New Taipei City

Tamsui Longshan Temple (淡水龍山寺)

When tourists visiting Taiwan want to experience a bit of traditional culture they almost always make their way to Taipei’s beautiful Longshan Temple. The historic temple is one of the best and most easily accessible examples of Taiwanese traditional culture, art and architecture and is always packed full of worshippers going about their daily routines.

What many fail to realize however is that Taipei’s popular Longshan Temple is only one of several temples around Taiwan (as well as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.) which share the same name.

There are currently eight temples throughout Taiwan and its outlying island territories where you can find a ‘Longshan Temple’ - Of those eight temples, five of them are historically significant in buildings which date between the 17th and 19th centuries.

For westerners, I suppose its easiest to compare how the various denominations of the Christian church have set up a network of branches all over the place.

Here in Taiwan the situation is very similar with major temples like Longshan Temple (保安宮), Qingshui Temple (清水祖師廟), Bao-An Temple (保安宮), Confucius Temple (孔廟) all having branches in several locations throughout the country.

While the majority of Taiwan’s most significant Longshan Temple’s were constructed in the 1700’s, the baby of the group, Tamsui’s Longshan Temple might not have such a storied history, nor is it as popular as its siblings but it does nonetheless have a charm of its own and should be on the list of every tourist’s itinerary if they are planning to visit Tamsui.

Before we get into the history of the Tamsui Longshan Temple though, I think I should give a brief explanation of the common features of all of these temples:

Longshan Temple (龍山寺)

The Longshan Temple’s of Taiwan have a history that is directly related to the early migration of Hokkien Chinese settlers from China’s Fujian Province (福建省).

Starting in the early 1600’s, due to the political instability of the Ming Dynasty (明朝), many people hailing from the Fujian and Guangdong areas made the decision to pack up and move across the Taiwan strait and throughout South East Asia.

Bringing their language, culture, cuisine and folk religion, the Hokkien people sought to make a go of it in what was then a very under-developed Taiwan.

The original Longshan Temple which received its name thanks to its location on Dragon Mountain (龍山) in Fujian, was constructed during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) somewhere between 618-619.

The temple, like every other Longshan Temple that followed it is dedicated to the Buddha of Compassion whom in the Chinese Buddhist tradition takes the form of Guanyin (觀音菩薩), a female Buddha. Non-Chinese Buddhists are likely more familiar with Tibet’s Buddha of Compassion who appears in human form as the Dalai Lama.

Here in Taiwan the tradition that these temples would be dedicated primarily to Guanyin has continued but as the centuries have passed they have evolved and started to accommodate Taoist and local folk religion deities as well - many of whom also hail from the Fujian region.

Even though you can now find several deities housed within Taiwan’s various Longshan Temples, the fact remains that the majority of the religious practices that take place inside are rooted in ancient Chinese Zen Buddhist tradition.

Something that I can’t underscore enough about the religious experience in Taiwan compared to the west is that temples like Longshan Temple have the ability to house gods from what are considered to be different religions yet there are never any problems that arise from this. The religious experience in Taiwan is one of tolerance and should act as a model for those around the world who would use their religious beliefs to cause harm to others.

The Hokkien people who brought with them their cultural and religious practices constructed their first Taiwan branch of Longshan Temple in Changhua’s historic port town of Lugang in 1647 and later constructed several others.

Today there are five temples in Taiwan with histories that date between 160 - 370 years which were all constructed during the Qing dynasty.

  1. Lugang Longshan Temple (鹿港龍山寺) - 1647

  2. Tainan Longshan Temple (台南龍山寺) - 1715

  3. Monga Longshan Temple (艋舺龍山寺) - 1738

  4. Fengshan Longshan Temple (鳳山龍山寺) - 1765

  5. Tamsui Longshan Temple (淡水龍山寺) - 1858

Each of the temples differs in its design, but they all share a similar history and purpose making the Longshan Temple’s of Taiwan an important place of worship and historical value.

Tamsui Longshan Temple (淡水龍山寺)

Tamsui’s Longshan Temple was originally constructed in 1853 by residents of the Tamsui port area who had immigrated from the Quanzhou (泉州) area of Fujian.

Unfortunately after only a few short years the temple burnt to the ground.

In 1858, the current version of the temple was reopened and even though it has been repaired and renovated several times over that period of time, it still maintains its original design.

In comparison to the other Longshan Temples around Taiwan, the Tamsui version is a considerably smaller place of worship - Its beauty however lies in its design and its simplicity.

The entrance to the temple is strangely in a dark, covered traditional market that makes the temple seem somewhat mysterious from the outside. The elaborately decorated traditional stone-front temple facade even on the brightest of days is barely visible.

The entrance however opens up to a beautifully naturally lit interior that tends to transform depending on the weather. On sunny days the temple shines - on rainy days the colours of the temple are accentuated by the dull grey skies with clouds of burning incense.

Coincidentally the temple has become a popular place or photographers for this very reason. Its a very photogenic place

As is tradition, the temple was constructed sitting in the west and facing east (座西朝東) and has a simple ‘two-hall and two-passage-way’ design (兩殿兩廊式). Basically what this means is that the temple was constructed according to Feng Shui for great energy and is rectangular in shape with two different sections - a common design for temples. The entrance area forms one of the ‘halls’ (殿) with an open-air courtyard in the middle. There are two covered walkways (走廊) on either side that lead to the rear hall where the main shrine is located.

Considering its size, the temple only has one shrine room but the decorations in the interior not only show their age but the expert craftsmanship of Taiwanese temple architecture. The wood and stone work inside is beautiful, especially the large wooden plaques with calligraphy that hang from the ceiling.

The main shrine is (of course) dedicated to Guanyin (觀音菩薩), the Buddha of Compassion. But what you might find interesting is that all three of the shrines in the temple are dedicated to popular female deities from Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folk religion.

The statue of Guanyin is a large golden one with beautifully hand-painted calligraphy in the background. To her right is a shrine to the Goddess Mazu (天上聖母), the patron-saint of Taiwan and to her left is a shrine to the Goddess of Child Birth (註生娘娘) rounding out the all-female cast of deities.

It probably goes without saying that when people pay a visit to the Child Birth Goddess they’re looking to have success in becoming pregnant or divine protection for a safe and healthy delivery.

Guanyin, the principle deity of Longshan Temple on the other hand serves a myriad of different roles - Known as the goddess of mercy, her name loosely means that she ‘hears the cries of mankind’ and seeks to help solve people’s problems. A visit to Guanyin is thus important when seeking protection for your family, health, career, etc.

Finally, Mazu, as mentioned above, serves as the patron-saint of Taiwan and especially those who work on the seas -  There are over a thousand places to workshop Mazu around Taiwan with most shrines historically constructed in port areas by fishermen who wanted to express gratitude for watching over them while out at sea.

As the patron-saint of Taiwan however Mazu has over the years transcended her traditional role as protector of the seas to the protector of the nation. People of all walks of life in Taiwan pay respects to the goddess and also request protection for theirselves and their families.

Getting There

 

Tamsui’s Longshan Temple is a short walk from the Tamsui Metro Station (淡水捷運站) and makes for a great visit if you are taking the time to visit the Danshui Old Street (淡水老街).

Somewhat hidden within a bustling traditional market, there isn’t much signage in English that will point you in the direction of the temple which means that you’ll probably want to follow Google Maps for this one.

From the Metro Station you’ll want to follow Zhongshan Road (中山路) into the downtown area of Tamsui making a right turn when you arrive at Zhongshan Road Lane 8 (中山路8巷).

From there you’ll walk up the hill for a minute or two before you turn right into a market alley on Qingshui Street (清水路) which you will walk down for a minute before turning left and seeing the main entrance to the temple.

While visiting Danshui, apart from the other obvious tourist destinations, you may also want to consider visiting the local Qingshui Temple (清水祖師廟) and the historic Fuyou Temple (福佑宮), one of Danshui’s most important and historic places of worship.  

If you are like many other tourists who make visiting Tamsui part of their Taipei itinerary you’ll definitely want to include a visit to the local temples to enjoy a bit of the storied history of the area that you will completely miss while walking down the so-called “old street”.

Tamsui played an instrumental role in the development of Northern Taiwan and you don’t have to look very far for its history. Its on display all over its streets. Try not to be like all the other tourists walking around with their giant ice-creams thinking they’ve seen the real Tamsui.

A visit to Tamsui’s Longshan Temple will be a completely different experience than what you will have at Taipei’s temple - The relative peace and quiet of the Tamsui temple allows guests to walk around and really appreciate the fine details of the beautiful artwork and architecture without a billion other people getting in the way.


Sanjiaopu Mountain (三角埔頂山)

A few years ago I posted a blog about the beautiful Silver Grass (芒花) that appears during the Autumn and Winter months in Taiwan turning the country’s lush green mountains white.

I might have been a bit ahead of the curve as the blog post was the only English-language resource available at the time that introduced the beautiful weeds.

Since then ‘Silver Grass tourism’ has sort of become ‘thing’ around here and people are flocking to mountains all over the country taking photos of the tall grass.

I’d like to think my humble blog post played a small role in that.

Actually no, I jest.

The sudden popularity of Silver Grass-related tourism as of late is probably thanks to what I’ve started to refer to as ‘Insta-tourism.’

To put it simply, trends in domestic tourism in Taiwan these days is almost completely driven by trends on Instagram and Social Media - Think Pokemon Go, but instead of catching a monster, you get to take photos.

In the the west we’ve taken to referring to those people who earn a living from their Instagram following as ‘influencers’ while here in Taiwan they are known as “Internet Beauties” (網美) or “Internet Celebrities” (網紅).

In Taiwan these so-called influencers play a lot of the same advertising roles that they do in other countries but are also very much engaged in driving new trends and introducing new photo locations to their followers.

A single photo from one of these people has the ability to turn what was once a quiet destination (enjoyed mostly by locals) into a social-media sensation.

As an avid hiker, I’ve found that I’ve always been able to climb mountains on weekends and never really had to deal with traffic jams on the trails. Now though, you have to be very selective of what mountains you are climbing as some of them have become popular spots for Instagrammers to roam around.

As I’ve mentioned before, Jinmian Mountain (金面山), Kite Mountain (鷹山), the Sacred Mother Peak (聖母山步道), Yuanzui Mountain (鳶嘴山) and the Pingxi Crags were all hiking trails that were pretty much only frequented by hiking groups. Today they are all filled with people looking not for a good day of exercise but to increase their follower counts.

Whether or not this kind of tourism is a good thing remains to be seen.

As Silver Grass tourism became a popular trends over the past few years, the mountains where it grows in abundance have been filling up with visitors.

Traditionally, the most popular locations to go and check it out has always been on Taipei’s Yangming Mountain (陽明山), Cixing Mountain (七星山), Datun Mountain (大屯山) or on the historic Caoling Trail (草嶺古道).

This year however there was a new contender for the most popular spot thanks to Instagram.

Like many other mountains in Taiwan as of late, what was once a quiet hiking trail frequented only by locals, Sanjiaopu Mountain (三角埔頂山) has became yet another internet sensation thanks to the power of social media.

The mountain which sits on the border of Taoyuan and New Taipei City was once most well-known for its panoramic cityscape views of the Taipei basin. These days however not many people really care about those beautiful views as Silver Grass tourism has completely taken over.

Interestingly enough, despite the local government having constructed a well-maintained hiking path on the mountain, it was never really that popular as most people stayed away due to the fact that the mountain is also home to a cemetery - which in Taiwan automatically means there are ghosts!

Rising only 285 meters above sea-level, Sanjiaopu Mountain isn’t a very big one and doesn’t actually require much hiking. You can drive your car or scooter almost all the way to the top where there is a parking area at the trailhead.

From the trailhead you only really need to walk about five minutes to reach the peak.

Not really a day trip if that’s what you’re looking for. 

There are however several trails on the mountain that allow visitors to walk around the perimeter where you’ll get different panoramic views of the cityscape.

On a clear day you’ll be able to see as far as Guanyin Mountain (觀音山) to the north and Datun Mountain (大屯山) and pretty much all of Taipei City to the east.

The views on top of this mountain are ideal for landscape or cityscape photographers.

While most people enjoy the views of Taipei City from Elephant Mountain (象山), this mountain provides a completely different perspective than what most are used to seeing and is justifiably very popular after dark for unparalleled night views of the city.

These days however its all about the Silver Grass.

Silver Grass (芒花)

Silver grass or ‘Miscanthus Sinensis’ is a species of flowering plant that is endemic to East Asia growing in Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China. In both Taiwan and Japan, the plant is widely respected and when it is in bloom people will flock to the mountains and hillsides to see it.

Coincidentally in North America attitudes toward the plant are the polar opposite as it is considered an invasive species and is usually destroyed to control its growth.

It's interesting that the so-called “weed” is reviled in one area and highly respected in another.

Between the months of October and December you can pretty much see wild silver grass growing all over Taiwan - Its literally everywhere you find a patch of grass.

If you want to see it growing in abundance, or you want to get some photos of yourself in a field full of it - you're going to have to head to the mountains where it grows without impediment.

Check out my blog post from a few years ago where I posted photos of the beautiful Silver Grass from the top of Datun Mountain in Taipei.

Getting There

 

As I mentioned above, Datun Mountain and Yangming Mountain in Taipei have always been most popular thanks to their accessibility when it comes to public transportation.

Unfortunately for the ‘influencers’ of the world, if you want to visit this one, you’re not going to be able to rely on public transportation to get there.

I mean, you could take a bus from Shulin (樹林) to Taoyuan (桃園) and get off somewhere in the middle and then walk a few kilometres up the paved mountain road.

But thats not really the best idea if you want to enjoy your time on the mountain.

If you do insist on using public transportation it’d be best to first take a train to Shulin Train Station (樹林車站) and from there take bus 701, 843, 985 or Orange 26. While on the bus watch for the “New Village” bus stop (新村站) where you’ll get off and begin your 2km walk up the mountain.

On the other hand, if you have your own means of transportation you’ll want to take Provincial Highway #1 (省道台一線) from either Taoyuan (桃園) or Xinzhuang (新莊) and turn off at the Dadong Bridge (大棟橋) where you’ll be transported behind some factories and up the mountain.

The mountain has quite a few side roads though and its easy to get lost, so its probably a better idea to input the words “三角埔頂山“ into Google Maps, which will guide you up the mountain where you’ll be able to park.

I realize that by (purposely) posting this blog well-after the Silver Grass season has ended won’t really help you out very much - especially if you’re an Instagrammer looking for a cool new spot to take photos - You’ll have to wait until next year for that.

This mountain however is a great spot all year long, so if you’re looking for somewhere to take cityscape photos that are going to turn out different than everyone else’s - you’ll definitely want to consider visiting this mountain!

Likewise, if you’re reading this blog just in time for Silver Grass season make sure to visit for the Silver Grass but remember to stay for the cityscape photos - especially at night!