White House tour in the dark

?? `WE were late for our scheduled house tour by several hours, lost in time island hopping in Cantilan earlier and it was already past 7 p.m. when we stopped by the Century-old, Herrera Ancestral House in Lanuza. The house is one of the attractions that draw hundreds of tourists to Surigao del Sur province.

We were willing to go inside the house, except that there was power outage and the whole town was blanketed in darkness. The caretaker of the mansion was waiting for us but only two of our companions who felt the emergency need to use the restroom decided to brave the darkness.

The white old mansion looked forbidding in the darkness outside, and I was almost sure someone was going to open the French windows a bit a peek at us from the darkness above.

Then the caretaker issued the challenge for a night tour of the white house and most of us reluctantly agreed. I was more scared to be left outside so I joined the pack. The darkness swallowed us and all we stuck close to each other. Manang, the caretaker led the way with a small lamp and we mounted the two flights of stairs into the main hall


The gas lamp cast scary shadows on the old chandelier dominating the ceiling, making me renew my vow never to have any chandelier of my own. Still stuck to each other, we trooped to the kitchen and the rooms and were ready to go when the caretaker said we should check the ground floor where the library is. We were hesitant but we followed her down the dark wooden stairs and into a garage. She unlocked a door and we crowded into a room filled with shelves and dressers, mirrors and an assortment of old knick-knacks.

I discovered that they have relocated most of the relics to the ground floor including the century old iron, pitchers, stoves and other utensils, an antique typewriter, a whole row of religious statues, and I was shocked to find out I was leaning on a cabinet full of dolls. I never had a doll in my entire life, even as a kid. I was always scared of them and seeing them in the dark shadows.

I clicked the shutter randomly, not knowing if I got anything in focus or not. I kept aiming my camera at the open doors and flashed without even looking what was in there, too scared to peek. Aiming my camera at one of the dolls, I clicked, not aware that Roland had lowered his flashlight, giving the doll a more scary effect.

I visited this mansion for the first time in 2007 with photographers Rhonson Ng and Jojie Alcantara, in broad daylight and it was not scary at all, except for one of the rooms where I felt goose bumps but in the dark, it was different. An old rocking chair also fired my imagination, and I can feel it rocking by itself anytime like there was someone invisible sitting on it.

Situated just a block away from the Prospero B. Pichay Sr. Boulevard, the Herrera Ancestral House was built on May 28, 1898 for business purposes. The “White House” as it is popularly called is owned by the late Don Gabriel Uriarte Herrera, the first mayor of Cantilan. The White House is well-maintained and is now managed by his heirs.

Any visit to Surigao del Sur won’t be complete without a tour of this historical White House. Come on a regular day to view varied antiques and relics as it also serves as the museum of the municipality.

A few meters away from the White House is the Surf Camp and Boulevard Café, a favorite surfer rendezvous that offers reasonable rates for overnight to longer stays for tourists.

Getting there

By air: Lanuza is accessible by air through Bancasi Domestic Airport in Butuan City and Surigao Domestic Airport in Surigao City. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Airlines fly regularly to these routes.

By sea: Regular sea trips are available through various shipping lines like Cokaliong, Cebu Ferries, WG&A, etc. from Surigao City and Nasipit ports in Agusan del Norte.

By Land: Lanuza is accessible by land through buses, jeepneys, vans and other vehicles for hire from any point in the Caraga Region, Davao City and Cagayan de Oro City.


Few minutes at a deserted runway

THE early morning air was still and silent and we coasted along the rough roads going to one of Tinian’s historic landmarks some weeks back. The day has just began for the people in the island as we headed for one of the long deserted airstrips at the northernmost part of the island.

Rubbing my sleep-deprived eyes and trying to fight off a wave of drowsiness, I fished out my camera from my sling bag and started clicking away, capturing landscape and views along the way.

I’ve been to the North Field of Tinian several times before, but it was different this time because first, it was very early in the morning (which means practically midnight for a nocturnal being like me), and second, I was with a professional photographer who knows the place with deeper understanding about history than what our lenses could capture.

The sun was slowly making its way up the horizon when we glided smoothly into the Runway A (Able) and my companion Dirk Spennemann started went right to business, capturing the neglected airstrip with his cameras from all angles. He was collecting photos for an upcoming exhibit about places in that played roles in the bloody World War 2 battles all over the Pacific.

The lonely airstrip constructed of crushed coral and asphalt stretched emptily before us, with weeds and bushes growing in several parts a silent testimony of its state of neglect.

I stood still for a few moments, closing my eyes against the glare of the sun and trying to imagine what the place looked like 66 years ago.

Runway Able was just one of the six airstrips the Seabees and Marines constructed in 1945. They named the four airstrips at the North Field ABCD for Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog. Runway Able is the extra-long runway which was used for the B-29 bomber or the ‘Enola Gay’ that dropped the world’s first Atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

We didn’t go to the three other runways anymore as Dirk has more places on his list to check out and photograph. We drove out of the Runway Able and proceeded to another historical place nearby- the bomb pits where Japanese soldiers used to store their bombs and fuel.

Those few minutes we spent at Runway Able gave me a new perspective about a place many people in the island may have taken for granted. It played a big role in the World War 2. It was where Hiroshima started.


Mass cremation for remains of 575 Japanese soldiers on Saipan

WHILE the entire nation was recollecting the horrifying 9/11 events 10 years ago yesterday, the Japanese community on Saipan were also mourning for their soldiers who died here during the World War 2.

Skeletal remains of 575 Japanese soldiers who had fought here during the World War 2 were cremated at the old airport in Banadero, Marpi yesterday. The ashes from the remains which were collected after the cremation will be brought back to Japan today for a proper mass burial.

In a ceremony yesterday, Yukio Tanabe, Envoy of the Japanese Government for the Recovery of the Remains in Saipan said 547 sets of human remains were excavated from around the Tanapag area from September 1 to 9. 28 sets of human remains that have been excavated earlier and kept by the CNMI Historic Preservation Office were added for the mass cremation.

“I am very thankful to the members of this mission and deeply grateful for all the cooperation from the government of the Northern Mariana Islands and the local people for the recovery of the remains of our soldiers on Saipan,” Tanabe said.

The recovery of the Japanese soldiers’ remains here was initiated by Kuentai, a non-profit organization with headquarters in Tokyo whose goal is to return the remains of these dead soldiers to their homeland.

Kuentai secretary general Usan Kurata told the Variety that the ashes from the bones will be brought back to Japan for a mass burial.

Yesterday’s mass cremation was the first recovery effort of the team. Kurata said that there are still over 26,000 remains of Japanese soldiers on Saipan that they are hoping to excavate, cremate and give a proper burial in Japan.

“We don’t have plans yet when to start the next excavation but we will be doing another set of intense research work first where to find these remains,” Kurata said.

He said that since February when the recovery mission started, he had been coming back here to oversee the excavation activities five times.

“We did our research first, coordinated with the NMI government and talked to the local people that finally led to the recovery of these remains,” Kurata said.

Kuantai reports show that a total of 2.4 million Japanese soldiers were killed abroad. The number of people who returned to Japan after the war was only 1,240,000, while there were 1,160,000 who did not return. Kuantai also reports the number of the war dead in the Philippines totaled to 518,000 people, including soldiers and civilian employees.

Kurata said that there is still so much to do. In the Philippines, he said that they are hoping to excavate over 370,000 remains of Japanese soldiers. Kyuntai has several offices all over the Philippines.

Kuentai secretary Yoko Kuramot said that there were 11 of them from the organization who came to Saipan on August 31. The mass cremation yesterday started at 10 a.m.

Among those who offered flowers for the dead soldiers were Tomoko Abe of the House of Representatives of Japan, Kuentai adviser Tsutomu Takamora, Consul of Japan on Saipan Tsutomo Higuchi, acting director of the CNMI Division of Historic Preservation office Mertie Kani, deputy director of the Division of Environmental Quality David Rosario, acting director of the CNMI Division of Fish and Wildlife Paul Radley, Marianas Visitors Authority managing director Perry Tenorio, Capt. Pete Guerrero of the Department of Public Safety, American Memorial Park Chief Ranger Bryan Piercy and others who attended the ceremony.

Inside a World War II-era blockhouse

DRIVING on the rough path along the lush golf courses of Coral Ocean Point one day last week, I had no idea that one of the island’s historical treasures lies along the coastal area beyond the thick shrubbery that made the road almost impossible to see.

Photo by Raquel C. BagnolRiding in two golf cars, I and two officemates parked along the side of the path and followed a trail some meters down to the beach and I saw one of those Japanese pillboxes almost obscured by the tall weeds.

The structure, which turned out to be one of the three Japanese blockhouses constructed on island, stood as strong and proud as ever like it was constructed just recently. The blockhouse was perched in a location that provided a commanding view of the beach.

It usually takes a lot to convince me to go inside any of these old structures like bunkers but unexpectedly, an inner battle was taking place as I fought my fear of enclosed spaces and tried to curb my curiosity as I made the few steps down to the door of the structure.

Finally, my curiosity won and for the first time, I stepped inside a Japanese bunker. Ducking to avoid the spider’s web along the way, I took tentative steps inside. Contrary to what I thought, it was well lighted inside, with the rays of the afternoon sun streaming through the small rectangular windows on each of the internal partitions.

Although the walls of the blockhouse were over one yard thick and the ceiling was low, I forgot my being claustrophobic  for a moment as I stood still and surveyed my surroundings for a few minutes, trying to imagine that almost 70 years ago this place housed canons and the walls were the only mute witnesses to the bullets ricocheting from the enemy’s firing line.

The sting of mosquitoes on my arms and face brought me back to the present and I hurried out from the confines of the thick walls and into the fresh and salty air outside.

According to the interpretive sign posted by the CNMI Historic Preservation Office and the U.S. National Park Service, the 20mm blockhouse, which is also referred to as the German blockhouse, was of Japanese design and construction. The other two are at Obyan Beach and Laolao Beach. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Inside a World War II-era blockhouse | around-the-island.

Exploring a burned out fuel bunker | around-the-island

MY conviction that I had explored and written short pieces about every nook and cranny that Tinian had to offer was proven wrong a few weeks back when I went on a photography jaunt with Australian professor and photographer Dirk Spennemann.

Photo by Raquel C. BagnolAfter taking photos of the Atomic Bomb Pits, airstrip and the Air Communications building, Spennemann parked our rented car in a grassy portion at the roadside a few meters away from and hauled his giant camera from the backseat. Although I had driven around several times in that area before, the place we were heading to was unfamiliar. Asking no questions, I followed him, pausing now and then to take photos of things that caught my interest.

We hiked through a tree-lined path cut into a coral hill for a few minutes before I saw where we were heading for. A massive concrete building dug into the bedrock and protected with heavy steel plate doors was at the end of the trail, sharp pieces of steel sticking out of its thick concrete roof and walls. The building, although obviously sturdily built, was broken and shattered.

We went just inside the door of the structure. I couldn’t see a thing and Spennemann told me to wait until my eyes get adjusted to the darkness. Very soon, objects like drums and huge pillars began to take shape. I trained my camera at half-shutter in different directions for some seconds before pressing it and looked at the viewfinder. I saw hundreds of burned out drums and pieces of steel inside the bunker, all in disarray at the floor. After taking a few more photos, my being a claustrophobic started to take over and I found it hard to breath. With no exit, it was humid inside. I groped my way outside, thankful for the breath of fresh air when I emerged from the structure.

A marker at the side of the building tells the story that one of the fuel storage structures was ignited sometime during the first days of American invasion and the fire got so intense that Marine battalions nearby were prompted to move to a different position. Because of the heat, huge concrete slabs stripped from the ceiling and in exploded fuel drums.

Picking our way slowly to avoid the slippery and muddy patches on the road, we went around to the other side of the canyon and saw the cement slabs that were the remaining pieces of the fuel drum storage. The Japanese bomb storage and fuel drum storage are among the most remarkable Japanese military structures on Tinian.

We left the place with more gigabytes of photos in our memory cards and an additional piece of history on a relic on Tinian that played a big role during the World War II. If you think that one day is enough to visit Tinian and explore its cultural and historical wealth, you can think again. The island has so much to offer.

Exploring a burned out fuel bunker | around-the-island.

An afternoon at the Tinian Shrine

TINIAN — I’ve seen the sign on the fork of the road lots of times before, a crudely made piece of wood painted with the words “Tinian Shrine” with an arrow pointing to a rough road leading to a thick shrubbery.

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolThe huge potholes in the road are a big turnoff especially if you are not driving a four-wheel drive or if you are not that adventurous. I had been out exploring and photographing the historical sites of Tinian with visiting photographer and professor Dirk Spennemann from Australia one day a couple of weeks back and the Tinian Shrine was not in our itinerary.

But then, we had an unspoken agreement to “follow the roads and no questions asked until we get there” so off we went.

Spennemann drove all the up to the top of the Carolinas Heights Subdivision, deftly avoiding the huge potholes and the soft portions on the road leading up and stopped at a dead end. Or so we thought when we saw another crudely built sign with an arrow pointing to oh, miracles — a single lane dirt road almost obscured by the thick shrubbery. Hesitant to drive further, my companion said we’d have to walk the rest of the way up.

I was not interested to walk because I was getting tired and my brain was attempting to shut off any minute after working at the computer for the whole night, added to the heat of the 3 p.m. sun blazing down on us and we didn’t even have a drop of water to quench our thirst, my flimsy sandals already gave out from our earlier trek to the North Field that morning so that I had to tie the straps to my toenails, all this added to our heavy cameras and bags.

Visiting photographer and professor of Charles Stuart University Dirk Spennemann aims for a horizontal shoot with his improvised camera.Spennemann finally gave in and taking on a “whatever” stance, took the wheel again. Luckily, the road widened when we were already some meters deep into the bushes and we drove on and up until we reached our destination.

There, nestled amid more shrubbery and green foliage is a wide torii gate and a long flight of slippery, moss-covered stone steps leading up to a stone-built inner shrine at the top. The shrine was deserted so we had the place to ourselves.

Unpacking our gear, we started working and forgot everything else. For the next hour or so, only the clicking of the shutters broke the deafening silence, save for the occasional chirping of birds and crickets.

Although we were just about a couple of miles away from the center of Tinian, I couldn’t shake off the uneasy feeling that we were in another world and were being observed by unseen beings.

I stood still for a few seconds when I reached the small cement house at the top, shrugging off my uneasiness as I glared back at the pair of glaring stone dragons that acted as guards at the entrance of the inner shrine. I learned that the small house was already renovated and renovated after termites the original wood and copper roof.

It was not hard to imagine how Japanese people left offerings in this abandoned Japanese shrine with. An air of solemnity ruled the place and you get the feeling of being intruders and it felt like a sacrilege to touch anything or to even make a slight noise to break the silence.

The small Shinto shrines at the side of the long stairway showed signs of neglect, with several of its smaller stone monuments left shattered around.

The Sumiyoshi Shinto Shrine or popularly known as the Tinian Shrine is one spot that you should not miss on any visit to this island.

An afternoon at the Tinian Shrine | around-the-island.

Mountaintop sunrise

THERE is no other spot on Saipan that provides a spectacular view of the sun rising each morning and setting each night than the peak of Mt. Tapochao, situated at 1,535 feet above sea level.

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolTime and again, we see wonderful photos posted  online portraying sunsets and sunrises taken on Mt. Tapochao, but getting up there to capture these wonders requires a four-wheel drive or an all-terrain vehicle, stamina and endurance if you want to walk, guts for the not-so-daring and those who are afraid of heights, warm clothing to ward off the cold if you want to capture the sunset or explore the place at night, and effort and commitment to get up real early to see the sunrise.

This may sound too challenging, but when you get to the top, your efforts will be worth it. Mt. Tapochao is the only spot on Saipan that offers an exhilarating, spectacular 360-degree panoramic view of the whole island.

A few yards away from the cross are markers narrating how Mt. Tapochao used to be the spot where the Japanese troops fired at American forces during the war.

Today is not just another regular day on Tapochao as hundreds of Roman Catholic devotees make the annual trek to the top of Saipan’s highest spot in observance of Good Friday.

Not everybody who joins the annual trek is a devotee. Some are just curious observers, or friends and family members who tag along. Others go up there to represent different organizations and distribute food and drinks to the “pilgrims.”

Take time out of your daily routine to take a whiff of fresh and cool mountain air as you make the trek to Mt. Tapochao today for whatever reason. It could be for religious or just to enjoy nature. And oh, a spectacular sunrise — hopefully if it doesn’t rain.

Mountaintop sunrise | around-the-island.

A trip back in time

ROTA — You cannot miss this green-painted structure perched on two huge latte stone posts overlooking the blue ocean across from the road when you drive to or from Songsong here on Rota.

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolThe CNMI is littered with relics and memorabilia from  World War II, and a huge collection is found at the Marianas Trench Cave Museum.

I stopped by one noontime to check out this museum last month. Panting while climbing the long and slippery flight of cemented stairs up, I was met by a cheerful woman who introduced herself as Mercedes Taisacan.

Taisacan said she and her husband Matias, a member of the National Chamorro Association of the Mariana Islands, own and maintain the museum and the Chamuro Ancestral Park.

A huge poster of a Chamorro warrior behind a traditional canoe sculpted by Matias dominated the porch area as well as several artillery pieces and other artifacts.

Formerly named Rota Cave Museum, it is now known as the Marianas Trench Cave Museum.

Fishing through her pockets for a set of keys, Taisacan opened two huge wooden doors and revealed a gaping natural limestone cave. I had no idea it was there.

Twisting open the padlocks, I was brought back to the past, into a whole new world filled with artifacts and precious antiques. Rusty guns and rifles of various calibers were hanging from the right side of the wall near the entrance immediately caught my attention.

Awed by the huge collection, I slowly inspected everything: from an ancient Chamorro grinder, cracked and broken pottery shards, kitchen utensils such as pots, pans, plates, water pitchers and canteens, earthen jars and vessels, Japanese porcelain plates dating to the 1930s, pre-war assorted Japanese bottles, farming tools, a set of Chinese porcelain human bowls dating back to the 1800s displayed inside a glass shelf is another attraction and more.

A rotary telephone, a huge battered typewriter and rusty cash register sat at the center of the cave.

Taisacan said her husband hacked his way through the thick jungle to acquire most of the artifacts while the other items were donated by friends and community members.

The few minutes I spent inside that cave gave me a wonderful trip back in time, and I could just imagine the people who used those things as thought they were right inside the dimly lit cave.

The Marianas Trench Cave Museum, located across from the Chamoru Ancestral Park also operated by the Taisacans, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Entrance fee is $5 for adults.

Taisacan said they also accommodate field trips to the museum, and facilitate nature hikes on spectacular trails only Rota can offer.

For more information  call 532-0078 or check out the Facebook page of the Marianas Trench Cave Museum.

Brief respite at Chamoru Park

ROTA — The huge latte stones and the black and white sign board bearing the words “Chamoru Ancestral Park” caught my attention the first time I drove past this site on my way to Songsong from Sinapalo some weeks back, and I immediately made a U-turn to explore the place.

Photos by Raquel C. BagnolParking my rented car at the roadside, I surveyed the surroundings and gingerly picked my way toward the latte stones. The place was deserted.

Except for the rumbling of the giant waves on the rocky cliffs some meters away and the occasional chirping of birds, total silence reigned.

I first thought the place was a sacred burial ground and I had no right to be there. Huge rusty chains fenced the sides of the park. Curiosity, however, got the best of me and I took step after cautious step around, pausing to take photos of anything and everything while trying to shake off the eerie feeling that someone or something was looking at me and whatever or whoever it was would spring at me anytime. It was just past 2 p.m. and I was too old to be scared in broad daylight.

As if in some slow-motion movie, I picked my way around the well-manicured grass, stopping now and then to run a hand at some of the meticulously arranged stone formations and all the while looking beyond my shoulder to make sure I was really alone.

I made my way to the wooden cottages near the sea, almost dropping my cameras when I backed against a post and came face to face with a white coconut husk mask hanging from it.

Stepping a few paces away, I collected my breath, turned toward the sea and simply gaped at the spectacular view. Watching miles and miles of blue water stretching out to eternity and huge waves chasing each other in an endless race toward the sharp cliffs bordered by white wooden railings was a sight to behold. I forgot my fears and simply gaped and took photos and wished that I could stay there longer.

The 28,420-sq. meter Chamoru Ancestral Park, which I learned is owned and maintained by Matias and Mercedes Taisacan, is just one of the charms that win over anyone who visits Rota. The Taisacans also run a family-owned museum containing pre and post World War II relics.

If you are planning a trip to Rota, don’t miss the chance to hang out for sometime at this wonderful spot located directly across from the Marianas Trench Cave Museum on your way to Songsong. For more information, call 532-0078. (This article was first published HERE)

An afternoon at Tinian’s Shinto Shrine

TINIAN — A huge old gate standing in front of two old flame trees caught my attention when we went driving on the north field of this island one Sunday afternoon a few weeks back.

Photo by Edwin Sta. TheresaMy companion, Tinian’s hot pepper entrepreneur Susan, drove fast on the rough and dusty road but willingly backed up the car when I asked if we could check the place out.

I’ve driven around Tinian’s North Field several in the past in a rented car and  visited the more popular spots, but that Sunday was different because I was with buddies who are Tinian residents. Gone was the usual apprehension and hesitancy to explore new and strange nooks that I always experienced in the past because I felt that I was with people who knew the place well.

Entering the clearance from the main gate, we came upon another torii Shinto gate and several other smaller shrines on both sides of the inner gate.

The Shinto Shrine gets a fair share of tourists, especially Japanese, every day. We passed by a couple of cars parked earlier but they had already left when we arrived and we had the place to ourselves.

We gingerly approached the place and felt that it was almost a sin to intrude and step on the hallowed grounds. Save for the chirping of some birds and other insects and the clicking of our shutters, the place was silent.

According to the barely readable information printed on a marker, the NKK Shinto Shrine was built next to a spur of the sugar railroad and its name suggests that it was built by the Nanyo Kohatsu Kaisha or NKK of the South Seas Development company in 1941.

From the marker, we also learned that the Japanese development on Tinian started sometime in 1926 when the NKK expanded its operations from Saipan. In 10 years time, about 80 percent of the island of Tinian was cultivating sugarcane. Tinian also embraced Japanese citizens and Japanese culture that time.

It was hard to imagine that once upon a time seven decades ago, ceremonial rites were regularly held on the very grounds where we were standing.

We were reluctant to leave but the sun was already dipping low on the horizon. I didn’t fancy staying after dark in the place.

We left the area with a certain connection to the past, rich with experiences. If you haven’t explored Tinian yet, you’re missing a lot. The island is filled with historical sites and scenic spots worth visiting.