to not offend or disrupt, it dawns on me that for most visitors this is no ordinary sit and soak spa.
For some it’s a relaxing social occasion or place of meditation while for others it’s a complete morning ritual that may unfold over several hours. One of muscle-melting soaks and invigorating cold showers interspersed with moments of stillness where overall wellness is the ultimate goal. If thrusting your limbs in the air or pummeling your chest is what works for you, so be it.
As an outsider with no routine to speak of, it lends to a wonderfully relaxing experience, once you get the hang of things of course, but what’s more, it provides a curious peek behind closed doors at an authentic and strangely intimate part of Taiwanese culture.
* This post includes affiliate links and any purchases made through these links will earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you. *
Your first traditional Taiwanese hot spring experience can be a little confronting, especially if you’re a complete newbie and unsure of the procedure. At virtually every bathhouse, there’s a simple process that needs to be followed before you reach the whole soaking in the hot tub bit.
Thankfully, some hot springs do have signs to help guide befuddled foreigners like myself through the motions, but not all do, so it’s helpful to know beforehand what to expect and how the heck to navigate this experience without committing a serious faux pas.
Which Bathhouse To Choose?
Public Or Private | Public bathhouses offer communal bathing where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with a group of strangers, while a private hot spring will be just for you.
Some small public bathhouses will also offer private rooms for a reasonable rate, otherwise, you’ll find a number of hotels where you’ll be given an entire room with a hot spring included. In Beitou, these range from simple but comfortable hotels through to luxurious hot spring suites that can be rented by the hour or day.
Gender-Segregated Or Mixed | Most bathhouses have entirely separate areas for men and women which allows for nude bathing. Often you’ll walk through a clearly gender-marked curtain or door where you’ll find a locker room, shower space and the hot springs themselves.
Mixed bathhouses are where all genders are able to bathe together and you’ll be required to wear a bathing suit. These also tend to be more spacious.
Traditional Or Modern | Many of the older or more traditional bathhouses are very simple, functional spaces without much attention to decor. The hot springs themselves may just be a pair of small concrete pools where the water is funnelled directly in from the spring accompanied by a small shower space and locker room.
More modern baths are generally found in private rooms where the entire space has been designed for relaxation.
Demographics | From what I saw, public hot springs in Taiwan are frequented more so by the older generations keen to take full advantage of the healing properties of the water rather than millennials. This may also mean that the younger folk simply prefer to bathe in private.
Taiwan Hot Springs – What To Do
This process will essentially be the same for every single hot spring you visit in Taiwan, whether it’s public, private, segregated or mixed with the main focus being on maintaining cleanliness in the pools and stopping the spring water from becoming contaminated.
| Locate the locker room, undress and leave everything (everything!) except your water bottle, towel and key in your designated locker. If you’re visiting a mixed bathhouse, put your swimsuit on as well. Some bathhouses provide small baskets for you to keep your belongings, while others may have small stools where you can drape your towel while bathing.
| Shower and clean yourself thoroughly before getting in the hot springs.
| Douse your feet with the hot spring water right before you climb into the pool. There’s usually a bucket by the water’s edge that you can use to rinse your lower legs. If you sit on the edge of the pool at any time or the small stools which are often provided, it is also a courtesy to wash the surface down when you get up.
| Letting your hair fall in the water is a big no-no so ensure it’s out of the way. Some establishments will accept hair that is tied up neatly and kept off your face and neck, while busier establishments with high turnover may require your hair to be covered completely with a swimming or shower cap.
| Ease your way into the hot water. In Beitou, the baths I visited were 44 and 46°C which at first felt scalding to the touch. Start with your feet and edge in slowly as you adjust to the temperature.
| Don’t spend more than 5 to 10 minutes in the hot water at a time. The hot spring experience tends to be a long and slow ritual that involves brief soaks in the hot pools interspersed with cold swims or showers and long periods recuperating outside the water. It’s this hot/cold process that is supposed to improve your circulation.
| Many bathhouses have pools of various temperatures, from tepid to scalding. Move between them to find the most comfortable one for you.
| Drink plenty of water. Bring your water bottle into the pool area with you and don’t forget to drink up while you’re there and after you leave.
Taiwan Hot Springs – What Not To Do
| Don’t forget to shower! Maintaining cleanliness is the crux of all these rules so above all, be sure you’re clean before getting into the hot spring water.
| Avoid applying any product to your skin or hair before arriving at the hot springs, including moisturiser, sunscreen or serums. Even after a shower, these products can stay on your body and leave a residue in the water.
| For many, hot springs are as good a place for a social catch up as anywhere and many ladies will gab away for hours while going through the motions of their wellness routine. While quiet conversation is perfectly acceptable, being rowdy and disruptive is not and this applies to children as well.
| Don’t stare, obviously. You may get a few curious glances if you’re clearly not a local, but for the most part this is nothing unusual for most patrons. The whole experience may be a little unsettling at first but try to follow suit.
| A towel – some bathhouses allow only a hand towel to be brought into the pool area while others will permit a full-sized one which does afford you some degree of modesty.
| A water bottle – remember to stay hydrated.
| Swimwear for a non-segregated pools
| A shower or swimming cap (check beforehand)
| Soap, shampoo and deodorant for afterwards.
| A plastic or waterproof bag for your wet towel or swimwear
| Pampering kit – now, this certainly isn’t allowed everywhere, but I did see some women giving their body a full scrub and exfoliation treatment complete with hand mitts and pumice stones. Given how much the water softens and soothes your skin, it’s not a bad idea. Of course, this all happens in the shower area, not in the communal pools, and is followed by a full rinse before returning to the spring water, but I’d only suggest doing this if you see others at it already.
There are a number of hot springs in Beitou and I’d suggest reading online reviews carefully to ensure you find the type of bathing experience you’re after. There are a number of high-end hotels offering spa packages for anyone who has privacy and relaxation as their primary goal, while those seeking an authentic and affordable communal bathing experience will also be well catered for.
Longnice Hot Spring | A small traditional bathhouse in Beitou, Longnice offers segregated bathing with two very hot pools (42°C to 46°C) and no suits allowed. This place is widely recommended online and was where I happily chose to visit during my time in Beitou. It’s a simple establishment but the hostess speaks excellent English and will patiently walk you through the bathing process to help you have the best experience possible. Entry is $150 (€4.50) and numbers are limited so I’d recommend arriving early in the day when it’s still quiet.
Millennium Hot Spring | The cheapest and most popular spot in Beitou, Millennium offers mixed outdoor bathing with pools of various temperatures and where bathing suits are mandatory. Unfortunately, the kicker is that this place regularly receives fairly awful reviews online. The most frequent complaints include overcrowding, cleanliness and issues with swimwear (guys, this is a tight, lycra only zone.) It’s an ok choice if price is your only concern (entry is just $40/€1.25), but you will likely find a more enjoyable experience elsewhere.
Private Hot Springs | You’ll find some beautiful private hot springs in Beitou which can generally be reserved by the hour. Be sure to check prices and reviews before making a booking.
Hot Spring Hotels | Beitou’s proximity to Taipei means it’s easily visited as a day trip, but to enjoy the area at a slower pace, there are numerous hotels that pair ultimate comfort with relaxation. Many are rather pricey for Taiwan but will allow you to make the most of your hot spring experience at your own pace. Check rates and reviews here.
While lounging about in the hot springs is without a doubt the main event in Beitou, there are a few other attractions to visit while you’re here. That said, even with an hour or so spent having a good soak and stops at the other attractions, a visit to Beitou shouldn’t take longer than half a day.
Beitou Thermal Valley
Also known as Hell Valley, this pool of steaming aquamarine water is one of the sources of the mineral-rich water that feeds the hot springs of Beitou.
Aside from the bathhouses themselves, this is perhaps the area’s most famous attraction and is the first stop for tour buses visiting the area. Veering off the main road, a 250m boardwalk takes you along the edge of the large pool that billows steam between the trees.
Beitou Hot Spring Museum
This free museum is set in an original Victorian-style bathhouse – once the largest in East Asia – that has existed here for more than a century dating back to Japanese rule.
The exhibits charter the history of hot spring culture in Beitou and include a beautiful central pool surrounded by pillared archways. This large area was reserved for men only, while women were relegated to the tiny baths in a back room.
You’ll need to remove your shoes on entry and follow the arrows that guide you around the museum which can be seen in around an hour.
Beitou Park + Library
To get from Xinbeitou Station to the hot spring area, you’ll need to walk through or alongside Beitou Park where you’ll find some lovely pockets of greenery, fountains and florals, and the beautiful wooden structure of Beitou Library.
It’s a working library with most visitors quietly studying away, but the upper levels feel like you’re amongst the forest canopy.
The easiest way to reach Beitou is via the MRT from central Taipei.
Take the Red Line (Tamsui – Xinyi) directly to Beitou Station where you’ll need to change to the Pink Line which runs just one stop to Xinbeitou where the village of hot springs is located.
Trains on the Red Line are frequent, about every 5 minutes, and take around 25 minutes, while the Pink Line is also serviced regularly.
Don’t forget your EasyCard to pay for the journey.
If you’re short on time, you can also visit Beitou as part of an organised or self guided day tour that includes stops at Yangmingshan National Park and Shilin Night Market. There are direct transport options from Beitou to both places.