Remains of a World War 11 jail

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TINIAN—I have passed by this particular spot on Tinian so many times in the past years thinking that it was just an ordinary abandoned structure left by the owners from years ago. I had always been intrigued by the grills and bars and the small rectangular slits for windows but never got to ask anyone about it, until a couple of weeks ago when I had an unplanned drive around the island with friend Susan Cruz from there.

She drove me to this site in San Jose village and asked if I had visited it before. I was surprised. The area was cleared of the thick brambles which covered the whole block and the remains of the structure, which I learned was a jail used during the World War 11 was revealed.

IMG_2409 Delighted, I ran out of the car and proceeded to the ruins. It was like seeing something you have always seen with new eyes. Some of the walls were still standing sturdy, and some of the grills, despite the rust eating at it, remained intact barring some of the doors.

I picked my way on the rocks and debris covered by newly trimmed bushes gingerly, scared I might step into some hole. I’ve heard stories that there used to be an underground somewhere where prisoners were kept and I tried looking for the entrance to no avail. It was kind spooky, even in broad daylight.

There was no one else around and it was not hard to imagine prisoners peeking from the small rectangular holes and through the grills. If the walls could talk, the stories they have to tell would surely fill volumes.

IMG_2395Unlike the old Japanese Jail on Saipan where it’s located right in a residential area, clean and well-maintained, this old jail on Tinian had been left covered in brambles and abandoned for so long.

Susan warned me to be extra careful and asked me thrice if I was really sure I wanted to explore the place. She said she has heard so many stories circulating that many of those who stepped on the old jail ruins have gotten sick or possessed by the spirits of the old occupants of the jail.

Although a part of me was hesitant, a bigger part was more curious to explore, and off I went, with Susan staying a safe distance away. I knew it was a chance I wouldn’t let slip by because if I did, I would regret it later.

IMG_2442The leaves crunched under my feet as I ventured further into the ruins, tentatively peeking through old broken doors and peepholes, snapping photos as I went.

When I almost stepped on something that looked like a hole covered with leaves, I hurried out of the ruins and ran back to the road, trying to shrug off the scary thought of stepping into the hole and falling into a tunnel.

If I was with someone equally daring, I guess I would have stayed longer and explored the nooks and crannies of this abandoned structure that has played a big role in the history of the island during the bloody World War 11 almost 70 years ago.

This old jail ruins is just one of the many relics and scars of the war that contribute to the significant pieces of history left lying all over Tinian. When on the island, take time to drive around especially with someone who is from the island and you will discover more of the rich historical treasures that not everyone knows.

For more adventures, please visit http://www.studiof6.com or https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at the Marianas Variety.

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The bell by the fire pit

P1030449ROTA–A few yards behind the swimming pool at the Rota Resort & Country Club is a lovely spot that’s perfect for outdoor parties at sundown or at night.
We discovered it at noontime a few months back after an hour at the Swimming Hole when my buddy Pat decided to rinse off the salt water with a dip in the swimming pool.The pool was deserted but I did not goin and instead ventured off beyond the fence, snapping photos of everything that caught my attention until I came to “the spot” hidden behind some flowering trees.
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Crudely built wooden benches surrounded a circular pit bordered by stones and I could see remnants of half-burned firewood from a previous bonfire. There were logs and polished tree stumps on which guests could sit. Then I remembered hearing the receptionist say something about a fireside party which was an option for guests who didn’t want to have barbeque at Tiki Tiki Bar or drinks at the hotel’s Blue Bar.A few feet away from the fire pit was a circular open hut which was just perfect for wedding photography. My finger was itching to press the shutter but I lacked a bride and groom posing under the bell. And there was no one around.P1030468

A rope hung from the roof of the hut and I couldn’t resist pulling it. That’s when I heard a loud clanging which echoed throughout the whole place and beyond. Scared, I stood frozen for a few seconds, expecting someone to come running from the hotel to ask me why I rang the bell.

Thankfully, the noise did not alarm anyone, except Pat who stopped swimming.

I walked over to the sign that read “Yama’s Bell” and learned that it was dedicated to Hidekazu Yamaguchi, manager of the Rota Resort & Country Club for his love of the island and his efforts to ensure that the resort would be appreciated by guests.P1030469

I went back to haul Pat out of the pool. Our flight back to Saipan was in a couple of hours and we had to get our stuff from the hotel room.

If ever you visit Rota Resort & Country Club, make sure to head to the fire pit and Yama’s Bell for a fireside party. That’s one thing we missed, one of the treasures that Rota has to offer. For more articles about Rota and the CNMI, please visit http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/59225-the-bell-by-the-fire-pit

Exploring Saipan’s seldom-frequented roads

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I THOUGHT I had been everywhere on Saipan until I discovered roads I didn’t even know existed. Recently, my buddy Pat and I decided to pay a visit to the radar tower in San Roque, a site I had visited and photographed several times before so we decided to make this trip different. Bordering the radar tower on the right side was a huge stone pile with some tangan-tangan trees. The pile — or wall — of stones looked dangerous to climb but my companion was unstoppable and I was not about to stay below.
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Finding footholds and handholds while protecting my camera was a real challenge but I slowly made it to the top. And there, I gasped. We were at the very edge of a high cliff and one wrong move could send us hurtling to our deaths below. I held my breath. I was too scared to move. Spread out before us was a glorious panorama of jungle and cliffs bordering the endless blue ocean. A narrow road snaked its way through the jungle, and I was disoriented, not knowing where we were.

We decided to find out where that road below us began and ended. Ever so slowly, we picked our way down, quaking in fear when a stone just stepped on rolled down. Finally, we made it back to the radar tower and were soon inside the cool safety of our rented RAV-4.

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Driving down from the radar tower, we turned left at the fork with the sign “DPS Shooting Range” on the roadside. I’d never been on that road before but the thrill of the unknown kept us going.

The road was wide enough for one car only, but we were the only ones there. The roadsides were thick with bushes that would have made it impossible to park anywhere.

We drove on down the mountainside until we passed the DPS Firing Range, a place I hadn’t seen.IMG_8404

Past the firing range, the road got steeper and, at times, almost impossible to find, but there was no going back now. We knew we had to keep going and find out where we were headed. After several minutes, Pat decided to make a left turn at a fork in the road, expertly dodging huge boulders. It was a short road and, finally, we couldn’t go any further.

Then I looked up and stared at the gaping mouth of a huge cave. Only then did I discover we were at the Kalabera Cave. I had driven several times to the area from Bird Island but never went beyond the Kalabera Cave crossing before. The road would discourage anyone who values his car.IMG_8379

Anyway, it was an exhilarating afternoon and we got back home, memory cards loaded with new photos of this beautiful and ever surprising island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

‘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

Peace memorial on a mountaintop

IMG_7286At the island’s highest elevation stands a stone structure that few people visit: a World War II peace memorial.
I made attempts to see Sabana Peace Memorial Park on my first visits but failed. On my first try, I and a companion drove the rocky and dusty road and stopped when we reached a rusty gate. A huge board by the roadside announced “Welcome to Sabana,” but on the other side of the board obscured by tall bushes was a notice stating that the gate would be closed at 5 p.m. It was already 4 p.m. and we dared not risk getting locked in.On my second try, I decided I couldn’t do it alone so I drove back to the village.During my most recent visit to Rota I finally got the chance to reach the mountaintop because I was with two companions, and I was not doing the driving.The road past the huge billboard became narrower and the wind picked up as we passed acres of fields and vegetable gardens. We seemed to be driving on and on until suddenly, there was no more mountain to be seen, which meant we had reached its peak.IMG_7314IMG_7289The road was barely visible and was covered with thick bushes as we drove on until we reached a clearing with a well-manicured lawn leading to two man-made stone walls on Mt. Sabana.

Everything was so quiet and peaceful as we got out of the car and headed toward two jutting rocks that provided some kind of shelter. They were remnants of the rock wall which Japanese soldiers used as a shield during the war.

A marker with the paint peeling off stated that the Sabana Peace Memorial was erected on Sept. 16, 1973 by the Peace Memorial EreIMG_7241ction Committee headed by Rota Mayor Antonio Atalig and Rota Rep. Prudencio T. Manglona to honor Japanese nationals who lost their lives during World War II on Rota.

According to the marker, “May this gesture promote friendship between the people of Japan and the people of Rota.”

A Japanese translation was engraved on the marker beside the English text.

There was nobody around but we could see the place was well-maintained. We took photos and went around the rock walls to see gently rolling hillsides covered with green vegetation.

A concrete shelter with tables and benches was erected on the left side of the area, providing visitors with a place to relax and enjoy the fresh mountain breeze.

I was glad I wasn’t alone. It would be weird and scary to be the only person in that place, and if you had a car problem you would have to wait a long time before another vehicle showed up, if at all. But the long drive was worth it. It’s exhilarating standing on top of the island’s highest peak at 1,627 feet.

We didn’t stay at the peace memorial for long. We decided to try our luck in finding another road that would take us down to the other side of the island. We plowed through bushes taller than our car hoping a road existed beneath them. We had to go back several times after hitting dead ends, and had to finally give up when we saw that what used to be a road was covered with thick foliage and there was no way we could go through even if we had been using a four-wheel drive vehicle, which we were not.IMG_7211

We drove down the same road going to Sinapalo and headed for the nearest store to quench our thirst with cold water, a necessity which we failed to bring on our Sabana trip.

If you’re on Rota, you must visit the Sabana Peace Memorial.For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota go to https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com.

First published at 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

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.

Revisiting Sugar King Park

Statue of  Matsue Haruji

Statue of Matsue Haruji at the Sugar King Park, Saipan.

EXCEPT for a lone individual who was reading a newspaper near the preserved sugar train, the Sugar King Park was deserted late one Friday afternoon when I dropped by to unwind for a few minutes.

Located across from the CNMI Museum in Garapan, the Sugar King Park is one of the tourist attractions on Saipan that gets a fair share of visitors, particularly Japanese.
You may have passed the park everyday and took its presence for granted but try to drop by sometime and allow its history to charm you.
The park is perfect to spend a lazy afternoon and relax on one of the comfortable benches under the shade of huge, moss-covered trees.
If you are up to it, you can explore the nature trail that winds through a forest and a hill just above the Katori Jinja shrine at the far end of the park. Following the trail takes about 20 minutes.
Remembering a documentary I’ve seen before, I tried to envision what Saipan looked like during the years when the sugar industry boomed and became the cash crop of the island.
One memento is left of that era — an old train that used to carry the sugarcane around the island. It is preserved and parked at the front of the park.
A few meters from where I was sitting, the towering statue of the Japanese sugar king Matsue Haruji stood like a sentinel, a solid reminder of his important contribution to the economic success of the island.

Going back

If you read the marker at the foot of the statue, you will learn how Matsue worked hard and persisted to transform the islands from a dense jungle into a production sugar cane plantation.
Matsue, who was born in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan in 1876, studied cube sugar production in Philadelphia and came back to Japan to apply his knowledge. When he succeeded, it started everything for him and he was convinced that the South Seas territories were ideally suited for sugar cane agriculture.
With thousands of workers, he initiated cleaning Saipan’s jungles and made way for planting sugarcane. He persisted until in 1930, he expanded to Tinian and eventually Rota.
Matsue died in 1954 at the age of 78, but his memory lives not only at the Sugar King Park but in these islands.
The sun was already beginning to set when I left the comfort of my bench to rejoin my buddies who were sweating out at the gym nearby.

(First published HERE)

Stargazing from the cliffs

FOR the daring, one ideal spot on Saipan where you can hang out on a star-filled night to commune with nature and gaze at stars to your heart’s content is the Banzai Cliff in Marpi.

Although majority would immediately cross out such choice of location and opt instead to spread a mat on any of the beaches to stargaze, you will find the thrill of the experience more rewarding than what you expect.
Driving to the Banzai Cliffs at night requires a double dose of courage because for one, the place has no signal. If your car breaks down, good luck because you will have to wait until somebody drives over to help you. Two, visiting Banzai Cliff at night is a totally different thing when you go there at night. The figures look eerie especially with no lights.
The first time I went there at 11 in the evening I lost courage and immediately asked my companion to make a U-turn and drive back to the main road. It was so dark windy. My imagination played havoc during the few minutes we were there so that the howling winds resembled like agonized cries from individuals in pain. You could not stop your hair from rising up. I waited for another chance to go back and it came a couple of weeks ago.
This time, I was with three companions. It was just 10 p.m. and a zillion stars lit up the sky. Gone was the eerie feeling and the cries I heard on my first night visit to the place. The statues and cement structures look less ominous.
Every now and then, a car drives up filled with tourists who stay for a few minutes before leaving.
Reclining on the hood of the car, I spent a very relaxing hour or two swapping horror stories with my companions, recalling lessons from my Girl Scout days and trying to identify starts and constellations.
From the distance, the Suicide Cliffs loomed in the semi-darkness, the trees forming gruesome figures trying to extend their claws. The cool wind added mystique to the night but it was one experience where I left totally refreshed and relaxed.
Midnight struck and we had to leave the statues, the huge rolling waves below the cliffs, the cement structures and the whole place which had been the mute witness to the grim deaths of thousands of Japanese soldiers over six decades ago.
On a starlit night, try gazing at the stars from the Banzai Cliff. It’s one experience of a lifetime.

(Originally published HERE)