October 29, 2010
When visiting a new country, places of worship are high on my list of"must see" destinations, especially if the culture is different.
Religion in Taiwan is polytheistic, so you will often see more then one god in temples, and actually you will also often find a mix of Confucian wisdom with both Buddhism and Taoism. We have a previous post on temples in Taiwan, so in this post I want to focus on a specific temple in Taipei, Zhinan Temple.
Arguably the more splendid temples are located outside of Taipei City, and for me Tainan is the best place in Taiwan to see the widest selection in the smallest area. If you don't have time to head down to Tainan, however, there is a bit of a hidden gem here in Taipei, and officially it is located in Taipei City.
Zhinan (also Chi Nan) Temple is located in the hills of Mucha relatively close to Taipei City Zoo. Founded in the late 1800s it's one of the oldest temples certainly in Taipei. As with other temples in Taiwan as I mentioned, Zhinan Temple honours Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, with four main halls, five secondary halls and many walkways stretching out into the grounds.
If you take a bus or drive to the temple (there is also an MRT gondola stop - if it's working), you will be faced with around 1,200 steps to get to the temple complex. According to the Tourism Bureau site,"This temple is known to foreigners as ??the Temple of a Thousand Steps.' This is no exaggeration--there are actually around 1,200 stone steps up to the temple--and there is a saying, ??live an extra 20 seconds for each step you climb.'" It's funny how things that might not be beneficial on first glance are turned into health miracles in Taiwan. But it isn't really that far or steep. There are a few stalls/shops in the first section of the steps, so buy some water if you haven't already, and check out the almond cookies which are a traditional favourite apparently.
When you go through the gate you will see the main hall, Chungyang Chapel (below). This is the the original part of the temple complex, although it was renovated from 1991 to 2000, replacing the original wooden beams with concrete while attempting to maintain the original appearance. Given the number of typhoons and earthquakes that affect Taiwan, hopefully this will preserve the temple for centuries to come.
Overall it's a pretty impressive structure (or collection of structures) and it makes for some great photo opportunities. You can take photos of people worshipping as long as you do so subtly and with the respect the circumstances demand.
As with the zoo, this is a good place to come to escape the city. The air is fresh and the grounds are pleasant to walk around. There are pagodas and various areas to sit and rest, and it is a good place for a picnic. Don't plan on being able to buy anything to eat once you are here though.
I think a temple visit should be on every itinerary, and Zhinan Temple would be top of my list. You can experience the different aspects of the main areas of religion in Taiwan, enjoy the mountain scenery around Taiwan and get some great photos, including shots of Taipei 101 (although a zoom lens will help).
The sites listed below have information on how to get there, but please note that the Maokong Gondola isn't always running (you can check at any MRT station to see if it is). Personally I think the easiest way is to take the MRT to Gongguan then take bus 530 from there (about 30 mins). It can get very busy during weekends, holidays and religious festivals, and I wouldn't recommend driving at any time.
One word of warning however. Popular legend has it that unmarried couples who visit the temple will not be long together. One explanation I have been given is that Lu Tong-pin, the main deity of Zhinan Temple, is jealous of lovers and will do his utmost to separate them. Or as the Tourism Bureau site says,"The main deity in this temple is Lu Tunpin, one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese legend. He is a well-loved deity, despite a reputation for somewhat randy behavior." You have been warned!
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