A Trip to the Mountains and a Different Way of Life Text: Joe Henley Photos: Maggie Song
One of the southern outposts of Yilan County, Nan’ao, is often passed by unnoticed by travelers, locals and foreigners alike, headed further south along the coast to Hualien, where big tourist draws such as Taroko Gorge await. Perhaps more of these travelers would consider getting off the train or detouring off the highway if they knew that this is a culture-and scenery-rich area where one can experience the fascinating way of life of the Ryohen people.
Sayun Yawi, weaving master
Nestled in the mountains of Nan’ao Township is a village watched over by the spirits of the past. The village is Jinyue, and its 300 inhabitants are by and large members of the Ryohen people, a group belonging to the Atayal tribe.
The Ryohen believe that when their elders die, their spirits remain on the mountain to protect and guide them. As the Ryohen work to keep their traditional ties to the land alive, they invite those from the outside world to come and experience their way of life. The group—the name Ryohen is derived from the Atayal term for “bird’s nest fern”—once lived deeper in the mountains, in a village far from the reach of the outside world. However, during the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945) the Japanese coerced them to leave their ancestral home and move closer to the coast. Later, after 1949, the Nationalist government forced them to move once again. Under the Japanese, the Ryohen were subjected to the pressures of the Kominka Movement—an initiative designed to turn all inhabitants of Taiwan into loyal subjects of the Japanese emperor. As a result, many of the tribe’s elders speak Japanese, in addition to their native tongue and, for some, Mandarin/Taiwanese. The fight to keep their language alive is one of many acts of preservation the people of Jinyue have taken on since coming down from the higher mountains, finding a balance between honoring the ancestral ways and adhering to the advance of the modern world. Each year in summer they travel overland 32 kilometers to the original site of their village, crossing landslide zones, rivers, and crevices on foot so that the young of the tribe near lose touch with their roots. Those too old to make the two-day hike are flown in by helicopter so that they might look upon their old village’s overgrown homes and speak with the spirits of their ancestors once more.
Hanging out with Ryohen elder Yugan Hayun
Luckily, for visitors the journey to the modern-day site of Jinyue is far less arduous than this yearly trek. From Taipei the trip by train to the nearest station takes between two and two-and-a-half hours (followed with a taxi ride to the village). If self-driving, follow Provincial Highway 9 southbound along the eastern coastline.
Upon reaching the village, guests who have arranged a tour in advance are welcomed with a traditional greeting ceremony, a member of the tribe leading them in song and dance. Next, an elder sings a song of blessing, offering cups of millet wine to the eldest visitors first, continuing on down to the youngest. From there, visitors are invited to take part in one of four tours in and around the village, each a mix of history, education on the tribe’s traditional ways, outdoor adventure, and indigenous food.
The first option is a history-themed tour of the village, followed by lunch and topped off with some DIY fabric dyeing. The dyeing is a good bit of fun, as guests have the opportunity to pound a red breed of potato, gathered by Ryohen hunters when out on hunts for wild boar, into dye. The potatoes are inedible for humans, but are useful when hunters try to located boars, who love to feed on them. Guests have the chance to turn them into a paste by ramming a large wooden pounding stick into a collection vessel, carved out of the broad stump of a tree. Tied pieces of fabric are then placed in the natural dyeing solution and hung up to dry, the asymmetrical pattern that emerges dependent on the way in which the fabric was tied. If you happen to be visiting in July or August, the harvest season for millet, during the agriculture-themed tour you can learn how the grain is used in fermenting pork for traditional dishes. Hunting is essential to the traditional Ryohen way of life, and the third tour option has guests receiving a lesson in archery. According to custom, women are forbidden to touch a bow, just as men are banned from touching the base of the looms women use to weave traditional garments. But not to worry—for the purpose of the tour, women can learn to shoot just as surely as men.
Fabric dyed with red potatoes
The fourth tour option gives visitors a chance to learn how to construct a triangle stone kiln, which used to adorn the dirt floors of old Ryohen homes in times past, set between the separate beds of the husband and wife. Using the kiln, guests learn how to cook a traditional meal. An archery lesson is also part of the itinerary. If the visit takes place October through December, guests can also take part in the mushroom harvest; mushrooms are another staple of the Ryohen diet. The cost of a tour starts at NT$1,500 per day and person, and varies depending on the size of the group, will be served either buffet style or as individual sets. If you arrive without a reservation, set meals are available at a cost of NT$250.
Thought the Ryohen themselves do not offer river-tracing tours (they are planning to in the future), certified guides will be recommended at the village center upon inquiry; they can take visitors to Jinyue Waterfall, a short drive further up the mountain. From a small parking area, it’s a walk of just a minute or so to a narrow, rushing river. In the waterfall section, the river tumbles down over six separate stone flats on the mountainside. The water is crystal-clear and pleasantly cool and refreshing, racing over monolithic masses of stone worn smooth over the eons. River-tracing beginners stick to the lower two tiers of the falls, while more advanced visitors can venture higher up, accompanied by their guide.
River near Jinyue Waterfall
Back in the village, there are more interesting things to discover as well, chief among them the vitality and exuberance of the village’s elders, many of whom delight in demonstrating their traditional skills to visitors.
Woven rattan items
Sayun Yawi, 86 years young, laughs as she jokes that were it not for her weaving skills she would never have been married. It’s only partially in jest, however, as in the past a woman’s adeptness with the loom was seen as a kind of dowry. The more garments a family possessed, the richer they were considered. The old lady, who has been weaving since she was 15, now passes on her knowledge to the young of the tribe, at the village school or by having them come to watch her work her loom magic at home, sitting on the concrete floor, laughing, and telling stories as she works patiently and with good humor, stitch by stitch. Up the road from the village’s center is the home of Yugan Hayun, 81, an expert in rattan weaving. Having plied his trade from the age of 16, Yugan proudly shows off photographs of the baskets, baby carriers, hunting bags, and lunch boxes he weaves by shaping and bending the pliable reeds.
Enjoying the natural envirnment
At the entrance of the village stands the watchtower, where young men and women alike once stood guard, keeping a lookout for approaching enemies. Next to the tower is a replica of a traditional elevated granary. In the past, all Ryohen marriages were arranged. If the prospective bride or groom was reluctant, the couple would be locked together in the granary for a week. On coming out they would tend to agree that getting hitched was preferable to more time spent in involuntary confinement with their chosen partner. Across from the granary and tower is another replica, this of a traditional Ryohen home. Steps lead down from the doorway into the sunken level, wherein the first thing any visitor, friendly or otherwise, would have seen is the husband’s bed flush against the right wall. Above him would hang his weapons, giving pause to any thoughts of attack should the callers be enemies rather than friends. Above the triangle stone kiln is a hanging shelf, which served as a dryer for clothing, and rattan baskets and carrying cases adorn the walls. Next to the house is a bell tower erected as a memorial to a Ryohen girl, also named Sayun like the weaver, who drowned while helping her Japanese teacher cross a river in the late 1930s. In 1943 the story was turned into a film, Sayun’s Bell, which was screened throughout Taiwan and mainland China as a propaganda piece in an attempt to endear subject people on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to their Japanese colonial rulers. Today the bell is still rung at a special ceremony each year, and only those young people of the tribe who have achieved academic excellence, or made some outstanding cultural contribution to the tribe, may ring it.
To arrange a Jinyue tour, call the community office at +886- 3-998-4313, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The tours are also arranged in cooperation with outside tour agencies, so feel free to ask if arranging your Taiwan travels with an agency. For more info about Jinyue Village, visit www.ropwe.com.tw (Chinese).
Getting there From Taipei the trip by train takes between two and two-and-a-half hours (NT$304 on the Tze-Chiang Limited Express; note that not all trains on the Taipei-Yilan-Hualien route stop at Nan’ao). If you drive from Taipei, take National Freeway 5 to Yilan and then follow Provincial Highway 9 along the coast. From Nan’ao Railway Station, taxis are available for the short drive up the mountain to the village. On a recent visit the cost of the taxi ride, lasting around five minutes, was NT$130.
English and Chinese Atayal 泰雅 Jinyue 金岳 Jinyue Waterfall 金岳瀑布 Kominka Movement 皇民化運動 Nan’ao Township 南澳鄉 Ryohen 流興