Originally called houshan in Chinese, meaning behind the mountains, Taitung County is a hidden gem on the east coast of Taiwan that offers both breathtaking scenery and a vibrant mix of Minnan, Hakka, and Taiwanese Aboriginal cultures. Due to its relatively remote location behind the Central Mountain Range, Taitung was the last county to be colonized and developed by Han immigrants in the 19th century. Hence, the county is home to Taiwan’s largest Taiwanese Aboriginal population. Ranging from Amis, Puyuma, Tao, Paiwan, and more, each tribe has its own unique cultural traditions and customs. For a breath of fresh air away from the hustle and bustle of large metropolises like Taipei or Kaohsiung, Taitung has plenty to offer.
Despite being the last county to be populated by Han Taiwanese, the earliest record of human habitation in Taiwan was actually discovered in Taitung County. For those interested in learning more about Taitung’s prehistoric past, the National Museum of Prehistory and the Beinan Cultural Park nearby are wonderful places to take a peaceful stroll while pondering about the Neolithic Beinan culture of times past.
In more recent history, Taitung has gone through its fair share of tumultuous events. During the Age of Discovery, rumors spread of a mysterious golden river on the east coast of Taiwan. In search of gold and other riches, the Dutch that landed in Taitung fought fiercely with the local Aboriginal tribes, eventually leaving empty-handed. Later during the Qing Dynasty, Taitung’s name spread throughout the land as a prime hiding spot for an uncouth crowd of vagabonds and pirates. Due to its notoriety, Japan sent troops to the county in 1879 after an unsettling number of robberies of Japanese citizens in the county.
After the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed after the Sino-Japanese War, the island of Taiwan was ceded to Japan as a colony. Not long after, the prefecture of Taitung was set up by the colonial Japanese government. Because of Taitung’s rich natural resources and pleasant environment, the Japanese regarded Taitung as a prime choice for Japanese overseas migrants relocating to Taiwan. During this period, the Japanese set up the county’s first financial institutions, as well as other infrastructures such as the Eastern Railroad and Chenggong Fishing Harbor.
In modern times, the former railway platform and its surrounding buildings have been converted into an outdoor art exhibition center that not only preserves the colonial architecture of the Japanese period, but also serves as a fine venue for art appreciation. With the art center consisting of studios, classrooms, performance stage and more, the Taitung Railway Art Village is also a great spot for families or couples to spend the afternoon enjoying local art and music performances or shopping around the local stalls. If you prefer to come in the evening, you can also admire the traditional paper lanterns while enjoying the gentle evening breeze under the stars.
If diving and snorkeling are more your "thing", you can always take a short ferry ride from the Chenggong Fishing Harbor to nearby Orchid Island. Home to the Tao, a Taiwanese Aboriginal tribe famed for their boat making techniques, Orchid Island is home to world-class snorkeling spots with large and well-preserved coral reefs. After taking a cool dip in the sapphire blue sea, you can enjoy a delicious traditional meal of flying fish. Serving an important role in the traditional diet of the Tao, flying fish are traditionally caught in handmade wooden canoes that the Tao call “tatala” for smaller canoes or “cinedkeran” for more substantial 10-men canoes. These fish are usually caught and dried during the Flying Fish Festival, from around March to July, during which flying fish follow the kuroshio current from as far south as the Philippines traveling as far north as Japan.
Whether it be awe-inspiring mountain and coastal scenery or fascinating local cultures and history, Taitung has much to explore for the curious traveler. From world-class snorkeling and great surfing to relaxing hot springs and fascinating local cultures, Taitung has a little something for everybody. Next time you are in Taiwan, don’t forget to drop by the hidden gem of the east coast for a relaxing and fun-filled holiday escape.