Walking Around TainanBy Howard Elias, Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung
On the street, the thought of a walking tour in Taiwan may not seem like the best, or safest, of ideas. But it seems to work in Tainan, Taiwan's fourth largest city located in the southwestern part of the island, where things move just a little bit slower than they do in Taipei or Kaohsiung.
The Tainan walking tour is the brainchild of Lily Pi, a Tainan businesswoman whose family runs the Asia Hotel in the city's former night market area. Pi, who graduated from the city's National Cheng Kung University and has been a caterer from the time, as she puts it, her mother was expecting her, wanted to find a way to combine her two loves of history and food. She came up with the walking tour idea because she felt that much of Taiwan's old culture, beliefs, and customs were disappearing in the island's rapid industrialization and modernization.
Pi started the tours three years ago as an annual event. Chinese Valentine's Day was chosen as the date of the tours because on that day people from all over Taiwan flock to Tainan's Kailung Seven Daughters of the Emperor of Heaven) Temple to commemorate the marriage of the emperor's daughter to a commoner. As the story goes, this marriage was not met with approval and the couple's two children ended up being raised by seven daughters of the emperor. Consequently, Kailung Temple became known as the temple for the protection of children.
Kailung Temple is the first temple in Taiwan for celebrating a child's coming of age.
Kailung Temple is also the first temple in Taiwan for celebrating a child's coming of age. On most weekends parents come here to watch their 16-year-olds crawl under a special table to signify to their family and to society that they are now adults. After crawling under the table three times, young women, in particular, then pray for a good marriage.
Pi recently decided to expand her tour to a weekly frequency because of the interest in Tainan's temples shown by Japanese tourists who regularly visit the city. She has organized an interesting and enlightening two-and-a-half-hour walk that takes participants through seven temples to illustrate, as she says, the Chinese circle of life. Along the way, Pi carefully points out the smallest of detail, from a tiny lion perched on a city rooftop to the stones in front of a long-abandoned Japanese restaurant. Perhaps no one knows Tainan better than Lily Pi. One certainly gets that feeling walking down the back alleys that lead to a beautiful but derelict library.
While Tainan's many temples provide the focal point of this cultural excursion, Pi also takes time to show her guests a beautiful Chinese garden and let them enjoy some of Taiwan's specialty foods. She feels that eating is an important part of this cultural experience, and she takes every opportunity for guests to try delicacies like lotus tea, taro cake, and Taiwanese dumplings.
Matsu Temple is dedicated to the Goddess of the sea.
The tour takes visitors to some of Tainan's more famous temples, including the Matsu Temple , which is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea. Almost 400 years old, this temple is also home to "the Old Man Under the Moon," a Taoist god who functions somewhat like Cupid. Single people who are looking for a spouse come here to pray to this god. After praying, the supplicant removes a single red thread from around the god's arm, wraps the thread up in a small piece of red paper, and carries it in his or her pocket every day. In a short time, Pi says, these people will get married. Some people also pick up some incense ash here which is said to have the power to make women more charming when worn behind the ears. Men can get the same effect by wearing it on their throat.
Once feeling empowered by this new sense of destiny, many people then head down a small lane known as "Fortune Tellers Street." Couples visit the street's fortune tellers to find out if they are suitable for each other and when the best date to get married is.
Couples visiting this "Fortune Tellers Street" ask if they are suitable for each other and when the best date to get married is.
These paper figures, corresponding to the animals of the Chinese zodiac, are belived to absorb the bad luck of those who want to change their fortune.
Another interesting temple on the tour is Tientan Temple , which is the place local people visit if they want to change a streak of bad luck. The best times to visit are the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month, when the temple is packed with people who come to pray for the safety of their families. However, even on low days the air is thick with the smell of incense coming from the scores of burning joss sticks; outside stacks of ghost money await burning.
The locals who come here to pray do something that is found only in Taoist worship. They drop a pair of wooden or bamboo objects shaped like half moons onto the ground to divine their fortune. These divining blocks are used as a bridge for communication with the gods; through them, it is said, a person can determine his fortune by the positioning of them after they fall on the ground.
This large abacus, a distinct feature of Chenghuang(City God) Temple, is used to add up the good and bad deeds a person has comitted in his or her lifetime.
The tour starts to take on a somber note at the Chenghuang Temple. A large sign saying "So you have finally come" greets visitors here. Pi explains that after a lifetime of raising a family and earning a living, older people come here to pray that the gods will look favorably upon their deeds after they have passed on. The temple is unique for its two large abacuses which, Pi explains, are used to add up the good and bad deeds that a person has performed in his or her lifetime. If the deceased has led a virtuous life, then that person will be reincarnated. The less virtuous are condemned to hell.
The four murals on the walls of Tungyueh Tien, or East Mountain Temple, depict the types of punishment meted out on each of hells' 18 levels.
Local residents come to Tientan Temple on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month to pray for the safety of their families.
With that warm thought planted in the minds of tour participants, Pi then leads them to the final temple in the circle of life. Tungyueh Tien , or East Mountain Temple. If you ever wondered what hell is like, you can study the four murals on the walls of this temple that show the type of punishment meted out on each of hell's 18 levels. These murals graphically detail eyes being poked out, hearts being cut out, razor beds, and people being suspended upside-down in large vats of boiling oil--they are enough to scare you into following the straight and narrow!
The tour ends back at the Asia Hotel, where everyone can relax and talk about the interesting day. A walking tour cannot be done so well in every city. But Tainan's size, wealth of temples, and warm and friendly people like Lily Pi make this tour a hit. Pi says that as most of the gods live in Tainan, you can always find one to suit your needs. Whether you are looking for a god or just want to learn something about Taiwanese culture, walking around Tainan is a great way to start.
How to Get There:
Tainan is connected to the other major cities in Taiwan by air, highway, rail, and bus. The easiest way to get there from Kaohsiung is by train, one-way fares run from NT$60 (US$2.30) to NT$89 (US$3.40). Several trains depart every hour for the 38-minute run. Upon exiting the Tainan train station, take the left underpass and walk ahead to the next street, which is Chungshan Road. Turn left and walk for about five minutes until you reach the Asia Hotel. If in doubt, ask someone how to get to the Tainan Provincial Hospital. The hotel is diagonally opposite the hospital.
The tours are run every Sunday from 2 p.m. until about 5 p.m. The cost of the tour, which includes a sampling of traditional Taiwanese food along the way, is NT$500 (US$19.25). For reservations or more information, contact Lily Pi at (06) 222-6171 or 229-3185, or fax (06) 221-9373.