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Taipei Puts Taiwan on the Map

To Asia-wise travelers, Taipei is reminiscent of Tokyo. And this is not entirely coincidental. Japan occupied Taiwan not just during World War II, but for the 50 years from 1895 to 1945. That experience has left a clear and enduring cultural imprint.

Taiwan generally, and Taipei especially, has the best Japanese food outside Japan. I dined on impeccably fresh sashimi in my hotel, the Shangri-la Far Eastern Plaza, which has one of the city's best Japanese eateries, Restaurant Suntory.

Taiwan, awash in hot springs, has also embraced a meticulous, Japanese-style onsen bathing culture. Taipei even has a hot springs district, called Beitou, where spa hotels pipe in scalding geothermal water from the mountains. Villa 32, a luxury spa hotel in Beitou, offers Japanese-style lodging, complete with blond tatami floor mats and sliding wooden doors.

Japanese and Western influences are much in evidence, and Taipei also has a jones for Thai food, but the city is unmistakably Chinese. Even there, eclecticism reigns. Although Taipei is just an hour by air from Hong Kong, where the Cantonese dialect of Chinese predominates, this city and the rest of Taiwan speak Mandarin, the version of Chinese spoken throughout mainland China.

Chinese food, too, is diverse, with virtually every region of China represented in Taipei's restaurants: rice and dim sum from Guangdong, hot and spicy soup from Hunan, hairy crab from Shanghai, noodles, duck and lamb from Beijing and Inner Mongolia. Locals explain this gastronomic bounty by recalling that Chiang Kai-shek brought chefs from all around China with him when he was forced to leave the mainland with his defeated Nationalist army following the Communist Revolution of 1949.

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