Yilan Shinto Shrine (宜蘭神社遺址)

I read an interesting quote from a Taiwanese historian recently that explained that when the Japanese came to Taiwan they developed the island and built things that were meant to last.

They did this because they never actually planned to leave.

The historian continued to explain that when the Colonial Era ended and the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, they constructed buildings with the mindset that they would only be temporary as were only here for a short time before going back to China.

This is why you can still find buildings and infrastructure constructed during the Japanese Colonial Era that was beautifully designed and still standing after all these years. Whereas a lot of the buildings constructed after they left are constantly falling apart.

The Japanese mindset when it came to Taiwan was that the island would become a ‘model colony’ and the colonial government would do their best to develop the island’s infrastructure, modernize its economy and educate the local people who lived here.

This isn’t to say that the Japanese weren’t guilty of atrocities - they certainly committed their fair share and in many countries across Asia, the history of Japanese Imperialism is one that conjures up a lot of bad memories for those who experienced it.

When the Japanese were forced to leave Taiwan, they left the island in a considerably better situation than before they arrived which is part of the reason why, despite the negatives brought by colonial rule, locals often have a positive outlook on their half-century under Japanese rule.

In China, the experience with Japanese Imperialism was completely different, so when the Republic of China took control of Taiwan (and later fled here in the early 1950s) they could hardly understand how the local population could look so favourably upon the Japanese.

The combination of the experiences the Chinese had with Japan during the Second World War and the Taiwanese affinity for Japanese rule created a rift between the two and is one of the contributing factors as to why so many unfortunate atrocities took place during the ensuing four decades, known as Taiwan’s “White Terror” (白色恐怖) period.

During that forty year period, which we are still learning about today, the Chinese Nationalists took it upon themselves to forcefully promote Chinese culture on the locals while subjugating the use of local indigenous languages as well as Taiwanese, Hakka and Japanese.

They also did their best to rid Taiwan of any evidence of Japanese culture that couldn’t be ‘repurposed’ for their own usage. This meant that almost all of the over 200 Shinto Shrines that were constructed throughout the country would ultimately disappear over this period.

Now that Taiwan has entered a new era of peace and stability, it has become important for society to take an honest look at and learn from the crimes of the past. This includes not only seeking transitional justice for those who were persecuted or murdered, but also making efforts to revive and preserve the languages of the local peoples, and the restoration of important cultural and historic places of interest.

One of the areas where the government has put a considerable amount of effort in the past few years is the restoration and preservation of buildings that were constructed during the Japanese Colonial Era. These efforts have focused on the restoration of the many Martial Arts Halls, Shinto Shrines, train stations and former civil servant dormitories throughout the country.

All over the country you can see restoration projects taking place transforming many of these historic structures into popular tourist destinations.

Of the over two hundred Shinto Shrines that once existed in Taiwan during the Colonial Era, very few actually remain in existence today. The government has made an effort to rebuild and restore some of those that remain but unfortunately only the Taoyuan and Tongxiao Shrines are the largest that are still around.

Interestingly, the former Yilan Shinto Shrine, which like many other large shrines was more or less destroyed decades ago, has experienced a bit of a revival in recent years - but not for being rebuilt like some of the others.

The shine, like several of the other large Shinto Shrines in Taiwan (including the two mentioned above) was converted into a “Martyrs’ Shrine”, a place dedicated to paying respect to the fallen soldiers of the Republic of China Armed Forces.

What makes this one interesting though is the way the local government has gone about restoring the shrine. Instead of rebuilding it, they have instead converted the site into a makeshift memorial with an art display that tells the story of its destruction while keeping the Martyrs Shrine intact.

The Yilan Shinto Shrine (宜蘭神社)

The Yilan Shinto Shine or “Giran Jinjya” (ぎらんじんじゃ) was classified as a prefectural shrine and the largest of the over a dozen shrines constructed in the Yilan area during the colonial period.

The shrine, which was one of the first constructed in Taiwan was originally constructed in 1906 during the latter years of the Meiji Era (明治), in what is today Zhongshan Park (中山公園) near the Yilan Train Station.

A little more than a decade later though it was decided that the shrine would have to be relocated outside of Yilan City to an area with more space. The shrine also had serious structural issues which made it unrepairable due to the amount of typhoons and earthquakes on the east coast.

In 1918 (大正7年), the new and improved Yilan Shinto Shrine opened to the public just outside of the main city on a small mountain. The location that was chosen for the shrine was an optimal one that allowed for the new shrine to be constructed in a traditional fashion with a ground level walking path, a set of stone stairs that led up the mountain, a Haiden (拜殿) and a Honden (本殿) which were both constructed at different elevations.

From historical records and photos I can tell you that the Yilan Shinto Shrine was complete with a Torii (鳥居), Visiting Path (参道), Purification Fountain (手水舎), Stone Lanterns (燈籠), Bronze Horse (銅馬), Komainu (狛犬), Haiden (拜殿) and Honden (本殿).

Unfortunately I haven’t seen much evidence of the shrine including a ‘Shamusho’ Administrative Office (社務所), although for a shrine of its size, I’m sure there was one somewhere - Its just not showing up in photos or records.

What is quite apparent from the few photos that are available though is that the Yilan Shinto Shrine was indeed one of the most beautiful in Taiwan and for the few decades of its existence was a popular place to visit.

The shrine, much like many of the others that would later be constructed around Taiwan was primarily dedicated to Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa (能久親王), the ‘Three Deities of Cultivation’ (開拓三神) and the Goddess Amaterasu (天照皇大神).

It is significant to note that Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa (北白川宮能久親王) was a distant relative of the Japanese emperor and was the first royal who had the unfortunate luck of dying outside of Japan. The details of his death are somewhat disputed but he either died as a result of contracting Malaria or by being shot by Taiwanese Guerrillas.

Nevertheless he died just outside of Tainan during the 1894-1895 invasion of Taiwan and was quickly elevated to the status of a ‘kami’ with shrines dedicated in his honour throughout Taiwan - as well as in Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine.

Another commonality among many of Taiwan’s Shinto Shrines were the worship of the ‘Three Deities of Cultivation’ (かいたくさんじん / 開拓三神) which consisted of three gods known for their skills with regard to nation-building, farming, business and medicine. Similar to the Chinese Earth God (土地公 / 福德正神) who is enshrined in probably more than a thousand different locations around Taiwan.

Unfortunately all that remains of the Yilan Shinto Shrine today are shattered pieces of the past.

There are however a few pieces that have been left intact. The ‘Visiting Path’ (参道) still features prominently on the park. Likewise the steps that bring visitors up the mountain are still there with the original Komainu (狛犬) lion-dogs guarding them.

The original Haiden (拜殿), Honden (本殿), Torii (鳥居) and Stone Lanterns (燈籠) however have all been demolished and are part of the display in front of the original Bronze Horse (銅馬), which is an interesting case and deserves a bit of explanation.

Bronze Horse

Typically the horses, known as ‘God Horses’ (神馬) sit in front of a shinto shrine and are considered to be the personal mount of the gods enshrined within the temple. Known as “Shinme” (しんめ), the horses are often beautifully molded from bronze and designed in a way that makes them look powerful and majestic while also in a perpetual sense of motion.

In most cases the horse are decorated with a round symbol on their belly that usually depicts the Chrysanthemum Seal of the Japanese royal family, known as the Kikukamonshō (菊花紋章).

When the Chinese Nationalists took control of Taiwan they ended up destroying most of the country’s Shinto Shrines, but for some bizarre reasons left some of the bronze horses standing.

They did however make sure to vandalize the Chrysanthemum Sea, something I’ve already mentioned when I blogged about the former Taichung Shinto Shrine. (Click the link to see photos of the horses)

The Bronze Horse at the Yilan Shinto Shrine however stands apart from many of the others that remain in existence today due to the fact that the emblem on its belly wasn’t vandalized. Amazingly it was left alone.

The reason for this is quite simple - The emblem on the horse’s belly isn’t the ‘Chrysanthemum Seal’ but the official seal that the Japanese colonial government used for “Taiwan”, which is a symbol that remains popular in Taiwan today, especially with independence activists. (See a mock up of a proposed Taiwan flag below)

Even though most of the Shinto Shrine is non-existent today, I highly recommend checking out the Bronze Horse as its continued existence is actually quite surprising. Its also cool to check out the interesting art display near the horses which depict the lost pieces of the shrine in their smashed state.

Yilan Martyrs’ Shrine (宜蘭忠烈祠)

When Japan 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. A few years later though, they would find themselves on the losing side of the Chinese Civil War and were forced to retreat to Taiwan to regroup their forces.

The influx of a few million refugees created food and housing shortages all over Taiwan and the local people were the ones who had to endure the majority of those hardships. Likewise, the resentment toward anything “Japanese” meant that any buildings of cultural or religious significance that wasn’t helping to solve the housing crisis was demolished or vandalized.

In the early 1950s the Yilan Shinto Shrine was demolished and replaced with a Martyrs’ Shrine (忠烈祠), dedicated to the fallen members of the Republic of China Armed Forces.

The small one-room building was constructed to appear like a traditional temple and on the inside you could find a Spirit Tablet (神位), representing the fallen members of the Armed Forces.

The ironic thing about ‘Martyrs Shrines’ in Taiwan is that the people memorialized within were all born in China and fought in wars that really had nothing to do with Taiwan.

If locals want to pay respect to family members who gave their life serving in the military during the Second World War, they’d have to travel to the Yasukuni Shrine (靖國神社) in Tokyo.

After the shinto shrine was demolished, the ground level area where the ‘Visiting Path’ once existed was converted into a makeshift Military Village (眷村) known as Xingguo New Village (興國新村) where members of the airforce stationed nearby took up residence.

Military Villages Links: Mazu New Village | Rainbow Village  

After a few decades people slowly started realizing that the dream of ‘Retaking the Mainland’ from the Communists was never going to happen. So, with the housing crisis solved and the economy booming, people started to slowly leave the villages for more modern and permanent arrangements.

The local government decided in the early 1990s that Xingguo Village would be demolished and converted into a park, paying homage in part to its history as a Shinto Shrine with the ‘visiting path’ faithfully restored and the shattered pieces of the shrine that remained put on display.

In addition the east and west wings of the Martyrs Shrine would be converted into an exhibition space which would display historic photos of the shrine and have diagrams of what it looked like before being destroyed.

I suppose even though the Shinto Shrine is long gone, its memory is being recognized in a responsible way and people are able to learn about an important piece of this nations history.

Getting There


The Yilan Martyrs Shrine is located within the Yuanshan Park (員山公園) in Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township (員山鄉), just outside of Yilan City.

If you have your own means of transportation the park is located a short distance from the Number 7 Highway (北橫公路) on Yuanshan Road Section One (員山路一段) and a quick turn onto Fuxing Road (復興路).

The park has ample parking space for your vehicle, so you probably won’t have to park too far away, unless of course there is a public event going on.

If you are relying on public transportation, simply take Bus #753 from the Yilan Bus Station (宜蘭轉運站) located to the rear of Yilan Train Station (宜蘭車站) and it will drop you off at the park.

Yilan isn’t the most accessible place when it comes to public transportation and they don’t have YouBike service, so if you can’t catch the bus but still want to visit you may want to consider taking a taxi from the train station. Its not that far, so it won’t cost you very much.

It is a historical injustice and truly unfortunate that so few of the over two hundred Shinto Shrines that were constructed here still exist today. The few that remain thus serve as an important link to part of Taiwan’s colonial history. The recent preservation efforts to restore some of the culturally-significant colonial-era structures are important steps in offering the people of Taiwan a link to their past - and their continued existence should serve as a reminder for the future citizens of this country of everything this nation has had to experience to get to where it is today.

Even though the Yilan Shinto Shrine has been all but destroyed, it has left quite the imprint on Yuanshan Park. The local government has done as well as can be expected to preserve the few remaining pieces of the shrine and offer them as a bit of a memorial of the past.

While the Martyrs Shrine itself is not really that interesting, the remnants of the former Shinto Shrine that are left in the park are enough of a reason to visit. If you find yourself in the Yilan area and are looking to learn a bit about the area’s history, this is definitely one place where you should think about making a stop. It won’t take you very long to see it all and the park is quite enjoyable with lots of activities happening on weekends.

Donghe Bell Tower (東和禪寺鐘樓)

Taipei is a dynamic city that has had a bit of success with its ability to merge modernity with its several centuries of history. Today the city is a blend of old and new where you are able to walk past century year old buildings nestled between high-rise buildings.

As a modern metropolis, the people who live in Taipei are in tune with the most cutting edge technology the world has to offer however they are not quick to forget their history and are sure to make their voices heard when pieces of the city's history are being neglected or are in danger of disappearing completely.

The voice of the people is one that was stymied for several decades during what Taiwanese today refer to as the White Terror Period (白色恐怖) where the Chinese Nationalist Government did pretty much whatever it wanted with regards to city planning and urban development. During the thirty-eight years of Martial Law (1949-1987), many of the country’s historic buildings, especially those of Japanese origin were deliberately destroyed by the Nationalist government in order to make way for modern structures. 

Now that the people of Taiwan have rightfully earned their democratic freedoms, they have become very proactive in taking the government to task when it comes to the further destruction of this country’s history and the preservation of what still remains today has become extremely important for many of Taiwan’s civil society groups.

In recent years both the national and local governments have spent a considerable amount of resources to resurrect and restore some of these remaining buildings. Whether it is a Shinto Shrine, a Martial Arts Hall, Police or Teachers dorms, etc. Buildings of Japanese origin are being restored throughout the country to offer locals a glimpse into an important part of Taiwan’s history and one that has had long-lasting effects on this nation.

Link: My blog posts about buildings from the Japanese Colonial Era

Today’s post is about one of Taipei’s lesser known Japanese-era buildings and is one that has been preserved thanks to the voice of the city’s residents who stood up to protect it from disappearing forever. The 'structure' which is one of the last remaining pieces of a former Zen Buddhist Temple is a simple Bell Tower, but don’t let its simplicity fool you, there is an interesting backstory that goes with it.

Japanese Buddhism in Taiwan

The ‘Japanese Colonial Era’ (日治時代) began on April 17th 1895 when representatives from the Qing government signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki (下関条約) which signalled the end of the first Sino-Japanese War. The treaty, which is still a sour point in Sino-Japanese relations today forced the Qing empire to cede both territory and copious amounts of cash to the Japanese Empire.

When the Colonial Era in Taiwan started, the Japanese were quick to take care of any opposition to their control and also wasted no time in their effort to develop the island with modern infrastructure as well as modernizing the economy which would ultimately help contribute to the empire. As Taiwan was considered to be an important part of that empire, both strategically and economically, the Japanese took special effort to construct buildings of Japanese cultural influence while at the same time building schools, banks, roads, etc.

The buildings of Japanese cultural origin which include the various Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples, etc. were constructed with the sole intention of helping to ‘convert’ the people of Taiwan into 'loyal citizens' of the Japanese empire who would be 'Japanese' in every sense of the term except for ancestry.

Buddhism, having established a foothold on the island several centuries earlier was one of the tools that the Japanese used to help bring the two peoples together. Initially, the Japanese brought Buddhist monks with them to serve roles in the military as chaplain-missionaries offering spiritual guidance during the initial years of the occupation.

The monks who came to Taiwan eventually began to construct language schools and charity hospitals where they would focus on improving the lives of average Taiwanese citizens as well as promoting Japanese-style Buddhism. This effort didn’t last long however thanks to the language barrier and the fact that Japanese Buddhism was viewed by the locals as a colonial system of beliefs which only benefitted the colonial power.

The lack of results in terms of cultural conversion led to funding ultimately being cut off by the Japanese central government and forced the monks who had come to Taiwan to focus less on the native population and more so on the benevolence of the Japanese people who migrated to the island.

Interestingly, even though Buddhism was originally used as a way for the colonial powers to endear themselves to the people living in Taiwan, the religion ended up becoming a tool for the people of Taiwan. The people of Taiwan, who have always been quite entrepreneurial knew that Buddhist temples were the perfect places to brush shoulders with the higher-ups in Japanese society. So, to gain political or economic favour Buddhism was often used to achieve a more prosperous life during the colonial era. 

Today, a large portion of people in Taiwan, if asked would claim that they are Buddhist - The history of Buddhism in Taiwan can be a long and confusing one and despite the religion being a tool for state control (for both the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists). The legacy of the Japanese Colonial Era can still be felt today as most of the largest Buddhist organizations operating in Taiwan adhere to the philosophy and practices of the schools of Buddhism brought to Taiwan by the Japanese.

Bell Towers / Shoro (鐘樓)

Taipei office workers heading back to the office after lunch.

A common feature of Buddhist temples throughout Asia (and admittedly is one of the first things that comes to mind when foreigners think about Buddhist temples) is that of the sound of a gong or a bell being rung. If you’ve seen a Kung-Fu movie, its likely that you can picture that of a misty mountain with the sound of a bell ringing.

Whether its a temple high in the mountains or one in the middle of busy Taipei City, Bell Towers are a common feature among Buddhist temples. Much like the call to prayer in Islam, the Bell Towers in Buddhist monasteries serve as a way to wake monks up, summon monks to the temple, notify people of dinner, etc.

When Buddhism was brought to Japan, the practice of using a bell tower as a part of religious ceremony and temple architecture was brought over as well. In Japan, the bell towers, known as “shōrō” (鐘樓) became an important part of a temple's design and was a practice that was later integrated into Shinto temples as well.

While temple architecture in Chinese temples has traditionally been quite strict, adhering to the principles of Feng Shui, the Japanese were able to mix things up a bit and modify not only the architectural design of the bell towers but also the position for which they are located within a temple. 

Japanese Bell Towers typically fall into two different types of architectural design, both of which can still be seen in Taiwan today - The first type is the most traditional variety known as “Hakamagoshi” (褲腰). This type is typically a walled two-storey hour-glass shaped building with the bell on the second floor. The second type is a newer (13th century “new”) variety known as “Fukihanachi“ (吹放ち) which is an open structure with no walls and a bell hanging in the middle. The common feature of both types of towers is that they are adorned with beautiful Japanese-style gabled (切妻造) or hip-and-gable (入母屋造) rooftops.

The bells, otherwise known as “Bonshō“ (梵鐘) typically hang from the middle of the bell tower and are cast from thick bronze. Rather than being struck from the inside like most western bells, they are struck from the outside with either a handheld mallet or a large wooden beam that is suspended by ropes. The thickness of the bell and being struck from the outside cause that deep resonating iconic sound that most people are familiar with when they think about Asian temples.

Bell Tower’s serve both practical and symbolic purposes within temples and monasteries as they are thought to have the power to 'awaken people from the daze of everyday life and the pursuit of worldly things like fame and fortune'. The ringing of the bells, which can often be heard within several kilometres of the temple is a reminder to people of all walks of life to slow down and enjoy life.

Donghe Bell Tower (東和鐘樓)

In 1908 (民治41年) the Soto Zen Daihonzai Temple (曹洞宗大本山別院) was constructed in Taipei’s historic Dongmen District (東門町), now Zhongzheng District (中正區). The temple which was designed in Japanese Zen Buddhist style was a popular place of worship but was initially limited solely to serving Japanese nationals who likely would have been among the bureaucrats working in the capital’s governing district.

Due to the popular demand however the group who controlled the temple eventually constructed a separate hall in 1914 (大正5年) to accommodate locals. The newly constructed hall, known as the Guanyin Hall (觀音堂), was situated directly to the side of the original temple yet was constructed in a traditional Fujian-style (閩式) rather than one that would be identifiable as a Japanese Zen Temple.

There could be a few reasons for this, but given the time period it was likely meant to segregate the two groups of worshippers while offering an olive branch of sorts to help integrate locals. 

In 1916 the group who ran the temple constructed a Junior High School (私立臺灣佛教中學) for boys on the temple grounds. Even though they originally only intended for the school to help educate the children of the temple worshippers, it grew quickly and in 1938 was forced to relocate to Shilin District (士林區) changing its name to the “Private Taipei Junior High” (私立臺北中). Today the school still exists and is known as Taibei Junior High School (臺北市私立泰北高級中學).

Soto Zen Daihonzai Temple (曹洞宗大本山別院) in 1936

Donghe Bell Tower (東和鐘樓) in 1936

In 1930 (昭和5年) as the temple had expanded in size and more importantly in the amount of funds that it was taking it, it was decided that a traditional bell tower should be constructed to act as the entrance and welcoming area for the temple.

As mentioned above, bell towers are common on Japanese Buddhist temples in Taiwan, but for the first twenty years of this temples existence, it had done without one. The Bell Tower at the temple was constructed using the “Hakamagoshi” (褲腰) architectural style meaning that it was more than one story tall and was a walled structure. The bell was on the second floor which had a narrow set of stairs leading up to it.

The bell was the final piece that was added to the temple grounds making it complete in its design - Unfortunately today, the only remaining parts of the original temple grounds are the bell and Guanyin Hall, which is somewhat hidden away behind a wall.

In 1945 when the Chinese Nationalists took control of Taiwan the temple grounds were taken control of by the government and for a period of time became home to a group of squatters who set up a shanty town on the grounds. Between 1945 and the year 2000 the beautifully constructed main hall was vandalized and left to decay by the government.

In the year 2000, the Taipei City Government made plans to relocate the squatters, tear down the shanty town and at the same time tear down the main hall and the bell tower. As I mentioned in my introduction, these plans met with resistance from local people who insisted that parts of the grounds be preserved. The government eventually capitulated and promised to both preserve and restore the historic Guanyin Hall as well as the Bell Tower with the project being completed in 2006.

While the Bell Tower stands as a beautiful reminder to the past, it is unfortunate that the original temple couldn’t have been preserved as well - the historic photos above show that it was a beautiful one and if it were still around it would serve as a great historic relic to the city as well as an important spot for tourists and local people to learn about the city’s history.

Taipei however is still home to two beautiful Japanese era Buddhist temples with the Puji Temple in Beitou and the Huguo Rinzai Temple next to Yuanshan MRT station and are always open to visitors. 

Even though the original temple was demolished years ago, the Bell Tower remains an attractive tourist spot in a part of Taipei where not many tourists really spend a whole lot of time. If you are visiting the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, you may want to consider taking the short walk to visit the beautiful bell tower. You really don’t need a lot of time to see it, but its an important historic site with a cute little Buddhist monastery to the rear.

Getting there / Map


There are two different walking routes that tourists can take to arrive at the Bell Tower - Both routes are short walks from an MRT station, so its up to you which you prefer to take. The first route is a walk from the NTU Hospital MRT Station (台大醫院站) while the other is from the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Station (中正紀念堂站).

The route from the NTU Hospital Station is a simple one - From the exit walk up Gongyuan Road (公園路) until you reach Ketagalan Road. Once you see the Xiananmen Rotary you just keep walking straight onto Ren’ai Road (仁愛路) until you reach Linsen Road (林森路) where you make a left turn. The Bell Tower is a block away from there.

The route from CKS Memorial Hall is a bit easier. Basically you just have to leave the MRT station and walk along Zhongshan South Road (中山南路) until you turn right on either Xinyi Road (信義路) or Ren’Ai Road (仁愛路) and then finally making a left turn on Linsen Road (林森路).

If I were a tourist, I would likely choose to first check out the CKS Memorial Hall and then when I was done, take the short walk from there to see the Bell Tower before moving on to check out the Presidential Building later in the afternoon. On the other hand if you decided to take the walk from NTU Hospital, you could also check out the beautiful 228 Peace Park (二二八和平公園) before moving on to the Bell Tower.