Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Shihtoushan, Dec. 2009

We were walking through the forest when I noticed the birdsong. It was different than that of the birds which had serenaded us in Shikoku and Kumano. The forest opened onto a large parking lot, revealing a pagoda atop one hill, and Chuanhua Monastery above it on another. Here we'd spend the night.

We'd left early from Zhungli. With time to kill until the train, we walked the narrow streets surrounding the station. It was a busy Sunday morning, and Miki commented that she felt that fashion here in Taiwan was a simpler, scaled down version of the fashion in Japan. We laughed at how Mr. Donuts says, "Japan's #1" where the ones in Japan tout America. Circular signs hang in front of 7-11, advertising coffee and mimicking the familiar Starbucks logo. Beauty salons have sexily-clad employees and I wonder if they're a front for prostitution. There are different faces on the streets, speaking in different rhythms, making me wonder if they are maids and if they are Filipinas.

The train we take is an exact replica of an express train in Japan. From it, we get our first glimpses of true countryside. It is landscape I'd been expecting, jungle and rice fields, none of this cold urban stuff of the last few days. A lone dirt house sits squat between these two extremes. In front, a man squats and soups the rims of a luxury car.

After 45 minutes, we are in a quieter town. Trying to find the bus, we head down a road lined with shops now becoming familiar. What surprises us is a bride and groom coming out of a comic shop and getting into a Lexus doled up for the occasion. Well-dressed young women stand nearby, taking photos and wearing wide smiles. We spy a foreign couple walking with a Chinese man. The latter helps us find our bus and after 10 minutes we're aboard. At the bus stop, a young couple expresses their affection. Behind them, a shop keeper rocks her toddler to sleep, despite Eminem blaring through the speakers above. There's a market going on at the center of town. The bus can't make a turn due to a couple of poor-looking peasant women who've set up shop at one corner, their goods overflowing into the street. The driver yells at them to move, and after a moment, we inch forward, unsnarling the traffic backed up in three directions.

The town drops away and the mountains loom up. Our eyes follow a river awhile, then taking a wild guess, we get off the bus in exactly the right place. There's just a hint of a village here, just outside the gate leading to the mountain temple complex. We enter a small restaurant and mime-order noodles and rice. A woman at the next table talks in a really loud voice, something I'd grown used to during travels in China, but hadn't yet seen in the more refined Taiwan. A boy sits in the kitchen doing his homework on a day so sunny it is shame to waste it indoors. A poster above him shows us a picture of Bigfoot on the moon, appearing from behind a rock in that familiar stride.

Next door is a small shop where we decide to stock up on snacks for the hike. The woman behind the counter is busy making betel. She is dressed much more conservatively than those binlang girls decades younger selling their wares in the glass booths in the cities, their skirts shorter than the odds of the KMT retaking the mainland. The woman seems determined that I try some of the betelnut, which she is spreading inside some sort of shell with a butterknife. I pop some in my mouth, spitting a massive blob of red out onto the road outside. The woman laughs. Miki asks for some, and the woman suddenly stops laughing, seemingly annoyed. We never find out why. Is it because Miki's a woman, and they don't do betel? Or is it because she's Japanese? The latter is doubtful, since most people think she's local, continuing to speak to her in Mandarin even after it's obvious she doesn't understand anything. On the final climb up the stone stairs to the temple, another betel seller on a landing chooses to speak with her in English, asking her how she can be so beautiful. Miki smiles, vindicated. Perhaps this man is the betel seller's husband?

We find our room at the temple, the key handed over by a woman happy to use her rusty English. It is a plush room, with a big bed and balcony. Not bad for 64 NT (1800 yen) a person. We do fell slightly disappointed at not being able to do "A Day in the Life" of the monks here. We'd expected bland common meals, tepid baths, austere sleeping quarters, crack of dawn chanting. Which is why we came. But the room pleases.

Time to explore. In the main hall, Buddha, Confucious, and Lao Tzu all sit together. Upstairs, they each have their own section, but down here, they intermingle. In front of them is Matsu, Goddess of the Sea. I know her better as Tien Hau from my time in Hong Kong. She mysteriously gets the place of honor in this, the Hall of Earth. The grounds have the usual Chinese 'look,' of lattice gates, three-legged iron incense pots, tea pavilions, phoenixes and dragons guarding every eave. A trail leads us away, where a man is playing a bamboo flute. It is similar to the shakuhachi, but with a differently carved mouthpiece. I pick one up and begin to play, and the man begins to instruct me in Japanese. We'd heard that many of the old timers can speak it, but he's the first we've come across. He plays a few songs--a couple classics, some Misora Hibari. As he plays, Miki sings along, as does a Chinese man strolling by. Later, when we meet this latter man again, we try to ask him how he knows these songs, but outside the lyrics, we don't share a common language.

The trail brings us to a Taoist temple. A nun clad in maroon is chanting, a trio kneeling behind her, their voices harmonizing beautifully. I step around back to look into the grotto itself, which contains a single statue of an immortal, its expression both soft and tough simultaneously. Coming back around again, I find that one of the chanters is now sobbing. I'm assuming that this is a memorial service of some kind. A man comes over and speaks to her kindly yet sternly, warning her perhaps that the crying may confuse the spirit, bringing it back to this world rather than allowing to pass into the next where it has already found immortality.

Further up the mountain is a temple dedicated to Kuan Yin. The statue outside looks similar to Kannon over in Japan, but with its long face and large hands it has the androgynous look of a drag queen Beside the temple is a small grotto with a small red-faced figure with bulging eyes and wild frizzy hair. His red face is that of a drunk. I wish there was an explanation somewhere, but I wouldn't be able to read it anyway. We follow the trail around, other figures looming up in the forest. One Kuan Yin sits in meditation before a high rock wall, a heart locket around her neck.

Back at the room, we read for a few hours on the balcony, eating ice cream, drinking coffee. It is peaceful here, and we decide to stay another day, rather than rush north to Wulai. Below us, someone is playing er hu, singing boisterously. Around five o'clock, the day trippers go, the shutters of the shops shut. The mountains beyond disappear into the mist and fading light, the pagoda before us blending into the trees.

In the dining hall, we have a simple dinner of tofu disguised as meat. There are no monks here. Due to the absence of these fingers, we go look at the moon. The halls are empty and we have the gold statues to ourselves. A caretaker comes up and despite our making it obvious that we don't speak Chinese, proceed to explain. We listen but don't understand. Except for the words Kung Si, Lao Si, Ami Tamo.
Confucious, Lao Tzu, Buddha...

On the turntable: Rodney Crowell, "Sex and Gasoline"

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