New Year's in Taiwan: Temples, Not Toasts
Sunday, January 25, 2009; Page P04
By the time Chinese New Year rolled around last year, I had been in Taiwan six months and knew how to ring it in like a local: Light three slender incense sticks, press them to my forehead and wish fervently for prosperity in the months ahead. Oh, and make sure to silently repeat my name and address so the gods would know where to find me. Champagne toasts and midnight kisses it wasn't, but, frankly, I felt more comfortable wreathed in sandalwood smoke.
Visiting temples in Taiwan is an eye-opener any time of year, full of sound and color, but in the days after Chinese New Year (this year it starts tomorrow), the experience becomes a rite of passage: Thousands of Taiwanese stream through temple doors to burn thick stacks of "ghost money" (also known as joss paper), make offerings to ancestors or pray for the health and good fortune of family members (pregnant women, engaged couples and test-taking students generally top the list).
While religious traditions in China are just now rebounding from the days of the Cultural Revolution, Taiwan, an island of 23 million off China's southeast coast, offers a pointed contrast: Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions are practiced enthusiastically, and in the capital, Taipei, you'll find a busy temple on nearly every block.
A good place to start is Longshan Temple, nestled in one of Taipei's oldest commercial neighborhoods. Long considered the granddaddy of the capital's temples, Longshan is a hive of activity during the three-week New Year period, when two giant lanterns suspended in the front courtyard draw snaking lines of Taiwanese assured of good fortune if they walk underneath. Knots of women worrying wooden prayer beads line the temple's inner walls, and cheerful crowds pile apples, pears and orchids on heaving tables throughout the first week, when many people take off work.
The steady hum of worshipers reading Buddhist texts or praying with quick bows to the god of their choice (the temple serves all comers) creates a kind of pleasant chaos, but at 5 p.m., you can count on the mesmerizing chants of Buddhist nuns, heads shaved and clad in plain brown robes, to calm the clamor.
For a more intimate experience, try the tiny City God Temple tucked away on Dihua Street, famous for its traditional Chinese medicine shops and annual street-side New Year's bazaar. If you're in Taipei in the weeks leading up to the holiday, stop by for a look at the many vendors hawking smoked fish, nuts, candies and whole pigs, some shouting through megaphones, "Hao chi! Pianyi!" (Good eats! Cheap!) After the New Year, take the opportunity to pray to the temple gods to find a suitable mate.
City God Temple, guarded by two snarling green dragons on the roof, is also a great place to watch traditional fortunetelling at work. One of the more popular methods -- dropping pairs of red, crescent-shaped oracle blocks made of wood on the ground -- yields guidance on money, health and romance. One flat side and one curved side up means the deity's answer is yes.
Those interested in combining a New Year's temple visit with a vigorous hike, a favorite weekend activity in Taipei, can trek to the imposing, multitiered Chih Nan Temple notched above lush tea fields on the city's southern rim, in an area called Muzha.
Fair warning: It's not a leisurely stroll. The path is a stone staircase that goes straight up a mountain. When I last walked it, during a cool and misty week of Chinese New Year, I tagged along with several local families weighed down with oranges and bottles of green tea to leave at the temple altar. The over-60s in the group left me and everyone else huffing in their wake.
When we reached the top, one of those 60-somethings, a driver who went by the English name John, happily showed me the temple's free vegetarian restaurant hidden down an unmarked staircase. The place was renao, or "hot and noisy," the way Chinese restaurants are meant to be, and we sat down at a huge round table to heaping bowls of vegetables and tofu.
"You see? Family style!" John shouted across the din, showing off the English he had learned from watching "The Sopranos" on cable television.
The Rat Year, my Taiwanese friends reminded me, is a time for new beginnings. From where I was sitting, it was off to an auspicious start.
Julia Ross has lived in Shanghai and recently completed a Fulbright scholarship in Taiwan. She last wrote for Travel about Chiang Kai-shek tourism in Taipei. 2009 is the Year of the Ox.