Following a tasty Taiwanese breakfast at the canteen, the group filed into Shunsian Temple just next door to the hostel. A sweet older woman, who we learned was a volunteer, led the tour while our trusty MyTaiwanTour guide, Gordon, played translator. The natural lighting drifting into the temple was almost redundant, for the intricately carved gilded ceilings and pillars brightened up the sanctuary with ease.
First, our temple guide directed us to what appeared to be a blemished section of the wall. This was, as dictated by legend, the site of the Mazu Miracle. After a grueling day of hauling timber and mixing concrete, the laborers poured the paste for a portion of the roof and clocked out for the day. As the story goes, the laborers returned the next morning and were stopped in their tracks by the distinctive face that had supposedly materialized onto one of the walls overnight. Upon closer inspection, the laborers spotted the close-set, heavy-lidded eyes and the small, round chin of the sea goddess.
Upstairs, the guests were given a closer look at the army of brightly-painted animal statues adorning the multi-tiered roof. The Holy Dragon and Tiger paintings emblazoned across the ceilings on either side of the second floor were, in my opinion, the temple’s most memorable attractions. Peer out the windows on the upper wall from inside of the Guanyin shrine, and you’ll see the tiger silently staring you down. Shuffle out to the corridor, however, and you’ll find that the trippy tiger’s head has suddenly shifted via optical illusion, its amber eyes seemingly glued to yours.
We had circled back to the entrance on the first floor by the end of the tour. The group was given the opportunity to choose from the tridents, spears, and other pole arms and fighting knives on display for photographs with the prop weapons. The temple’s in-house performance troupe presents incense to their patron god of theater, General Tiandu, before the start of every practice.
After the quick photo session, we sidled through the swelling crowd and took our seats, just in time for the opening ceremony of Round 1. The four teams competing on Day 1 – Shih Chien University, Lunghwa University of Science & Technology, University of Taipei, and Da-Yeh University, respectively – assembled on the temple square. Each entrance was enlivened by twirling flags, swinging battle axes, synchronized spear thrusting, cheerleading, and other acrobatics.
Intermission was called following a riveting performance by Team 1. Before proceeding to the canteen for lunch, we broke away from the crowd and ducked into the basement of the Yixian Service Center, where the contestants were recharging and prepping for their upcoming numbers. Some touched up their stage make-up – from decorative swirls, intense eyeliner, extreme eyebrows, and drawn-on beards to traditional opera masks. A few in the group had their faces painted, courtesy of a friendly student from Lunghwa University.
We walked off our lunch at Chishan (also spelled “Qishan”) Old Street. We strolled past historic Japanese architecture and baroque buildings, and snacked on the treats we picked up from the bustling market – with no shortage of free samples, much to our delight – which can only be described as “banana central.” A couple of us also purchased boxes of banana cake from a banana-themed cafe and novelty shop.
Our next stop was the Tianliao Moon World Landscape Park. The dull, beige color and jaggedness of the rambling rock-hills are reminiscent of the moon’s rugged mountains, hence the park’s name. The group split up for the hike, and eventually reunited at the top of the climbing trail, where we enjoyed a stellar panoramic view of the badlands.
We stopped at a local re-chao place for dinner on our way back from the moon before returning to Shunsian Temple for the Day 1 closing ceremony. Once again, we cut through the throng of spectators, photographers, and camera crews, and took our seats. Kaohsiung City Mayor, Han Kuo-Yu, was the guest of honor. Politics aside, the Korean Fish’s entrance was pretty spectacular.
Spectators craned their necks and teetered on the tips of their toes as Han and his entourage strode towards their seats in the front row, a swarm of photographers and camera operators in tow. He waved at the cheering crowd and hit them with a few fist-and-palm salutes. The billows of purple-tinted smoke from the fog and light machines, dancing across the stage behind him, only added to the drama of his arrival.
The event concluded with a hypnotic fireworks and dancing fountain display. You could say that the tour ended with a bang – several bangs, in fact.