Lunar New Year goes by quite a few names in both Chinese and in English - one of the most popular and probably the one I use most often is the “Spring Festival” (春節) and when it comes, it is supposed to be a lot like Groundhog Day at home by ushering in Spring and more importantly warmer weather. Unfortunately for those of us living in the north of Taiwan, that is rarely ever the case. If there was a groundhog in Taiwan, it'd clearly always retreat back to its burrow. The winters in northern Taiwan are typically cold, rainy and generally dreary with months of grey skies - although this year hasn't been as bad as some of the most recent we've had to endure.
One of the clearest indications that Spring has really arrived in Taiwan is when the cherry blossoms (sakura) on trees throughout the country start to bloom. In areas where these cherry blossoms are abundant, you'll also find abundance in crowds rushing to see them finally getting a chance to get out of the house and enjoy a nice day.
Of all the hot spots for sakura viewing, Tian-Yuan Temple (天元宮) is one of the most popular and is in the closest proximity for residents of Taiwan’s capital city. When the cherry blossoms at the temple start to bloom, shuttle buses will surely be ready to transport thousands of people per day to the temple from Danshui’s MRT station making a visit to the temple an exercise in convenience and patience as well.
Interestingly enough, there are Chinese websites that track the progress of growth for the cherry blossoms at the temple and when the percentage gets high enough, you'll have massive crowds of people rushing to get a view. As of yesterday, the sakura were currently around 50-60% in bloom.
The 200 meter tall “Temple of Heaven” pagoda paired with the cherry blossoms that surround it on all sides and on the mountain behind it is what separates this area from all the other sakura viewing spots around the country. The temple has five floors and each floor has a giant shrine dedicated to different Taoist gods. The temple is open year-round but it usually enjoys the most visitors between late February and April when the sakura are in bloom.
I feel like the pagoda paired with the sakura and the mountains gives an especially cool experience for foreign tourists and expats like myself who visit as all of these things together give off a very "Asia-esque" feeling and is something you don't always get when you're walking around the busy streets of Taipei.
The Sakura found at Tian-Yuan temple are known as Yoshino Cherries (吉野櫻) and while the origin of the species is under dispute, we know that the trees started to be cultivated in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and were brought to Taiwan by the Japanese in the 20th Century.
Taiwanese people's love for Sakura blossoms is often considered to be a remnant of the Japanese colonial period on the island when Japanese culture and education were forced on the people of the island. The period of Japanese rule on the island certainly had its negative aspects, but while the they were here, they also did a lot to develop the infrastructure of the island and without Japan, the economic miracle that took place in Taiwan likely wouldn't have been possible. Of all the countries in Asia that experienced periods of Japanese rule, the Taiwanese seem to be the least bitter about it and the people here embraced parts of Japanese culture and cuisine and integrated it into part of the Taiwanese identity we see today.
Taiwanese people continue to hold Japanese culture in high regard while there are no formal relations between Taiwan and Japan, the two countries are mutually respectful and often work together. In the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake for example, the Taiwanese people proudly stood up and donated 20 billion Yen ($165 Million US) to the relief efforts which was astonishing considering the population of Taiwan compared to all the other nations who donated. Every year on March 11th (earlier this week) the Japanese parliament remembers to thank the generosity of their Taiwanese friends and Japanese people all over the country reflect on what Taiwan did for them in their time of need and express their gratitude.
Respect for Japanese culture may be one reason why Taiwanese love sakura so much, but I would also point out that among all the countries I've visited in the world, none have had the appreciation and love of flowers that you see here with the Taiwanese people. Taiwan is a fertile land with fruit, flowers and vegetables growing all over the place. When there are flowers to be seen, you can be sure to see crowds of people enjoying the beauty of nature.
The unfortunate thing about cherry blossoms is that their blossoming period only lasts a little over month each year. Therefore, if you want to enjoy their beauty, you're going to have to suck it up and put up crowds of people. If you are planning on going to Tian-Yuan temple to see the sakura, you still have a week or two to see them, but if you choose to do so on the weekend, be sure to plan it as a day trip as you'll be waiting in line for shuttle buses to the temple and back to Danshui MRT station. The trip is highly worth it though, so if you have time in the next week or two, make sure to visit Tian-Yuan temple!
Getting to Tian Yuan Temple
Getting to the temple is easy, if you're driving, just follow the map. If you're relying on public transportation (which is highly recommended due to traffic jams on the mountain) just take the MRT to Danshui Station (淡水捷運站) and across the street from the station there are bus stops where you will likely see lines of people waiting for the shuttle bus. The line for the shuttle bus going back to Danshui MRT is in the parking lot of the temple.