After a full week in Japan, our long layover in Taipei on the way home was a jerk back to reality.
In many ways, the difference between Tokyo and Taipei is like the difference between Disneyland and Six Flags.
In Disneyland, so much work has gone into perfecting the illusion that it’s easy to forget you’re in a theme park. No matter where you go, whether in line for Thunder Mountain Railroad or buying the best corn dogs in the world in California Adventure, every detail is attended to. Some people call it “The Magic.” I get it. I appreciate the attention to detail, and like to get lost in the reality of the fantasy. That’s why I like to go to Disneyland; I guess on some level, I like to be fooled.
Six flags, however, is all about the rides; you go up the lift hill on a roller coaster, and for those few precious seconds you have at the top before the most intense ride of your life, you have a commanding view of the surrounding parking lots and dumpy fields.
Now hang with me here for a minute! I’m not saying that Taipei was a let down by any means. Merely the contrast between the two was stark almost to the point of being shocking. In Japan, the culture there is so foreign to everything I have known and come to be familiar with in my life that adjusting back to normal can be almost as much of a shock.
What I’m used to is the same most the world over, in Sicily, in California, really most of the Western world: a very outwardly prickly demeanor hiding real, friendly hospitality within. But you have to crack through that shell to find it. Japan, however, doesn’t seem to have a shell. Polite and friendly and really pretty sociable to complete strangers, foreigners even.
Returning home via Taipei was like coming back to normal, except everything still looked like Asia.
Mike commented that he heard more horns honked in twenty minutes of walking in Taipei than we had heard the entire time in Japan. Which was easy to calculate, because we didn’t hear any honking in Japan.
A simple task like getting four people into a taxi involves getting yelled at in Taipei (we weren’t getting in fast enough).
The taxi drivers drive erratic and crazy, flying through intersections while a blizzard of scooters blows by at even higher speeds. At stop lights, they all percolate to the front of the line until every possible gap between cars is filled with overloaded Yamahas and Hondas and other brands I’ve never seen before.
The scooters engaged a visceral reaction for me: being surrounded by scooters in Sicily would make me think I was about to be scooter-jacked, where they reach into your car and take your stuff and zip away. I kept holding my camera bag tighter and trying to lock the door whenever we stopped. But they were all harmless.
It’s obvious Taiwan’s economy is doing very well, because there are many active construction sites building large commercial buildings, even a new university or two. But this city is much grittier: everything is just dirty. The streets are dirty. The cars are dirty. In Japan, not a single car was clean, they were all spotless. And new. No rust, no dents, no dirt anywhere.
The downtown core seemed to be spread out and never-ending, almost as if planners got together yesterday and said “Alright, we need to build a city to hold a few million people.” There were plenty of beautiful buildings, like the awe-inspiring Taipei 101, but they were sprinkled here and there in a sea of five-story residential apartment blocks that looked pretty rough. Viewed from above, they were like shining spires of modern construction poking out of a sea of rusty corrugated metal roofs.
I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to illustrate the very stark contrast between Tokyo and Taipei, but here’s the real kicker: I really liked Taipei. It feels very real, like people actually live there, and work there. No, it’s not perfectly manicured, and it’s raucous loud, and it’s kinda grimy, but I like it. Where Tokyo is overwhelming and hyperstimulating, Taipei is laid-back and unassuming.
In keeping with our one travel tradition, we organized a cooking class with Ivy at Ivy’s Kitchen. She was absolutely adorable, and we made some amazing Taiwanese dishes like Three Cup Chicken and Xiao Long Bao. The food was delicious, though Mom wasn’t particularly thrilled with the Xiao Long Bao since it had pork gelatin in it.
And of course we visited Taipei 101. Somehow, that’s the only thing I managed to take pictures of while we were there.
But overall, Taipei was a city that I genuinely enjoyed visiting. We only got to spend two nights there, but it was a good introduction. Hopefully, someday I’ll get to go back and get to know it a little better.