TAICHUNG, Sept 18 — They say there is a stairway to heaven. Some say it can be found in Taiwan. At Sun Moon Lake, located in central Taiwan, to be precise. The mysterious waters of Sun Moon Lake (known as “Riyue Tann” in Mandarin), set against a picturesque mountain backdrop, have long fascinated locals and travellers alike. One could easily believe there is a path to the divine waiting to be discovered here.
Not only is Sun Moon Lake the largest body of water in Taiwan (89 feet deep and a surface area of over 73 square miles), its banks have long been the home to the Thao, a Taiwanese aboriginal tribe. Thao legend has it that their ancestors found the lake whilst chasing a white deer through the forests. The lake gets its name from its shape: the east side resembles the sun; the west resembles the moon.
Today tourists flock to Sun Moon Lake to enjoy the scenic views, go on boat rides and hike on trails around the lake. Many newly-weds also come here for their wedding photoshoots. The Thao tribesmen have replaced hunting with careers as tourist guides; more tourists these days than white deer, one expects.
Where is the stairway to heaven though?
Ask around about a temple and you will be directed to Wenwu Temple, a Confucian temple overlooking Sun Moon Lake. These days there is a safe and direct road that leads to the temple, curving around the lake. In the olden days though, no such path existed.
Instead, devotees had to go by boat, gliding over the blue waters of the lake, till they reached a rickety pier below the temple. They then had to pay the price of their pilgrimage by climbing hundreds of steps up a steep incline till they reached the temple.
So steep was the incline, locals called these steps the “Stairway to Heaven” (and it must have felt heavenly, upon reaching the end of those steps, not having to climb any more).
There are, in total, 366 steps in this 150-metre path to symbolise the 366 days found in a leap year. What’s more — each step is carved with the name of a historical figure in Chinese history and information about the 24 solar period in the Chinese calendar. Every step is a lesson in Chinese culture!
Older folks and those who aren’t as fit need not fret; every step that represents the first day of each month is wider than the rest, forming a platform for devotees to take a break. Even with all the rest stops, one shouldn’t need an entire year to complete this “Year of Steps at Wenwu Temple”, as the stairway is also called.
Another delightful feature of the Year of Steps is the prayer bells — they act as wind chimes when there is a breeze — found on both sides of the stairway. These prayer bells are hung by devotees to ask for blessings, for their wishes to be granted.
You can get your prayer bells at the temple; there is one for every animal of the Chinese Zodiac. Once you’ve chosen your prayer bell, the temple staff will let incense smoke billow over the bell as a form of blessing. You then write your name and your heart’s desire on the bell. Lastly you return to the Year of Steps to ring the bells and walk down till you reach the step that represents your birthday. Hang your prayer bell there and the ritual is complete!
Along the descent, especially if you’re born in the earlier part of the year (the steps are numbered in reverse order), you may hear the soft, sweet chiming of the prayer bells. No human voices raised in prayer but very spiritual nonetheless. A beautiful feeling.
Don’t neglect the temple itself though the Year of Steps remains the main draw here. Wenwu Temple was originally two different temples along the coast of Sun Moon Lake: the Longfeng (“Dragon and Phoenix”) Temple in Shueishe Village and the Yihua (“Benefit”) Temple at the Jihyueh Village.
In 1931, during the Occupation era, the Japanese government decided to construct a dam to generate electricity and both temples were torn down. Fortunately, the temples were rebuilt as a single, grander building in 1938, designed in the style of an imperial palace, typical of northern China. Its main entrance — the “Gateway and Ceremonial Arch” — is also designed in the northern style and built from green stone.
Wenwu Temple celebrates both the scholarly (“wen”) and martial (“wu”) arts that the Chinese embrace. A single temple also meant the deities from both temples are now gathered in one place of worship. The front hall is dedicated to the God of Literature and the First Ancestor Kaiji; the middle hall to the Great General Yue Fei and Guan Gong, the God of War the rear hall to Confucius.
You will encounter devotees praying here at all hours of day and night. In fact, this influx of evening visitors is the reason why the halls are always open. This means Wenwu Temple is the only Confucian temple in Taiwan where one can be assured of a warm welcome when walking through its main doors at any time.
Which, when one thinks about it, pretty much captures the warmth and friendliness of the Taiwanese in general. The Year of Steps may or may not be a real stairway to heaven. There is no guarantee of the divine, sure, but you will experience the best of human nature here.
Shuei-she Village, Yuchih Township, Nantou County, Taichung, Taiwan
Getting here: From the Taichung High Speed Rail Station, take Exit 5 to the bus station. Board the Nan-Tou Bus to Puli (one hour) and then from Puli to Sun Moon Lake (half an hour). The entire journey costs NT$200 (RM26) one-way (or NT$340 [RM44] return). Follow the signs to Wenwu Temple.