Sanxia is worth a visit in its own right if you have extra time on a trip - or live in Taiwan - and want to see something farther afield from Taipei City. If you're thinking of heading to nearby Yingge 鶯歌 for the old street there, it is worth slotting time for Sanxia into your day. The only way to get here is by bus, car/scooter, or cab because the MRT ends at Yongning (north of here) and the TRA stops in Yingge. Another option on a nice day is to take a long bike ride from the city on the bike paths then swing inland where the path (literally) ends and make your way to the temple.
First, the old street. There are a lot of craft shops and a few restaurants along the reconstructed lane which is blocked to non-pedestrian traffic. There are a lot of places to get croissants and fried sausages, try out some tea, and even some nice clothing shops. It's not like the old street in Shenkeng 深坑 because it's not a giant food market. The majority of the food around here is all on the outside of the old street.
What you do get by taking a walk down the old street is a feeling of being transported back to another time. On the day that I came to take these pictures there were few others around and while the stores were open no one was hawking anything. Each building has its own story and it's worthwhile to take your time looking up at the ornate designs which still cap many of the facades.
Some of the stores were still getting set up last time I was there, so it's hard to judge what might have changed in the last year. Take a stroll through here and see if anything strikes your fancy. No promises, because I made it end to end without needing to go in and shop anywhere, but the architecture is worth the trip on its own. When you're done enjoying fantasies of the past, wind your way back to the police station where there is an intersection between the end of the main street and an alley/road leading to the river and the temple.
Most of the famous food and snacks in this area are housed in the first floor of the modern buildings on the main street which is now in front of you. Croissants are the most popular item people buy here, and there is one store on the temple side of the main street which draws massive crowds and will be obvious even on a quiet day. There is plenty of food here to grab a lunch but the stores have small seating areas, if any, unless you eat off one of the alleys near the temple. Grab whatever strikes your fancy then head back to the police station.
Head down hill in the alley towards the river - it's the street with a bunch of croissant vendors and a giant tree at the end before a stone wall - and you'll quickly arrive at the main square of the zushi temple 祖師廟.
The main square serves a meeting place for groups which are let loose to tour the old street and eat at all the restaurants which line the alleys around the temple. Don't be surprised if the big space feels awfully crowded, even on a weekday. If you're lucky, it'll be deserted and you can get some great pictures.
If you take a look across the river before you start in to the temple you'll be greeted by giant guardian statues and the picturesque Zhangfu Bridge. The bridge leads to a large residential area in Sanxia and there isn't much over there for people on tour. If you decide to grab a few pics from up on the bridge there are often people playing music and selling souvenirs under the pavilions above the river. Once you've seen the river head into the temple.
This temple is nice because it's very tightly packed and you can get almost unparalleled access to a lot of the beautifully intricate details on the columns, ceilings, and roofs. Most temples house Mazu or the heavenly emperor as well as a host of other enshrined gods and heroes of the Chinese folk religion. This temple houses 清水祖師, or 祖師公, who is often called Qingshui or Zushi in English. He was once a monk who had an exceptional skill for religious speech and is fabled to have brought rains wherever he went in China during a drought. Zushi was very popular among the Fujian people, and temples devoted to him were among the first to be opened in Taiwan. This temple in Sanxia dates back to the 18th century, with its current manifestation being completed in the 1940's.
One of the defining features of this temple is how much of it is made of stone work. The outer walls are made of stone, as are all of the columns supporting the main worship hall. The posts by the busiest walkways are protected by steel grates to prevent damage during the temple's busiest times.
There are a lot of photos like these to be taken here with dragons flying off the roofs, guardians lining the railings, stone carvings everywhere and tons of lines and levels and cloisters. If you are into photography, there are a lot of composition elements to explore - or struggle with - here. If you're not into pictures the layout and tightly packed nature of this temple is still a feast for the senses.
The second level walkway which rings the main hall serves as an access to the lesser gods being worshiped in the temple. It also is a great place to see the carvings which cap each of the stone columns. The sculpture work under the roof is also very impressive with stunning reliefs of many animals and beautiful flowers in well maintained colors.
The roof of the main worship hall
Like most of the roofs on temples in Taiwan this place is adorned with flying dragons and depictions of legendary tales. There are two pavilions of the second floor which house the temple's gong and drum - used for ceremonial purposes like welcoming visiting gods - and they're worth a look. You'll also pass by two smaller shrines on the second floor which are housed behind some incredibly carved woodwork and host tons of small statues.
The main worship hall often has visiting Zushi gods from around Taiwan, but real access to the main chamber has been sealed in every Qingshui temple I've been to in the country. There is an alter set up in the courtyard (pictured above) which is used by lay people for worship.
Enjoy the temple and make use of the bathrooms inside before heading back out. There are buses (and cabs) which can take you to Yingge for the pottery old street and the TRA railroad, up to the MRT, or all the way back into Taipei's city center. I made a trip here by bike using the riverside trails from the city, and it was a congested but short ride to Yingge before heading back along the river to Taipei. There aren't any Ubike stations, so you'd need to ride one down here, but on a nice day its a far better experience than the bus.