Handcrafted ceramics remains a thriving industry in Taiwan today, yet there are few places where the average person can try his or her hand at creation. One of the most popular spots is Shuili Snake Kiln in Nantou County, site of the island’s oldest and most representative traditional wood-fired kiln.
By Rick Charette
The big, rambling wooden complex at the center of Shuili Snake Kiln Ceramics Cultural Park lies almost hidden away in forest cover beside Provincial Highway No. 16, just south of the town of Shuili and just before its junction with Provincial Highway No. 21, which leads to nearby Sun Moon Lake.
Inside is the kiln itself, a museum area, a multimedia exhibition room, a boutique, and a breezy open-front coffee shop. Intimate contact with ceramics-making comes in the pottery demonstration area, where masters show off each step of the craft, the DIY pottery classrooms, and the Wish Pottery area, where you “write your wish on the pottery and your dream will come true.”
During the DIY sessions, craftsmen assist visitors in making their own simple housewares such as bowls and mugs, then help to fire them. Those who cannot wait for pieces to dry (about 30 minutes) can have them mailed to them, for a fee.
The 30-meter long brick kiln, sitting on a slope to get the heat inside to move upward – the firewood is placed in the lower section – looks very much like a fat snake. It is a priceless historical relic, and is only rarely fired these days, to keep it in condition. It takes 3~4 days and an incredible amount of wood to bring it up to, and keep it at, the desired 1,100 degrees Celsius. The ash created within comes to rest on the ceramic pieces, creating the inimitable wood-fired look. When not in operation you can walk through it.
The 30-meter long brick kiln, sitting on a slope to get the heat inside to move upward, looks very much like a fat snake
There is a fair bit of English signage in the museum area, but a tour brings a much more intimate and info-rich experience. For English tours, park management suggests you contact them two weeks in advance. Among the precious info nuggets given me during my most recent guided visit was that in the past local folk would come during kiln firings and, when temperatures were right, dry their clothing on the outside and bake sweet potatoes inside, and ladies would walk through quickly with wet heads to get a free perm, hair curling instantly.
Among the many unusual and/or beautiful works on display is a water cistern that is not a water cistern. In WW II the Japanese in Taiwan realized they’d make great individualized air-raid bunkers, buried to their lip, each customized for one man and provided a lid and a step inside for easy exit. They were ordered in the thousands. Another is an ingenious teapot invented for royalty in which the access hole is at bottom, not top, preventing easy poisoning. Figure out how it works before your guide tells you!
Nantou County was once a major ceramics-producing center, a source of products such as roof tiles, myriad household items, and large ceramic vessels for aging liquor. The local water was found to be pure, the local clay ideal, the area sparsely populated, the forest cover thick, and the wood needed inexpensive. In 1927, the founder of the Shuili Snake Kiln came up from the south after hearing of the prime conditions from a friend; today the third generation is in charge and the fourth generation is deeply involved. If you take an English tour it almost surely to be led by the fourth generation’s Lin Hsiao-yin, who went away to school always intent on returning to support her owner-father’s dream of making the site a prime tourist venue and preserving traditional skills.
Lin’s father inherited the business in 1983 and, seeing demand wane for the wares of traditional wood-fired kilns, turned to tourism. The complex took a severe battering in the 1999 earthquake and the kiln itself was completely destroyed, but Hsiao-yin says this was a blessing in disguise, for in rebuilding it her father and another old-time hand were able to pass on precious knowledge to assistants that otherwise would likely have slipped away with their own eventual passing.
Shuili Snake Kiln Ceramics Cultural Park (水里蛇窯陶藝文化園區)
Add: No.21, Ln. 512, Sec.1, Shuixin Rd., Shuili Township, Nantou County (南投縣水里鄉水信路一段512巷21號)
Tel: (049) 277-0967
Hours: Daily 8 a.m. ~ 5:30 p.m.
Website: www.snakekiln.com.tw (Chinese; at time of writing under reconstruction)
Fees: Single adult ticket NT$150, preferential ticket NT$120 (NT$120/100 for groups; groups must be 30 and above); DIY ceramics making and painting NT$280/person, mug painting NT$200/person.
How to get there:
Self-drive: National Freeway No. 1 → Changhua System Interchange → National Freeway No. 3 → Exit at Mingjian Interchange → Prov. Hwy No. 3 → Prov. Hwy No. 16
Public transport: Take a train to Shuili Railway Station → transfer to Fengrong Bus (豐榮客運) bound for Puli (埔里) or Shuanglong (雙龍) to Snake Kiln stop (蛇窯站).
Other Attractions in the Area
The Jiji Branch Railway, popular with tourists, runs 29.7 km from the plains into the mountains along the Zhuoshui River, from the town of Ershui to the town of Checheng, near Sun Moon Lake. It was built by the Japanese colonial government in the 1920s to transport materials for the Sun Moon Lake dam construction, and soon opened for passenger traffic. Today, colorful air-conditioned trains slide along past farms and through small towns and thick green forest. The single-track line is best known for its Green Tunnel between the towns of Jiji and Longquan, a 4.5-km stretch of leafy canopy right beside Provincial Highway No. 16. The trees were planted during the colonial era.
In the town of Jiji is the pretty Japanese-built Jiji Railway Station, made of wood, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in the devastating 921 Earthquake of 1999. The adjoining museum has displays on the early development of the Jiji Railway and on the earthquake. Be sure to check out the scale model of the area displayed in the complex. Bicycle-riding is also popular in the area; there are rental shops across from the station (motorized and tandem bikes available).
The town of Checheng is the rail line’s eastern terminus. The station, rebuilt with wood after the 921 Earthquake, has been called Taiwan’s most beautiful. The huge old sawmill is now a museum with displays on virgin cypress-extraction days, and there’s an experience workshop where you can create chairs, pencil holders, etc., and a boutique winery that creates sweet plum wines.
For more about tourist factories around Taiwan, visit taiwanplace21.org/en/index.htm.
English & Chinese
Green Tunnel 綠色隧道
Jiji Branch Railway 集集支線
Jiji Railway Station 集集車站
Zhuoshui River 濁水溪
Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly May June Issue, 2012