三芝貝殼廟

Changhua Sea-Shell Temple (彰化貝殼廟)

One of the benefits of being a foreigner here in Taiwan is that I have somewhat of an advantage over my local friends when it comes to not getting freaked out by the multitude of scary supernatural things that they worry about on a daily basis. Superstition is a real thing here and from a young age people are conditioned to do a lot of quirky things that might make you scratch your head.

I’m pretty sure the only thing I grew up being afraid of was clowns. 

When I explore abandoned buildings or weird temples, my friends often ask how I could be so ‘brave’ to visit these places. I’ve never considered it to be a question of whether or not I was being courageous, I just assumed that the difference was that I was brought up in a different culture and the things that bother people here don’t bother me at all.

On the other hand if a clown suddenly jumped out in front of me on a dark street, I’m sure they probably wouldn’t understand why I ran away screaming.

That being said, I have to admit that there are times when I do get freaked out. 

There have been a few such occasions. 

The first time was when I was exploring an abandoned Military Village (眷村) with my good friend Alexander Synaptic. As I walked into one of the abandoned homes, no less than a half-dozen Huntsmen Spiders dropped down from above the door frame and separated the two of us - I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out alive.

If you don’t know what a Huntsmen spider is, count yourself lucky. They’re bigger than my hand and you can see their eyes moving around. Gross.

Coincidentally, the second time I got freaked out was also thanks to Alexander. 

I’m starting to sense a pattern.

A few months ago I wrote about the Sanzhi Seashell Temple on Taiwan’s northern coast. Shortly after Alex mentioned to me that there was another seashell temple in Taiwan and it was even cooler than the one in Sanzhi. He also mentioned that it was one of his favourite temples. In the back of my mind I knew that for a temple to be on the top of his list, it would have to be “special” but I figured I should probably find some time to visit anyway. 

When I did visit, I ended up finding myself a bit weirded out. 

The Changhua Seashell Temple certainly isn’t what you’d consider a typical Taiwanese place of worship, but it is one that has the ability to freak out locals (and foreigners alike) and acts as a bit of a strange tourist attraction for those brave enough to visit.  

The Changhua Sea Shell Temple (彰化貝殼廟)

The so-called “Changhua Sea Shell Temple”, is actually just the nickname given to the “Sanqing Sanyuan Temple” (三清三元宮) which is located conveniently just across the river from the popular tourist town of Lukang (鹿港). The temple is the earliest of Taiwan’s “Sea Shell Temples” (貝殼廟) and like Taichung’s Rainbow Village is the work of a single man who brought his dreams to life. 

Constructed by a local man named Huang Chi-Chun (黃奇春), the temple took several decades to complete.

Having previously spent much of his youth working in Taipei, Mr. Huang returned to his childhood home in Changhua in 1978 (民國67年), bought some land and as one does, got himself into the tropical fish farming business.

The thing is though, Mr. Huang was a high school dropout and after working his whole life to provide for his family, purchasing land and starting a business was no small matter. Fortunately his fish farming business was a relatively successful venture and his retirement savings weren’t completely wasted. 

I’m sure when Mr. Huang purchased the land that he got it for a really good price. It was after all situated next to a cemetery. I’m also sure that his friends and family would have reminded him about the hazards of purchasing the land, but it would seem that he was a bit of a quirky guy, so he didn’t really pay much attention to the warnings. 

Shortly after opening his fish farm, Mr. Huang started having strange dreams where images of a mysterious underwater temple appeared to him almost every night. Memories of his days as a soldier also often appeared in his dreams and in particular he tells of a vivid recollection of a time when a ranking officer gifted him with statues of the “Three Pure Ones” (三清道祖). 

Link: The Three Pure Ones (Wiki) - 中文 / English

The frequency of the dreams convinced Mr. Huang that something supernatural was taking place and that his visions were telling him that it was his responsibility to construct the temple exactly as it appeared in his dreams.

Interestingly Mr. Huang claims that once the temple was completed his dreams suddenly stopped, which he took as a message of divine gratitude for the work he had spent decades to complete.

Like Noah who constructed the Ark, Mr. Huang had little experience in temple design or building techniques, so the construction of the temple required a bit of divine assistance. Save for hiring a few workers to help him construct the foundation of the temple, the rest of the temple was completed single-handedly between 1978 and 1993 when it was (roughly) finished. 

To construct the temple, Mr. Huang collected several species of mollusc shells from nearby waters (Specifically: 唐冠螺, 鐘螺, 錐螺, 蠑螺, 寶螺, 玉螺, 鳳凰螺, 海兔螺, 法螺, 貝殼) and purchased a large amount of sandstone from Hengchun (恆春) in the south of Taiwan. 

To fix the seashells to the walls, Mr. Huang first connected them together with a network of wires and then molded them into the walls with the sandstone - which is notable for its relatively soft nature and the ease of carving it into various designs. 

The temple sits on 200 square meters of land but is actually just a small part of a larger complex that consists of Mr. Huang’s fish farm, a seashell shop and what looks like a failed attempt at creating a restaurant - oh and of course the grave of his wife is inside as well. 

As you drive down the narrow country road to the temple you can’t help to notice the odd shape of the exterior as you approach. The exterior which is almost castle-like is covered in white seashells that have turned a shade of yellow or black due to exposure to the sun and pollution.

Near the front gate you’ll find a parking lot that sits between directly between the temple and the cemetery on the other side. 

Something you’ll note as soon as you step out of your car is that the area is infested with insects - This shouldn’t really be a huge surprise though considering the temple is located on farmland, next to a fish farm and a million sea shells. 

The entrance to the temple is probably one of the most attractive parts of the whole complex (at least in my opinion). The gate has a traditional round door adorned with seashells on the sides. There is a wooden plaque above the entrance with really cool Chinese calligraphy indicating the name of the temple and porcelain images of gods on top of the arch. The gate is also somewhat shrouded in greenery with trees and plants on both sides giving it somewhat of a natural look as you enter.  

Once you pass through the gate, you will be immediately met with an incense urn and a walkway that is lined with creepy-looking figures on one layer and more recognizable local deities on the layer above.

The nightmare-inducing human-like figures that line the walls on both sides of the walkway are made even creepier thanks to the intricate coral decorations behind them that look eerily similar to bones.

As you approach the Main Hall of the temple, you’ll walk next to four pillars decorated with large sea-shells that lead to the roofed part of the temple. Like the rest of the temple, the roof is intricately decorated but it a bit hard to see given the angle of the walkway that leads up to it. 

After you’ve passed the four pillars you’ll notice that there is a walkway on the left and right with even more sea-shell designs. Before you enter the Main Hall its a good idea to walk around the perimeter of the exterior of the hall to check out the murals of dragons, phoenixes and other mythical creates that Mr. Huang created using sea shells and coral.

The whole thing is surreal and reminded me of some of the awkward 1980’s style designs that I saw at the abandoned amusement park in Taoyuan.

The entrance to the Main Hall is similar to the main gate, however the door here is octagonal (八卦) and has dragon pillars on either side. The plaque above the door likewise uses the same style of Chinese typography as the entrance, but this time it is written horizontally with the words “Sanqing Sanyuan Temple” (三清三元宮). 

When you enter the Main Hall of the temple you’ll suddenly realize that there is a distinct lack of sea shells or coral and it would seem the whole underwater theme got thrown out the window.

The Main Hall is dark, smoky, full of dust and somewhat unkept.

For local visitors, its customary to pay respects to the deities enshrined inside, but as far as temples go, the whole set up is a bit odd. There is only one shrine, and its littered with a bunch of randomly placed statues surrounding the “Three Pure Ones” (三清道祖). Offhand I recognized the Earth God (福德正神), Guanyin (觀音菩薩) and Kuixing (魁星).

Now here’s where things get a bit creepy. 

While I was inside the shrine room attempting to take photos in the dark, the caretaker lady who runs the place came in and told me that it was closing time. She informed me that she already closed the gate behind me, so I’d have to exit through the basement. 

So here I am in this weird temple next to a cemetery that is infested with insects and the lady is telling me that I need to go through the basement to exit.

If you’re not already aware, basements aren’t really all that common here in Taiwan, so the fact that I’d have to “exit” through the basement was a bit weird. Not only that, the stairs down to the basement were strangely steep and narrow and at the bottom the lightbulbs were neon red. 

I was pretty sure I was about to get murdered. 

Fortunately Taiwan is a pretty safe place, so I sucked it up and walked down the stairs which opened up to a weird hallway with more neon lights on the walls as well as more of Mr. Huang’s sea shell art.

After checking out some of the murals, I decided it was about time to get my ass out of there.

After a minute or two of walking down the hallway it opened up to a large area where you can buy sea shells and check out the fish farm. By that time though, I wasn’t really very interested in sticking around any longer.

It was getting dark, I had to get my rental scooter back to Changhua City and hop on the train back home.

There are a lot of reasons why this place is likely to freak people out. It’s not your typical temple, but then again, there are quite a few flamboyant places of worship constructed by ‘imaginative’ people around the world, so who am I to criticize this guy’s life’s work and his art? 

I visited and got out alive, so I can’t really complain, right? 

Getting There

 

Address: 彰化縣福興鄉福南村振興巷10-1號

Getting to the temple isn’t really that difficult if you have access to Google Maps, but in this case you’re unfortunately not going to be able to rely on public transportation to get there. 

If you’d like to visit, the temple is a short distance away from the popular tourist town of Lukang (鹿港). To get there you simply cross the river that takes you into Fuxing Township and then follow Fusan Road (福三路) until you reach Zhengxing Alley (振興巷). From there you’ll turn and drive down a narrow road until you reach the temple.

The best way to get there is to either ride a scooter, drive a car, take a taxi or ride a Youbike. You can easily find YouBikes in Lukang and the ride to the temple is less than two kilometres, so it shouldn’t take you too long.

If I were to compare the two sea shell temples, it would be easy to say that the temple in New Taipei is the clear winner when it comes to beauty. That however wouldn’t take into consideration that the temple had a team of artisans and copious amounts of cash thrown at it. This temple on the other hand was fully funded, designed and constructed by a single man who used his ingenuity and several decades of his life to make it into what it is today. 

While I don’t particularly understand the necessity of a temple full of dead aquatic life ripped from the ocean, there’s not much I can say now that its been completed. Religion makes people do weird things sometimes and while this temple might be a bit creepy, a bit haunted, or whatever else you’d like to say, its also an interesting look into the creativity of a man whose work I suppose you could compare to the work Gaudi did on Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia - and if thats the case, I guess you could say that’s quite the compliment. 

Whether or not you should visit is up to you. It is a weird and wonderful place and if you’re looking for something different, this is one that you’ll not want to miss.


Gallery / Flickr (High Res Photos)

Sanzhi Seashell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

A few weeks back I found myself driving along the North Coast on my way to take photos of the scenic Laomei Green Reef. While driving I noticed sign on the side of the road that pointed towards the famous “Sea Shell Temple”.

The temple was one that I had been aware of for quite some time and was always on my list of places to visit, but had never found the time to visit.

It was still quite early and as I preferred to take photos at Laomei a bit later in the afternoon, I decided to visit the temple first.

I was under the assumption that as the highway was next to the ocean that the so-called Sea Shell Temple would naturally be a short detour from the main road. To my surprise however the temple was a twenty minute drive up the mountains and the ocean could only be seen from a distance.

Pulling up to the temple gave me the strange feeling that I found myself in the wrong location. There was a large, but shoddy parking lot full of pot holes which led up to the rear of a building that looked a little bit like a poorly pieced together mountain shack.

I thought to myself that this couldn’t be the famous temple that I’ve heard about. The pictures I had seen made it look like it was a glittering palace but what I was seeing from the outside were nothing of the sort.

Instead of turning around and leaving though, I figured after driving all the way up the mountain that I should at least check it out - and I’m lucky I did!

The Sanzhi Sea-Shell Temple turned out to be is one of the strangest, yet most beautiful temples that I have visited in Taiwan. I’m always in awe of the craftsmanship and artistic prowess that goes into constructing Taiwanese places of worship, but this one takes it the extra mile.

Sanzhi Sea Shell Temple (三芝貝殼廟)

Strangely, even though locals and street signs refer to the temple as the Sea Shell Temple (貝殼廟), it is actually named the “Fufuding Mountain Temple” (富福頂山寺). I’d argue that the English translation loses a bit of its lustre. Nevertheless, the Sea Shell Temple is a bit easier to remember in both languages.

Unlike most of the temples that I write about, this one is not a place of worship that attracts people for its long history - What attracts crowds of tourists is obviously unique design and thus the reason why its nickname is more widely known than its actual name.

It may seem gimmicky, but the design and art in the temple is the main attraction and even though people make sure to pay respect to the gods enshrined, its obvious that the religious aspect of it all is less important.

The temple is primarily dedicated to Buddhist monk and Ji-Gong (濟公) and the Eighteen Arhats (十八羅漢) and as is common in Taiwan is somewhat of a mixture of Buddhist and Chinese folk religion traditions.

The "Mad-Monk" Ji-Gong

The Eighteen Arhats were the original disciples of the Buddha who followed his instructions and achieved enlightenment. The Arhats are popular figures within Buddhism and Chinese folk religion and it is common to find their images in temples. The Arhats are thought to be tasked with preserving and spreading Buddhism throughout the land and each of the monks are thought to have supernatural powers.

The so-called “Mad-Monk” Ji-Gong, whom the temple is primarily dedicated to is a figure who is commonly associated with the Eighteen Arhats in Chinese folk religion. Ji-Gong was a 12th Century Chinese monk who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty (南宋朝). Thought to have possessed supernatural powers, Ji-Gong spent quite a bit of his time helping the poor and standing up to injustice.

The Main Shrine

Known also for his wild and eccentric behaviour, Ji-Gong is said to have performed miracles and spread Buddhism while at the same time violating his monastic vows by consuming meat and alcohol and enjoying some alone time with women. By the time of his death he was given the title “Living Buddha” (活佛) and also thought to be the reincarnation of the Arhat Nantimitolo (慶友尊者) as well as being deified as a Chinese folk-hero deity.

The main shrine of the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, but there are also a number of other Chinese-folk religion deities most notably including images of the Earth God (福德正神) at the entrance and exit of the cave that leads visitors behind the main shrine.

The main attraction of the temple is its “Eighteen Arhat Cave” (十八羅漢洞) which is a man-made cave dedicated to the Arhats. The walls are lined with spiky white coral and there are several beautifully designed enclosures where shrines are set up.

Shrine to the Earth God (福德正神)

A walk through the cave doesn’t take that long, but you need to be very careful not to hit your head which would probably be quite painful. Before you enter the cave and when you exit you are asked to take a sniff of a large kettle of hot rice wine. I was a bit confused as to why they’d ask guests to smell the wine, but considering the temple is dedicated to Ji-Gong, a notorious alcoholic, it makes a bit of sense.

The small temple, which was completed in 1996 is said to be home to over 60,000 sea shells and its construction took over two years to complete. The design of the temple is similar to other temples in Taiwan but has a very ocean-like appearance thanks to the sea-shells and marine-related imagery making it seem almost as if you were visiting a temple under the water.

The front facade of a Taiwanese temple typically features beautiful stone carvings of lions and dragons but at this temple the stone carvings are replaced by sea-shell dragons pillars and sea dragon door guardians. The rest of the facade includes sea-shell lanterns and a sea-shell incense urn as well as having images of marine life on the walls.

Like most Taiwanese places of worship, the artistic design and the attention to detail put on display here is beautiful, but this one takes it to the next level. You could easily spend an hour looking at all of the artistic detail of the front facade of the temple alone.

Like all of Taiwan’s temples, entrance is free of charge and you won’t be hassled for donations. You will be asked though to burn some incense and pay respect at the main shrine if you want to enter the cave. While the rules may not exactly apply to foreigners like myself, if you are Taiwanese, they will request you first pay respect before entering. 

Environmental Concerns?

Watch your head in the cave! 

One thing I don’t like to do too much when introducing religious stuff in Taiwan is criticize. I’m a guest in this country and even though I’ve lived here for over a decade, there are still a lot of things, especially culturally that I don’t fully understand.

What I do understand however is that the world’s supply of healthy coral reefs is decreasing at a catastrophic rate. If you are unaware of the importance of coral, let me explain: Earth’s coral reefs are home the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Reefs are found all over the world in tropical and subtropical oceans and are home to at least a third of the planets marine life all the while taking up less than one percent of the total area of Earth’s oceans.

Currently more than 75% of the coral reef on the planet are considered threatened and unfortunately many have already been lost. Factors that include the warming of the oceans, ocean acidification, overfishing, sewage and the collection of reefs as ornaments (among others) are putting massive strain on the livelihood of the remaining coral environments. 

Coral everywhere. 

Having spent quite a bit of time scuba diving and snorkelling here in Taiwan, it is easy to observe the year-by-year degradation of the reefs which are extremely important eco-systems for aquatic life.

The amount of reef that it took to build this temple is not insignificant and as they are currently in the process of building a second and even larger branch, I think its only natural to question where the coral reef is coming from and whether or not it was dead before being taken out of the water.

When it comes to the environment, the Taiwanese government boasts that its on the ball, but in most cases it is easy to see that environmental sustainability and punishing polluters is not really high on their list of things to do.  

The people who run the temple insist that the coral used in its construction has all been imported, that the coral used was of the variety that isn’t considered to be “protected” and that it was already dead before taking it out of the ocean.

I sincerely hope that they are telling the truth, however it is also a good idea to remain skeptical and ask lots of questions.  

Getting There

 

Getting to the temple is a bit difficult if you don’t have your own method of transportation. The temple is on top of a mountain a short distance from the Sanzhi (三芝). If you are intent on visiting you could take a bus to the village and walk up the mountain, but that would be a long walk. The easiest way to get to the temple is by car or scooter and all you’ll have to do is follow the map provided above!

There is no denying the beauty of this temple - It is one of the coolest temples that I have visited in Taiwan. The attention to detail and the craftsmanship required to successfully design and build something like this are remarkable. I just question whether it is necessary to contribute so much destruction to the oceans for something like this.

Ultimately that is not for me to decide. I hope you enjoyed the photos.