When I arrived in Taiwan, I wasted little time before getting myself a scooter - Buying a scooter is something you absolutely have to do when you live anywhere in Taiwan that is outside of Taipei. Once I got the scooter, a whole new world of exploration opened up to my friends and I and we spent all of our free time exploring the mountains and the neighbouring cities around us.
On one of our scooter expeditions we set off for a place in (what was then) Taoyuan City to see the night view of the Taoyuan cityscape at Tiger Head Mountain (虎頭山). Having arrived before sunset we noticed a sign for the Taoyuan Confucius Temple (桃園孔廟) and decided to stop in and check it out.
After that we started making our way up towards the mountaintop when I noticed an old stone post on the side of the road that read "桃園神社" which translated as "Taoyuan Shrine".
I stopped the convoy of expats on scooters and ran up to check out what was at the top of the stairs.
Surprisingly I found a beautiful (but somewhat unkept) Japanese shrine.
As the years past I went back to visit the shrine a few times but just as I opened this website, the place closed down for renovation and I was unable to get the shots I needed to really do this place justice.
Fortunately the Taoyuan City Shinto Shrine (桃園神社) which is also known as the Taoyuan Martyr's Shrine (忠烈祠) reopened to the public a week or so ago and when the weather was right, I took the first chance I could to go to the shrine to get the shots I needed.
Note: The Shrine is referred to in most places as the "Taoyuan Martyr's Shrine" and I will talk about why that is later, but for clarity sake, I won't be referring to this shrine with that name here.
In 1937, the Japanese colonial government instituted its "Kōminka" policy (皇民化運動) which aimed to (forcibly) convert the entire population into Japanese citizens and loyal subjects of the emperor. Part of that policy was to build places of Japanese worship while converting or destroying Chinese temples.
The Taoyuan Shinto Shrine was built in 1938 (昭和13年) shortly after the "Japanization" policies started to take root around the island. The shrine was meant to help unite the people and inspire a certain level of Japanese patriotism or "Japanese spirit" known as "Yamato-damashii" (大和魂) which would then in turn help to recruit willing soldiers to aid in the war effort.
When the shrine was built, it was one of over two hundred shrines constructed around the island to help ease the population with their transition into life as citizens of the Japanese empire.
Today, less than a handful of those shrines remain in existence with this one standing out above the rest as the best preserved shrine of Japanese origin in Taiwan. The preservation efforts eventually earned it the designation as a level three national monument (台灣三級古蹟).
A lot can be said about the crimes committed by the Japanese Empire leading up to the Second World War. The bitter memory of that era is still felt today throughout Asia and a day doesn't go by that Japan isn't reminded of the horrific atrocities that were committed during that period.
Taiwan's experience under Japanese colonial rule is considered to be a bit tamer than that of neighbouring countries as the regime sought to transform the island into a "model colony" and develop the islands infrastructure and economy as well as provide a modern education to the people living here.
As Taiwan was Japan's first colony, the Japanese Empire wanted to show the world that being under Japanese control wasn't such a terrible thing and that the people of Taiwan would only benefit from becoming a part of the empire. Unfortunately history has shown that things didn't exactly turn out that way for some of Japan's other colonies.
The colonial period (1895-1945) which lasted for a half century had its fair share of resistance from the local people and the colonial power was guilty of a great many atrocities, however the general feeling today is that people of this country share a strong bond with the Japanese and enjoy a friendship that despite a troubled history is based off of mutual understanding and respect for each other.
When Japan ultimately surrendered to the allies at the end of the war, control of Taiwan was ambiguously handed over to Chiang Kai Shek (蔣中正) and the Republic of China.
The Sino-Japanese War caused a lot of resentment for the Japanese among the Chinese population and leaders of the ROC government in China had a hard time understanding why the people of Taiwan looked upon their period of Japanese control with so little disdain.
In truth, in the short time that the Japanese controlled Taiwan, they instituted reforms in education and helped to develop the island's infrastructure leaving the incoming regime with a much better situation than they ever could have imagined when they were forced to retreat to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
Under Japanese rule, Taiwanese were granted permission to participate in Japan's democratic government. The modernization reforms undertaken by the colonial government in improving the education and infrastructure on the island were a stark contrast to the corrupt totalitarian approach that the Chinese Nationalist Party implemented upon arrival in Taiwan. A thirty-eight year period of martial law as well as the crimes committed against the people of this country made it difficult for the KMT to endear itself to the local population which has been part of their downfall as of late.
After Japan surrendered, the new regime in Taiwan quickly implemented harsh language laws that would punish people who spoke Japanese, Taiwanese, Hakka or any of the Aboriginal languages. There was strict enforcement and even though a lot of the people born at that time only ever spoke Japanese, they had to learn quickly while the KMT government spared no effort tearing down any sign of Japanese cultural influence throughout the country.
In 1946 after Taiwan's 'restoration', the Taoyuan Shinto Shrine became one of the few shrines built by the Japanese to escape destruction. The shrine was refurbished and converted into the Hsinchu Martyr's Shrine (新竹線忠烈祠) which would honour the fallen soldiers of the Republic of China army.
Later, when the government restructured the island's administrative districts, Taoyuan became a county and the shrine was renamed to the Taoyuan County Martyrs Shrine (桃園忠烈祠).
Despite being a shrine dedicated to the fallen heroes of the Republic of China's armed forces, the shrine went unkept for quite a long time until a ten year renovation project between 1997 and 2007 brought it back to its former glory.
The Taoyuan Shinto Shrine was built in a strategic location on a hill near the base of Taoyuan's Tiger Head Mountain (虎頭山) which overlooked the city. The location was significant at the time because Japanese shrines of this variety are usually built on a hill overlooking the city in order to bless the city and its people.
At the time the shrine was built, the trees and buildings blocking its view of the city wouldn't have been there. The shrine would have given an excellent view of the city from its base, but if you walked up the stairs to the main shrine area it would likely have been cool to look back at the Taoyuan City of the late 1930s.
Today you have to travel much further up the mountain to get a good view of the Taoyuan City skyline. Hutoushan Park (虎頭山公園) is a popular place for people living in the area for some outdoor recreation, but the biggest attraction is the beautiful park on the top of the mountain where you see excellent views of the city below.
The shrine and the grounds around it were crafted in traditional Japanese architectural style with a range of buildings all constructed with Taiwanese cypress. If you are familiar with Taiwanese cypress, it is a beautiful wood and smells absolutely amazing. Living in a house made of this wood would probably smell a little bit like heaven.
The shrine has wide range of things to see but instead of pointing out every little aspect of the grounds, I'm going to point out the areas that are probably of the most interest to tourists:
The Shrine Gate (鳥居)
The gate to the temple is in the shape of a traditional Japanese "Torii" gate. These gates are typically found at the entrance of a temple or shrine and demarcate the transition from the outside profane realm to that of a sacred one. While gates of this kind are common for Chinese-style temples, they usually have intricate designs and a plaque with the name of the temple on them while this one is very simple and Japanese in nature.
The original Shrine Gate was made of wood, but was later destroyed due to the symbolic nature it shared with Japanese culture. The gate that stands at the entrance today is a concrete one that serves as a gate but also slightly differentiates itself from a Japanese Torii due to the fact that it only has a single layer while the Japanese gates typically have two.
Purification Fountain (手水舍)
An important aspect of Shintoism is something known as the "sacred-profane dichotomy". In terms of this temple, the Torii gate at the entrance of a temple separates the world of the 'profane' from that of the 'sacred'. When you walk through the gate you are leaving the world of the profane which means that you should do so in the cleanest possible manner. So in order to ready yourself for entrance into the sacred realm you would have to do so with a purified body and mind. The purpose of the fountain was for visitors to the shrine to first wash their hands, faces and mouths before they went in.
The fountain has a roof over it and a beautiful cement sink which would have used fresh spring water in the past (there's probably a tap today). Even if you're not religious, you should at least wash your hands, because you know.. germs..
Administration Office (社務所)
The Administration Office was the place where the monks who resided at the temple would conduct their daily business. Built in Japanese design, the inside of the office is quite beautiful and used to be accessible to visitors, but seems like it is still closed for the time being.
The building itself is built with the same cypress that the shrine above is built with but has a beautifully handcrafted roof built of copper. While the building itself may not be open you can walk around to the back where there is a patio of sorts where you can sit and relax.
Middle Gate (中門)
The Middle Gate in my opinion is one of the most beautiful parts of the shrine. Its purpose is to act as a secondary gate which gives access to the main area of the temple. Once you pass through the Middle Gate you reach a beautiful green courtyard with the main hall in the centre.
The Middle Gate has a beautifully handcrafted wooden fence that wraps around the entire area of the main building. The gate itself actually looks like the entrance to a temple and may fool some people into thinking that it is while walking up the steps to the entrance.
The entrance has a plaque above it that reads "國魂“ (The Spirit of the Nation). The pillars in front of the door and the doors themselves are made of thick wood and are quite impressive.
If you are visiting the shrine on a sunny day, the wood almost seems to bask in the sunlight. The trees planted near the gate add to the beauty of the main gate as they arch over making the area look very natural and serene - something not that common in Taiwan's concrete jungle.
Hall of Worship (拜殿)
The Hall of Worship is the main attraction of the shrine. It looks a lot like a Chinese-style temple and its architectural design is said to be somewhat reminiscent of Tang Dynasty (唐朝) architecture which seems to be one of the reasons why the temple evaded destruction.
The inside of the main hall consists of a very open shrine room of sorts. There actually really isn't anything in the 'shrine room' except for a large table and some fire extinguishers.
On both sides of the main room are two rooms filled with spirit tablets (神位). The tablets were placed inside the rooms after the shrine was converted to the Martyr's Shrine in order to commemorate and honour those who gave their lives in service of the nation.
The important thing to remember here is that the deceased "heroes" that are commerated at the shrine today were "Chinese" and not "Taiwanese." I don't say this to disrespect their their sacrifice - My point here is that even though the shrine is referred to as the "Martyr's Shrine" today, it really has nothing to do with Taiwan whereas the original Shinto shine has a purpose.
The Taoyuan Shinto shrine is not the only shrine in Taiwan that was converted to a Martyr's Shrine by the KMT, but it is the largest and most complete of the others which remain today.
The inside of the Hall of Worship is very simple and is characteristic of Japanese shrines of this nature as opposed to the opulent Taiwanese shrines that I've become accustomed to. While standing inside the shrine room the only sounds you'll hear is that of nature and the wind blowing. For a few moments it takes you away from the business of the city and is actually as calming as hiking some of the high mountains in Taiwan.
Main Hall (本殿)
The main hall of the temple was once a place that was off-limits to worshippers and used solely by the monks who resided at the temple. The Main Hall, which could also be called the "Deity Hall" is actually not even inside the Hall of Worship. It sits just outside of the Hall of Worship and looks almost like a Chinese-style palanquin where a god will sit.
Today there is a small and modest statue of Lord Guan (關聖大帝) sitting in the main hall in front of several spirit tabets and three portraits of (unknown) people behind him. The shrine area is open, but it is still forbidden for anyone to actually walk up the small set of stairs to approach the deity.
Originally however the enshrined deities that resided in the main hall were Prince Yoshihisa (北白川宮能久親王), the Three Deities of Cultivation (開拓三神), Toyōke no Ōmikami (豐受大神) and the Emperor Meiji (明治天皇).
Note: Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa was a popular 'deity' in Taiwan during the Colonial Era due to the fact that he died of Malaria in Tainan and was the first member of the Japanese Imperial family to pass away outside of Japan in almost 900 years.
There are several stone objects placed throughout the grounds of the shrine which are of special significance. The first is a set of six stone lanterns known as the "lanterns of sacrifice" (石燈籠). The lanterns would have been lit at night by people who visited the temple to worship. Today they sit symmetrically on the road that brings you to the temple shrine.
The next carving is that of the Lion-Dogs (高麗犬) who guard the hill that brings you to the Middle Door. The Lion-Dogs are similar to the stone lions which act as temple guardians at Taiwanese temples. The design of these so-called "Lion-Dogs" are of Korean origin and their Chinese name “高麗犬” refers to the ancient Kingdom of Goryeo (高麗王國) which exported the custom of using these stone guardians at temples to Japan.
The last carving I want to mention is that of the bronze horse. The horse stands next to the administration building and is symbolic of the effort monks working at the temple would have to display in their daily lives (working like horses) as well as maintaining a life of abstinence. The horse, like all bronze carvings of the time was stamped with the chrysanthemum seal which acted as seal of approval from the Japanese royal family.
I didn't want to mention much about the horse, but I had to laugh though as there are plaques that have been placed in front of some of the different sections of the shrine with descriptions in Chinese and English. The description in English read: "Bronze Horse: This horse is made of bronze." which elicited an immature chuckle from me.
The shrine has become one of the hot spots in northern Taiwan with photographers who are interested in CosPlay (角色扮演). If you don't know what CosPlay is, it means "Costume Play" and it involves people dressing up as their favourite cartoon or comic book characters. I'm not particularly a big fan of the whole thing although I have photographer friends in Taiwan who enjoy going to some of the larger CosPlay events to take photos of the participants who become willing models.
When you visit the shrine, you are more than likely to meet up with a group of having a photoshoot. It can be a bit annoying when you want to take photos of this beautiful shrine and someone in a kimono with crazy pink hair is in the middle of your frame, but if you are patient, they will eventually move.
The Taoyuan Shinto Shrine is one of the last remaining religious remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era and is also one of the only Shinto temples in existence outside of Japan.
As a national historic monument, the Taoyuan city government has done an excellent job preserving this piece of Taiwan's history and now that renovations are finally complete, visiting the shrine is even easier than ever with staff on site who can give guided tours and explain the history in greater detail to foreign guests.
Taoyuan may not be the most popular place in Taiwan for tourists to visit, but there are quite a few interesting destinations to visit and this is one of the ones that I think should be high on your list if you're rolling through town.
An 80 year history may not seem as attractive to people as some of the centuries-old temples that you can find around the country but the fact that the shrine has been able to survive while so many others met their demise is remarkable. There are few places that you can visit in Taiwan that are like this shrine, so now that it is back in operation, I highly recommend a visit.