I stepped on a ‘wedding cake’

The first time I saw the flat-top mountain everybody referred to as the Wedding Cake, it did not look like a layer of cake to me at all. It was just like any other elevated piece of land.
I later learned that it got the name because it resembled a tiered cake. When I drove up to the Songsong overlook, I saw a different angle to the mountain. This time, it resembled a cake whose top had been sliced.But I still couldn’t see the “wedding cake” — until a couple of months ago when I drove to the other side of the mountain where the Japanese cannon is located.There, you will see that the “cake” is almost perfectly shaped, with several elaborate tiers.IMG_7463The Wedding Cake is actually the nickname for Mt. Taipingot and is one of the post-card attractions of this island which is often referred to as a pocket-sized paradise in the Pacific.I tried all the existing roads at the foot of the Wedding Cake, hoping I could find access to the top, but there was none. All roads ended up at the foot of the mountain.According to those who have tried it, the Wedding Cake is 470 feet above sea level and is an ideal place for hiking. However, crawling up through a dense jungle and rocky mountainside with my cameras dangling from my neck wasn’t for me. I preferred to admire the mountain from a distance.IMG_7015

At the foot of the Wedding Cake, just past the commercial seaport in Songsong is the Coconut Plantation, a beachside resort more popular for its shady coconut trees than the beach itself which is so rocky no one should wade into the waters.

Parking our rented car under a coconut tree, my photographer buddy Pat and I took advantage of the coolness of an open cottage by the seaside. We had about four hours to spare before our flight back to Saipan and we spent the time watching several episodes of Dr. Who on his laptop until the batteries ran out. We also enjoyed the sweet potato chips and venison given to us by our friend, Rota entrepreneur Ali Badilles, and the cool breeze from the ocean.Songsong

When it was time to go, we drove onto a rugged trail leading into the preservation area which was bordered with a high cliff wall on one side, and the sea on the other. Cargo ships and other boats were docked near the cliff. The trail going up to the top of the Wedding Cake could have been somewhere around but we didn’t bother to search for it. Maybe some other time when we had more leisure to do so.

Please check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links for more articles about the beautiful islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota.20130517_125844

First Published in the Marianas Variety

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‘Shooting’ a Japanese cannon

IMG_4657THE first time I saw this Japanese cannon at Naftan Point, Saipan’s southernmost tip, was in 2009 when I went for an early morning hike with my co-workers, and I vowed never to return to that place. For someone whose only form of exercise was going up and down the stairs at the office, another hike from Dandan to the very edge of Naftan was a nightmarish proposition.
That vow was broken some months back when an unplanned drive around the island with three photographer buddies took us to the rough road beyond the airport where we ended at Hawaiian Rock.
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Luckily, this time we were in a Rav-4 and Donna at the wheel was courageous enough to drive in the area. I broke my promise because I was not hiking and I was not driving either.The road in the jungle heading to Naftan Point was like a dried-up river with portions so deep and some so rocky we had to hold our breath wondering if the car could make it. But Donna navigated through the potholes with grim determination. And that was how I found myself again at the cliff overlooking Tinian on the right side, and Forbidden Island on the far left. And unlike the first time I was there, I got the chance to enjoy taking photos because I was not panting and trying to regain my breath. Soon we all got so busy clicking away we almost forgot each other.

From the Naftan Point ledge, the tip of the Japanese cannon emerged from behind the bushes so we all trooped toward the World War II relic, slowly picking our way through the grass and sharp rocks. There was really no path that led to the cannon. We had to create one. When we got to it, we all went to work immediately. Pat took video footage with his steady cam while Ems, Donna and I used our Canon cameras to take photos of the cannon.IMG_4644

There were no visible changes to the Japanese cannon, except for the rust that was eating at the entire structure. According to historical accounts on the internet, the roof of the bunkhouse that housed the Japanese cannon was blown off during the battle of Saipan.

The cannon was strategically placed, hidden in the thick undergrowth but with its tip facing the ocean.

Naftan Point remains a perfect site for hikers and bikers as well as for World War II buff and daring explorers. There are numerous trails and forks in the road that lead to caves, more war relics, bunkers, and anti-aircraft enclosures which are scattered all over the jungle.

Except for a biker every now and then, you rarely see anyone at Naftan IMG_1446Point. It is so out of the way and the almost impassable road for small cars is enough to discourage anyone from going there.

But the Naftan peninsula is a photographer’s dream, with its enchanting jungles, rugged terrain, steep cliffs and plateaus.

No matter how many times you’ve been there, there is always so much to see and explore at Naftan Point.

First published at the Marianas Variety

The Shadow at the Bell Marker

IMG_9219IT started with a red arrow on a rusty sign beside the path that proclaimed: “The Bell of Peace and Love…anyone who rings this bell will return to this special place someday again.”
It was the red arrow pointing to a wooded area some 80 meters ahead that kept me going despite the knot of fear that was forming in me. It was almost dark and I never feel comfortable being alone at Sugar King Park but I couldn’t resist the sign. I kept going with hesitant steps, looking furtively behind me as I did so.I followed the stony pathway strewn with orange blossoms from the flame trees that snaked around the grassy areas and came upon a structure in the midst of a mini-forest that I hadn’t seen before — a hexagonal building of sturdy wood on a concrete platform.
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No one was around and there was silence except for the chirping of the birds in the trees and the crunching of the leaves on the ground I was stepping on. I tentatively moved toward the structure and tried to peer through the windows barred with steel but I couldn’t see a thing inside. The roof was covered with fallen leaves. Three big padlocks hung from the door so there was no way to check what was inside.Then I remembered what I was there for — the bell, and there it was, on the left side as you face the prayer house.I saw a marker with the inscription: “The Bell of Peace, The Bell of Love. Anyone who rings this bell will vow the eternal peace and love. Anyone who rings this bell will be blessed with great joy and happiness. The sound of the bell filled with peace and love will lead them to this special place someday again.” The sign was translated into Japanese.I was about to press the shutter and take a photo of the marker but I freaked out when a shadow fell on it. I felt my hair stand on end and was poised to run when I realized it was my own shadow, complete with the camera hanging from my neck.

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I dared not ring the bell. I had no wish to hear a prolonged ringing echoing through the woods. My imagination was playing havoc on my mind and I had visions of waking up the souls of the dead. A mossy trail ran up the hill just behind the house of prayer, but I dared not follow it. It was almost dark and I felt weird trying to fight off the feeling that I was being watched. I left the place, vowing to return soon in broad daylight and with companions.

According to information on a board near the prayer house, the construction of the hexagonal hall of prayer or the Saipan International House of Prayer (Nanmeido) was made possible by Reverend Shinryu Akita of Shizuoka, Japan and the families, relatives and friends of the Japanese soldiers who died here during the war as well as the Marianas Visitors Bureau (now known as the Marianas Visitors Authority).

A completion ceremony was held on October 4,1990. Built of fine Japanese cypress, the prayer house was dedicated to Jibo Kannon, Goddess of Mercy who has the power to draw near all the deceased spirits in hopes of eternal peace and prosperity for Saipan. The prayer house was designed by Kameyama Construction Company of Seki, Gifu Prefecture in Japan. Professor Naito Akira of Nagoya Technical College, an authority on traditional Japanese wooden structures, supervised the construction work.

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If you haven’t been to this part of the Sugar King Park before, just follow the path of the Pai Pai Hill Nature Trail that runs to the right of the Saipan Katori Jinja temple and you will get there.

First published at the Marianas Variety

A Visit to the White Cross Memorial

TINIAN — Driving around in circles on a hot Monday afternoon proved fruitless as we searched for a particular site which I haven’t been to or even heard of before. My companion was looking for a cliff line with a couple of white crosses which he saw through his telescope on Saipan but we couldn’t locate it. We followed one road that we felt might lead to the area, but it ended in a jungle.

Leaving the comfort of our rented car, we explored the jungle, brushing away spiders and other creatures only to discover we were lost. We got back on the trail again and decided to check out Chulu Beach or Star Sands Beach. A couple selling coconut juice gave us directions to the White Cross Memorial (so that was the name of the place we were looking for) and we left after buying a coconut for $3.

We made our way past the bomb pits and reached the intersection of the Blow Hole then took the straight road leading to somewhere I hadn’t explored before.

Pretty soon the path widened, bordered by tangan-tangan on altboth sides. The place looked like somaltebody was maintaining the area. We drove several miles down the tree-lined road and saw a white cross several meters away from the cliff line.

Another white cross was erected a few feet away from the first one, near a small white chapel. Names were written on a marker and I learned the memorial was erected in memory of Tinian residents who had been lost at sea.

The bigger cross at the White Cross Memorial or the Tinian People Lost at Sea Memorial bore the names of four people who were lost at sea on Jan. 5, 1997 — Clifford M. Manglona, Ignacio Joey San Aquiningoc, George A. Manglona and Isaac P. Palacios.

Beside the White Cross, another marker bore the names of eight people who met a tragic death at sea in March 1974 —Soledad C. Ayuyu, Evelyn C. Pangelinan, Maria C. Barcinas, Catalina B. Barcinas, Maxima P. Manglona, Ray M. Blas, Juan T. San Nicolas and Soledad DLC Santos. The marker was installed by Sen. Jose P. Mafnas and Rep. Francisco T. Cabrera and their staff on November 1, 1984.

Flowers and candles adorned the markers and the two white crosses, indicating somebody had been to the place recently.

We picked our way through the sharp rocks and coral and headed to the edge of the cliff where a spectacular view awaited us — in fact more stunning and more dangerous than at the Blow Hole. The waves were rolling in from the sea, exploding up into a powerful, fascinating geyser spray along the rocky coastline.

I had been to Tinian several times in the past four and a half years, but I hadn’t ever ventured beyond the Blow Hole although I had always been curious where that road led.

Staring at the deep blue angry waters, I knew no one who had not lived here could really understand how dangerous the channel between Saipan and Tinian was. The excitement of watching the spray coupled with the eerie feeling of seeing the white crosses was beyond description. I wanted to stay longer, but we had to catch a flight back to Saipan.

To get to the White Cross Memorial, follow the road all the way to North Field and just go straight up through the intersection to the Blow Hole and the Bomb Pits.

This was first published at the Marianas Variety