DIY Pottery in Miaoli County’s Nanzhuang Township
TEXT / NICK KEMBEL
PHOTOS / MAGGIE SONG
In this article Travel in Taiwan heads to Yanzitao Pottery Coffee B&B in the township of Nanzhuang, Miaoli County, to enjoy a DIY pottery experience and get a taste of the region’s “take-it-slow” way of life.
There are numerous ways to reach Nanzhuang Township from Taipei. On this occasion we’ve opted for a bus ride (see end of article for transport info). After a hop-off, hop-on transfer at the nondescript bus station in Toufen, a town just south of Miaoli County’s border with Hsinchu City, we find ourselves on a rather fast local bus ride across the Miaoli countryside.
The intoxicatingly quaint rural scenes and hamletsseem to have little influence on the driver’s sense of urgency. As we zipthrough Sanwan Township and enter Nanzhuang Township, the roads become morewinding and the views whizzing past lovelier.
Miaoli is known for its hardworking yet laid-back folk, the majority of whom, especially in the countryside, are Hakka, with pockets of Atayal and Saisiyat indigenous settlements found in the hilly and mountainous parts of the county as well. Days start early in Miaoli, but afternoons often give way to prolonged naps or leisurely pursuits.
Miaoli residents rightfully boast about theirexcellent weather. In the winter months, if it’s raining in Taipei, there’s ahigh chance of blue skies in Miaoli. The favorable weather also allows farmersto grow the county’s signature crops, which include strawberries, pears,persimmons, Chinese radishes, and tea. Local food experts in Miaoli will tellyou that the leafy greens here are noticeably crunchier and more flavorful thanthose grown elsewhere in Taiwan.
Nanzhuang perfectly encapsulates Miaoli’s ruralcharm. The township’s characteristic serenity is no secret. You will pass manyhouses that serve as B&Bs (called a minsu or homestayin Taiwan), the preferred choice of holidaymakers who come from cities aroundthe island in search of solitude.
As our bus approaches Nanzhuang town, we pass one of the entrances to the Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area, which is part of the Tri-Mountain National Scenic Area (www.trimt-nsa.gov.tw). Here trails lead hikers past many old temples built on, and into, the mountainside. This section of the national scenic area straddles the border between Miaoli County and Hsinchu County. The main entrance area, on the Miaoli side, is home to the densest and most popular collection of religious edifices, including Quanhua Temple, a Daoist temple dedicated to the Jade Emperor that was built in 1897.
After arrival in Nanzhuang town, we go on a shortstroll along Nanzhuang Old Street and Sweet Osmanthus Alley, the latter anarrow lane that attracts many tourists on weekends, eager to sample its regionalHakka specialties, in particular teas, shaved ice, and other delicaciesflavored with the alley’s namesake flower.
Yanzitao Pottery Coffee B&B
Our destination for the day, the Yanzitao PotteryCoffee B&B, is about 3.5km southwest of Nanzhuang town. As there is infrequentbus service on County Road 124 (see box at end of article), taking a taxi from thetown is recommended.
We are lucky that the owner of Yanzitao has agreedto pick us up, however, and after a short wait in the town a small olive-coloredcar pulls up. We are greeted by Momo, the owner’s daughter, who goes by thisJapanese name after having majored in Japanese and spending a year working incoffee shops in Japan.
Momo’s working holiday was partially motivated byher desire to contribute to the realization of her parents’ business goal:establishing a pottery-focused guesthouse in their retirement home in NanzhuangTownship.
Momo describes her role in the project as she drives.
“Coffee is an important part of the leisure industry here,” she states. “It is a conductor of relaxation.”
On that note, we arrive at Yanzitao Pottery Coffee B&B, a modern three-story countryside home with a commanding view of the surrounding hills.
A pair of large white ducks welcomes us with quacks. The ducks, Momo shares, are known to fly over the yard fence and down the hill and then waddle their way back up the driveway, for some reason unable or unwilling to fly in an upward direction.
We are greeted warmly by Chang Yan-feng, Momo’smother, and are invited to enter her home. Chang and her husband ChanHsun-wen’s artwork fills the living room – shelf upon shelf of vases, jars,statues, and ornamental pieces. Each potter has a distinctive style. Chang’spieces are decorative, and revolve around figures and faces. Her familiaritywith form goes back to her former profession as a hairstylist. Chan, bycontrast, leans towards functional ware like teapots and lamps, with hisfavorite motif being the swallow. Yan, the Mandarin wordfor swallow, is part of both his wife’s given name and of their guesthouse.
While pottery is most often practiced by men inTaiwan, it was Chang who initiated the couple’s shared interest in the craft,and it is her work that has received the most praise. Chang recounts achildhood of poverty, working hard from a young age. After she married Chan shewould take their kids to free courses at a cultural center in Miaoli, and beganto develop an appreciation for art. After her kids had grown older she tookcourses herself, trying everything from calligraphy to painting, but it waspottery that made the deepest impression on her.
“Pottery was always in my nature; I just had to discover it,” Chang recollects. “Pottery was my calling.”
As her obsession with pottery grew, her husbandfollowed suit. He was constantly driving her around as she sought to learn fromdifferent pottery masters, and would sit beside her in class. According toChang, her husband mostly does the “manly” work, like carrying the heavy sacksof clay, so that she can focus on her art. “He has been as supportive as ahusband could be, physically, emotionally, and financially.”
While we chat, we sip on roselle tea and waterinfused with Mt. Lemmon Marigold, giving it a taste and aroma virtuallyidentical to passion fruit. This is one of the numerous flowers and herbs grownand sold at Yanzitao.
Next we go outside to tour the garden. Momo’s coffee shrubs are in their third year, and just beginning to produce fruit suitable for harvesting and brewing. We learn that Arabica typica coffee grown at lower altitudes such as here in Nanzhuang has a flowery, jasmine scent. We also admire dawn redwoods, sweet osmanthus trees, Chinese lantern flowers (they indeed resemble hanging lanterns), olive trees, and tung trees. In April and May, visitors are rewarded with scenes of white blossoms falling from the tung trees like snow. As an added incentive to visit at that time, fireflies can also be seen in the evening.
Next we go outside to tour the garden. Momo’scoffee shrubs are in their third year, and just beginning to produce fruit suitablefor harvesting and brewing. We learn that Arabica typica coffee grown at loweraltitudes such as here in Nanzhuang has a flowery, jasmine scent. We alsoadmire dawn redwoods, sweet osmanthus trees, Chinese lantern flowers (they indeedresemble hanging lanterns), olive trees, and tung trees. In April and May,visitors are rewarded with scenes of white blossoms falling from the tung treeslike snow. As an added incentive to visit at that time, fireflies can also beseen in the evening.
Our tour of the premises ends at two large potterykilns, one electric and one wood-fired, guarded in nonchalant manner by afamily of cats. The traditional wood-fired one, Momo explains, produces thebest results but with a lower success rate, so the DIY works are usually firedin the more reliable electric kiln.
With that, it is time for us to make some pottery.In the studio attached to the house, Chang goes into teacher and I into studentmode. “I can only show you so much, then you need to let your inner nature takeover and produce a work of your own,” she instructs as she hands me a hunk ofclay. Clay sourced from Miaoli is highly suitable for the crafting of potterydue to its mineral content, and while the town of Yingge in New Taipei City isthe undisputed capital of ceramics in Taiwan, pottery making as a pastime iscatching on in Miaoli.
My inner nature tells me to make a cat. I mold a resting feline that is surprisingly passable (considering my artistic inability). My cat will dry for several days before it will be baked at 1,230°C, and shortly after that mailed to my home. The fee for a one-hour DIY pottery experience for kids (age three or above is recommended) is NT$400, and families with babies can have fun doing footprints or handprints in clay for NT$600. Adults pay NT$500 for creating whatever they desire.
I feel accomplished, but can’t leave just yet, fora Yanzitao Pottery Coffee B&B visit is incomplete without trying some ofMomo’s coffee. She specializes in the slow-drip method, matching theguesthouse’s slow-life approach. Momo’s coffee menu features a range of single-origincoffees from Ethiopia and the New World, but many visitors opt for brews fromthe Yunlin, Alishan, or Miaoli areas in Taiwan. Three coffees with uniquely flavoringsalso grace the menu: home-planted turmeric, osmanthus honey, and maqaw (also known as May Chang and litsea). I can’t resistthe last, maqaw being a peppercorn-like seed with thetaste of lemon and ginger that is common in Taiwanese indigenous cuisine. The maqaw flavor sits pleasantly on the tongue – a perfectaccompaniment for the roselle fruit cake served.
As we leave, Momo’s parting words sum up our experience:
We invite visitors to touch and taste the foods we grow in our garden, and take part in our slow life.
A Slow Tour of Southern MIAOLI COUNTY