The Lions Head Mountain Scenic Area (獅頭山風景區) or "Shitoushan" is one of Taiwan's designated national scenic areas covering over 24,000 hectares of land in both Hsinchu and Miaoli counties. The mountain is considered sacred to Taiwanese Buddhists and is a popular weekend tourist spot due to the amount of temples, shrines and monasteries that make their home throughout the mountain.
The Shitoushan area is also well known for its importance to the Hakka communities which have settled in the areas around the mountain in villages like Beipu (北埔), Nanzhuang (南庄) and Sanwan (三灣) as well as being important to the Saisiyat Aboriginal Tribe (賽夏族) who have traditionally inhabited the area.
There are eight well developed hiking trails all of which are several kilometres long and take you through beautiful mountain landscapes with lush forests and river streams. The trails are quite popular as they do not require much in the form of hiking skill or experience and seem more like a brisk walk than actual hiking.
In the first post about Lion's Head Mountain I covered the first two and the largest of the temples on the mountain. In this post I'm going to briefly introduce some of the other places and things to see on the mountain.
Yuan Guang Monastery (元光寺)
I've been to Lion’s Head Mountain several times and each time I visited, Yuan Guan Monastery wasn't open to the public. You can walk past the monastery, which is a large one that consists of a large temple in the middle with residential areas and farming areas to the sides.
On one of my visits I took a peek inside the main temple and it was just a large room with a lot of meditation cushions on the floor. It seems like the Yuan Guang Monastery is a very busy monastery and quite a few monks and nuns live there, but so far I haven't really seen any of them.
She Li Cave (舍利洞)
She Li Cave looks just like a normal temple when you are walking past. It has a courtyard covered by rooftop and there is an incense burner in front of a shrine to Guanyin. It is another one of the mountains shrines built into a cave, but there is something a bit special about this one and truthfully even though I've been past this temple several times - I hadn't actually realized there was a cave!
On my most recent visit to the mountain I had a short conversation with the groundskeeper who was not only excited to see someone on a weekday, but that that person was also a foreigner. He told me not to miss the cave inside and to my surprise he led me past a small door on the right of the shrine and brought me into an actual lighted cave behind the shrine.
The shrine in the back has another Guanyin statue and it reaches in behind the shrine in front. The cave however isn't very large and it was a bit damp so I didn't spend much time inside. As I mentioned in the previous post, you have to be careful on this hike that you don't randomly miss some cool stuff.
Ling Yun Cave (凌雲洞)
Ling Yun Cave is a small cave with a shrine built in front of it. There really isn't much to see here as you can just look into the cave through a window in the small shrine they constructed in front of the cave.
Inside the shrine there are some Buddha statues and to the side there is a life size statue of Guanyin. The statue of Guanyin is a little strange looking and is in the design of what I like to call "Catholic-inspired" Buddhist art. The statue doesn't look like a typical Buddhist statue and the lifelike design of it can be a bit scary - kind of like Catholic art. The cave is just a smaller attraction along the road, so you don't necessarily need to spend much time there, especially if you aren't Buddhist - If you are hiking Taiwanese people however they will probably want to stop at all of the shrines and offer their respect.
Kai Shan Temple (開善寺)
Kai Shan temple is a Buddhist temple that was built in 1927 and is aesthetically-speaking my favourite temple on the mountain. The temple is quite special compared to a lot of the other temples in Taiwan as it was designed in the style of Northern Japanese temples and thus different from what you'd normally see here in Taiwan.
The temple is a short walk from the She Li Cave and like the cave it is another temple built into the side of a mountain. The temple's courtyard is really cool with some giant zen-like bonsai trees (盆栽) that are taken care of by the monks who reside at the temple. If you're familiar with the Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi was really fond of his trees and cutting them was a form of meditation for him. Likewise, the monks and nuns at this temple will spend their time practicing the ancient art with the trees and they will look different each time you visit.
The inside of the temple has some really large statues of Amida Buddha (阿彌陀佛), Shakyamuni Buddha (釋迦牟尼佛) and the Medicine Buddha (藥師佛.) Considering that this temple is part of a monastery, there are often monks and nuns working or performing religious activities at the temple as well as cleaning up and taking care of the grounds.
The monks will chant a few times a day and the chanting is played on speakers so that the whole mountain can hear. If you visit the Kai Shan temple, try to be quiet and enjoy the scenery and don’t walk around the inside of the temple if the monks are inside chanting as you could distract them.
Also, don't forget to enjoy the view of the look off from the courtyard in front of the temple. There is a great view of not only the temples and pagodas below but also of northern Miaoli county.
Ling-Xia Cave (雲霞洞)
Ling-Xia Cave is probably one of the most well-known of all the temples and shrines on the mountain. The shrine was initially set up in 1917 during the Japanese occupation period with a Japanese-style Buddhist shrine in a cave. In 1932 (明治35年) a baroque style gate was constructed in front of the cave. As I've mentioned in previous posts (Daxi Old Street and Hukou Old Street) Baroque-style architecture was popular in Taiwan due to the economic prosperity of the day so I guess it seemed only natural to apply that form of architecture to the front of a popular Buddhist shrine.
The gate constructed in front of the cave has the name of the cave in the middle with the words「山虛」meaning something along the lines of “mountain emptiness” and 「水深」meaning referring to the depth of the water. There are several translations and I could have the meaning completely messed up, but the meanings are meant to reflect emptiness and the void which are important words in Buddhism.
There isn't much to see in the cave, it's not that big and if you're tall, you should watch your head while inside. There is a temple/monastery to the left of the cave but each time I've been to the mountain it hasn't been open to the public.
Rock Face Calligraphy (獅頭山大石壁)
While hiking along the trail between Kai Shan Temple and Yuan Guang Temple you will come across a giant rock face cliff where you will have to walk up a steep set of stairs to continue along your path. The rock face has some pretty cool Chinese calligraphy carved into the side and while you are making your way up the hill be sure to stop and take notice of the beautiful job the artist did.
Shui Lian Cave (水簾洞)
Shui Lian Cave is on a completely different hiking trail and while it is on Lion’s Head Mountain, it isn't part of the main trails where you will find all of the other temples and shrines. I thought I'd include the shrine though as Shui Lian Cave is the largest cave on the mountain. The cave is a short walk up the road from the main gate to the hiking trails on the Hsinchu side. There is a parking lot where tour buses usually park and the cave is a short walk down a steep set of stairs which brings you to somewhat of a river gorge.
If you pay attention to the river you'll be able to see fish swimming around in the river and this is a great spot for seeing different species of birds. The shrine is built into the cave and like all the other caves on the mountain the shrine was built to accommodate the mountain but not destroy the natural environment. The shrine has some large statues of the Buddha and Taiwanese people like to make the trek down the stairs to pay their respects. I'd recommend checking the cave out, but if you are tired from hiking the trails up above, you might feel that there isn't that much to see here.
I couldn't introduce all of the temples, shrines or monasteries on Lion's Head Mountain due to the fact that on the days I went they weren't open to the public. I tried my best though to explain as much as I could about the temples from what little information there is about them. If you are planning on taking a day-trip to Lion's Head Mountain, don't be afraid that it will be an arduous day of hiking. The trails are quite easy and you can finish it from front to back in a little over 2-3 hours and there are buses from Hsinchu or Miaoli that will transport you between the cities and to the trailhead.
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