As the time approaches for Matsu to depart the temple at midnight, tens of thousands of worshipers will have already crowded the main square in front of Jenn Lann Temple and surrounding streets, who will follow the deity’s palanquin as she departs on her nine-day journey.
After Matsu departs, walk with the pilgrims to the Dajiahsi Bridge (大甲溪橋) and remain there until Matsu begins her crossing, when an an extravagant amount of fireworks will be let off at around 1:30am — one that rivals in quantity the amount used at Taipei 101 on New Year’s eve.
After watching the fireworks, continue across the bridge with the pilgrims and walk until you reach Shalu, around 5am. From there, you can take the train back home or continue on the journey with Matsu.
DAY FOUR — SINGANG’S FENGTIEN TEMPLE
Matsu will arrive at Fengtien Temple (奉天宮) in Chiayi County’s Singang Township (新港) at around 4pm on the third day and will remain there until she departs in the early morning of the fifth day.
If you aren’t walking the nine days, you will miss out on one of the best aspects of the pilgrimage: being able to walk and talk at a leisurely pace with other pilgrims. Singang, because visitors will be in a festive mood and not rushing to the next temple, is an ideal forum to strike up conversations with pilgrims to get their perspectives on the event.
The performance troupes seen at Jenn Lann Temple on day one now put on an extravagant display along the broad roadway that leads up to and bisects Fengtien Temple. Expect literally tons of firecrackers to be let off as dragon dancers, lion dancers and dozens of other performance troupes from temples throughout Taiwan parade in front of the temple, which leads up to a crescendo of smoke and sound as Matsu’s palanquin files past.
You can also expect to see several slaughtered pigs lined up on platforms to one side of the temple, while the other side will feature a spirit medium unblocking the qi (energy) of pilgrims by slapping them on the back with a feather.
Getting there: Take the High Speed Rail to Chiayi Station and take a 20-minute taxi ride to Fengtien Temple; or take the Taiwan Rail to Minhsiung Station (民雄火車站) and take a 15-minute taxi ride to Fengtien Temple.
DAY SEVEN — GETTING ROWDY IN CHANGHUA
I’ve never been able to get a straight answer as to why this might be, but in the several times I’ve walked the pilgrimage, Changhua City is by far the rowdiest stop that Matsu makes on her inspection tour.
Whereas Singang is an orderly and, some pilgrims have complained, sanitized and commercialized version of what the pilgrimage used to be, believers in Changhua City let it all hang out.
Try to arrive in the late afternoon, around 4pm.
Changhua City’s rowdy atmosphere can be attributed, pilgrims have told me, to the passion of its Matsu believers — and the hoodlums and gangsters who come out in full force to show her respect (or, perhaps more accurately, Jenn Lann Temple’s chairman Yen Ching-piao, 顏清標, a former legislator and known gangster).
But I attribute Changhua’s rambunctious vibe to a competitive streak found nowhere else along the route. And this has to do with keeping Matsu’s sedan chair in a particular area for as long as possible, a feat that is effected through the dramatic release of firecrackers and fireworks — at street level, from the hands of pilgrims, off the back of tractor-trailers. The greater the number used, the longer Matsu’s palanquin is forced to remain in one place, which consequently, it is believed, increases the territory’s spiritual power, while driving away ghosts and boosting the area’s prosperity for the coming year.