Only in the final decade of its 50-year occupation of Taiwan did Japan make a serious effort to introduce the Shinto religion to its colony.
After the launch in 1937 of the Kominka Movement — an attempt to bury historical and cultural connections between Taiwan and China beneath pro-Tokyo sentiment — Taiwanese were encouraged to speak Japanese, adopt Japanese names and embrace facets of Japanese culture, including Shintoism. In the space of a few years, the number of Shinto shrines around the island quickly rose from fewer than a score to more than 200.
At many of these places of worship, Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa was among the deities enshrined.
Photo: Steven Crook
A former Buddhist priest who later became a professional soldier, the Japanese prince had a special connection to Taiwan. While serving as one of the commanders of the Japanese forces sent to take control of the island, he contracted malaria and died in Tainan on Oct. 27, 1895.
Like the majority of Taiwan’s Shinto shrines, the two places featured here survived decades of postwar abuse. During the 1990s, however, official attitudes shifted 180 degrees. Formerly neglected, both relics are now cherished attractions.
Photo: Steven Crook
Located in the heart of the East Rift Valley, Yuli (玉里) is surrounded by prime farmland. The Shinto shrine built here in 1928 — and which bilingual signs refer to as Yuli Jinja (玉里社) — is superbly located on a hillside from which it’s possible to see much of the township.
The haiden (outer shrine) and honden (inner sanctum) were leveled soon after World War II, but so robust were these structures’ concrete bases that even now visitors can immediately comprehend the layout.
To reach Yuli Jinja from Sibian Street (西邊街), sightseers need to climb four sets of stairs. The first set has 37 steps, the second 36, the third 16 and the fourth just 9. The religious significance of these numbers was explained to me by a guide the first time I came here. I couldn’t understand it then, and I’ve not made any progress in grasping it since.
Photo: Steven Crook
Little houses crowd the approach to the first set of steps. One household’s water tank is so close to the lower torii (gate) that every photograph of the gate seems to include it. A neighboring house has annexed a torii pillar.
Other signs of postwar vandalism aren’t hard to find. Several mostly-intact stone lanterns remain in their original positions, but sloppily added cement covers the Japanese words that were etched onto their columns.
Since 2008, the Hualien County Government has listed Yuli Jinja as a heritage site and subsidized the volunteers who clean and maintain it. The authorities have also installed several useful information boards with text in Chinese and English; surprisingly, there’s nothing in Japanese.
Photo: Steven Crook
Before you leave this corner of Yuli, look to your right just after you’ve come down the steps from the shrine ruins. Among the houses, you’ll see a bland oblong monument that was erected in 1933.
The Monument to Loyalty (表忠碑) commemorates 195 policemen and soldiers who died while serving along what is now called the Batongguan Historic Trail (八通關古道). This path crossed the Central Mountain Range, and was key to Tokyo’s efforts to control Taiwan’s indigenous people and exploit natural resources in the interior. It’s said that Japanese personnel assigned to outposts along the trail visited the jinja and prayed for personal safety at the start and end of each tour of duty.
Photo: Steven Crook
On foot or by bicycle, Yuli Jinja is 1.1km from Yuli Railway Station; no buses stop nearby. If you’re going to bring or rent a bike — which is recommended — be sure to set aside enough time to enjoy the Yufu Bikeway (玉富自行車道), a 9.8km-long bike path that links central Yuli with Dongli (東里) in neighboring Fuli Township (富里).
It’s no exaggeration to say that Tainan’s Yongkang District (永康) is chock-full of repellent factories and bleak apartment buildings. That said, the northernmost part of the district, where it abuts Yanshuei River (鹽水溪) and Freeway 1, retains a few pockets of countryside.
This neighborhood, known as Sankandian (三崁店), was once dominated by the sugar industry. Much of the land still belongs to Taiwan Sugar Corporation (台糖, TSC), even though sugar production here ceased in 1990, and most of the factory was demolished before 1996.
In 1931, sugar factory employees sought and received permission to build a self-financed Shinto shrine within the factory’s grounds.
Several names are still visible on the semi-intact stone fence that surrounds the former honden of Sankandian Shrine (三崁店神社), and among them are common Taiwanese surnames such as Lin (林) and Wang (王). I’ve not been able to confirm it, but I assume they contributed toward construction costs.
Soon after World War II, the shrine was deconsecrated and repurposed as a post office. That was eventually closed and dismantled, and the site was ignored until 2009, when it received local-government recognition as a relic.
Remnants of Shintoism aren’t the only reason why the site now receives official protection and tourist attention. The old trees and thick foliage form a valuable habitat for frogs and other creatures. There are some 1940s air-raid shelters. And across the road, between two factories, a pristine mini-park contains a stele carved in 1771 to honor Chiang Yun-chuan (蔣允焄), a Qing dynasty official who’d arrived in Taiwan eight years earlier.
Chiang’s efforts to improve irrigation and flood control were hugely appreciated by farmers and merchants. Like Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa, he was deified. But rather than join the Shinto pantheon, Chiang became a divinity within Taiwanese popular religion, a faith so entrenched in local culture that even the best attempts of the Japanese couldn’t replace it.
The shrine is adjacent to Lane 79, Sanmin Street (三民街79巷) in Yongkang. Parking a car isn’t a problem. The #21 urban bus service makes two stops within 400m of the shrine: Yongan Road/Renai Street Intersection (永安路仁愛街口) and Sanmin Street. There’s one bus every 40 to 60 minutes, and it can be boarded at Tainan TRA Station or Tainan Bus Station. The Chinese-language timetable for this service and other buses in the Tainan area can be found at: busmap.tainan.gov.tw/ebus/routeList_New.jsp.
Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture and business in Taiwan since 1996. He is the author of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide and co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.
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