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.

Coconut Kingdom by the Sea in Rota

DSC_5306ROTA — One of my favorite spots here is the abandoned Coconut Village, a row of wooden cottages facing the Pacific Ocean. Driving from Sinapalo to Songsong, you can see a signboard by the road side directing you to the Rota Coconut Village Hotel about a third of a mile away.
If you are new to the island and not that daring, you might think twice before taking the right turn past the signboard. It’s one of those rough and rugged side roads that looks rarely, if ever, used. I took that right turn during my first trip to the island a couple of years back. I was a bit scared, not knowing what to expect. I drove my rented car slowly, trying to avoid tricky potholes that were covered with fallen leaves.

But the spot just before the Coconut Village was stunning. It was a little forest of moss-covered trees and a carpet of orange and red fallen leaves. It was like stepping into a fairy tale and I was scared to breathe lest the magic spell be broken.

A few feet away, the rolling waves of the blue ocean crashed onto the rocky shores. It was in March, the perfect time to shoot photos or videos of gigantic waves from a cliff if that’s what you’re after.

I drove on and saw the Coconut Village sign in front of a cluster of wooden cottages. The place lived up to its name, with tall coconut trees lined up along the shoreline and adding a spectacular touch to the whole view.

I took a couple of steps away from the car and took dozens of images of the resort that had seen better times. The cottages facing the sea had individual balconies where guests could sit and relax, enjoy the view and breathe in the ocean breeze.DSC_5300

I passed by a huge wooden umbrella installed on top of a pile of stones, a perfect spot to have a drink or pass the time away. Although it’s no longer in business, it’s obviously maintained.

The second time I visited the place, I saw somebody cutting and raking the grass. The lawns were maintained and there were blooming flowers all around. The cottages were not falling apart, unlike most of the abandoned resorts and structures on the island.DSC_5281

If you dare to continue driving along the rough road, you will arrive at another popular spot —the Swimming Hole Beach Park.

I dared to take that drive, comforted by the thought that I could hear the ocean so I couldn’t became lost.

DSC_5311Rota has more treasures waiting to be discovered, undeveloped sites that contribute to its name as an untouched gem in the Pacific.

First published at the Marianas Variety here DSC_5294

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/60514-coconut-kingdom-by-the-sea

Stopover on Tinian’s Overlook

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THE first thing that you will think of when you land on Tinian is that there’s nothing in the small island that can entertain you.

From above, the island is just a short stretch of trees and forests bounded by, dotted by a few dilapidated structures.

Looking out from the plane window, the beaches and the giant waves sending huge sprays on the cliffs bordering the island provide a spectacular view from above, but    aside from that, you may think Tinian is devoid of life and activities.IMG_9098

And no one will blame you for thinking that way, until you go out and dare to explore.

Only then will you discover that the island houses a hundred and one scenic spots and a treasure of historical sites that continues to draw visitors from all over the world, the remembrance of a bloody war that took place 70 years ago.

A few miles up from Taga and Tachogna Beach, Tinian’s most popular beaches is a certain spot that you will find refreshingly attractive if you care to go beyond your comfort zones and explore.

IMG_9094Just before reaching Tachogna Beach, take the paved road going left and follow it until you reach the first intersection and follow the paved road to the right. There used to be a sign somewhere on the roadside telling you it leads to the Suicide Cliff but sometimes it is covered with tall grasses and sometimes, you could be busy deciding which way to go you will miss it.

About a couple of miles from the intersection, you will come to a small clearing with a row of empty hollow drums lined up like a fence on the roadside. Walk over to the small clearing protected by a wooden fence and be prepared to take in your fill of a spectacular panorama.

IMG_9097Far below the valley the village of San Jose spread out gracefully. You can even see the old tower of the San Jose Church. The blue skies merged with the blue waters and the gently rolling waves on the far beaches present a very idyllic paradise, contrary to the angry waves you can see from the other side of the island.

The last time I was there was over a couple of months ago when the trees and grass were dry and withered, and the farms were brown waiting for the next planting season. What would have completed the overlook would be a small cottage with benches so people can sit there and watch the sunset, or where runners/joggers and bikers can take a short break to enjoy the panorama.

The overlook is just the beginning of your exploration in that part of the island. Go further and you will discover more breathtaking hiking trails, shrines, World War 11 remnants, historical sites like the Korean and Japanese monuments at the Suicide Cliff.IMG_9073

Tinian has more to offer than you would expect. The island holds its share of more adventures waiting to be tapped. There are more to the jungles, underwater wonders and historic sites and you only need to go out to change your perspective of this island.

For more adventures about Tinian, Saipan and Rota, visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

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

Heaven 2: Where Blue Meets Blue

??THE surprises never stop if you keep on driving off the beaten tracks and explore any of Saipan’s rugged, dirt roads.

Recently, a friend and I followed the rough dirt road on Capital Hill passed the Wireless Cemetery. I had no idea where the road was leading to. My companion had been in the area before but he was not answering any of my questions.

He just drove on and on, listening to the groaning of the car while expertly avoiding the huge potholes in the road which really required a four-wheel drive and not my beat-up Mirage.

Just when I thought the road was never going to end, he stopped in front of a walled building which looked like a private residence. We were in the middle of nowhere. I had not been to the place before, but saw a couple of vans with the words “Heaven II” printed on them.

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I have seen these vans around and thought Heaven II was the name for a religious institution or retreat house but had no idea where it was. I finally learned that it was a hilltop resort.

There was nothing spectacular about the façade of the building. We stopped by the reception area to ask if we could snap some photos. Unlike other hotels in the tourist districts, Heaven II seemed abandoned and I was starting to wonder what photos I would take. We went around the side of the building and emerged into a spot which made my jaw drop, literally.IMG_7754

Before us was an irregularly shaped swimming pool, its blue waters reflecting the nearby white lounge chairs. The pool looked rarely used, and there was a wet bar poolside. Down below, the blue of the ocean merged with the blue sky, creating varied hues broken only by a sprinkle of red flowering shrubs below the pool.

If it was an “infinity” swimming pool — the water seemed as if it were dripping into the ocean. It was such a beautiful place with an amazing million-dollar view of the reef and with lush vegetation around. At the foot of the hill is the village of Tanapag.

 

 

 

Despite the shimmering noonday heat, the place was relaxing.

I was sure that it would also be a perfect site to shoot photos at sunset, when all the blue hues had disappeared behind a fiery mix of gold, red and orange sky. But we didn’t stay long enough to see the sun set although I plan to do so soon.

Spots like these are all over the island just waiting for the daring and the adventurous.IMG_7800

IMG_7751The secret is to go out and just drive. Follow the roads wherever they leads and ask questions later.

For more articles about Saipan, Tinian and Rota destinations, check http://www.studiof6.com and follow the links.

First published at the Marianas Variety HERE
    http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58833-where-blue-meets-blue

Lazy afternoon on the Lazy River

DSC_7831AN afternoon floating lazily on the Lazy River at the Pacific Islands Club was something I always thought was a great thing to do if you’re a tourist. I had said no to many invitations until my very persistent buddy Tom refused to take no for an answer. –
We skipped lunch but munched on some sandwiches and French fries at the Buoy Bar just before heading to the Lazy River. A lot of lounge chairs were still vacant. It was just after 1 p.m. and only a handful of people were in the water. I learned why very soon. The river current was turned on at 2 p.m., and you couldn’t enjoy walking in waist-deep water.We went around the river twice when I noticed the difference. Suddenly, I no longer had to “walk” and my tube started floating and only then was I able to totally relax, feeling the warmth and the languid motion of the water.

On the Lazy River you stand beneath the waterfalls and let the water massage your body. There are areas where the water is smooth and slow and relaxing, while there are spots which you can’t stand for too long as the water seems to rip your body parts with its strong flow.DSC_8992

But you can’t float around forever. You have to try the other water delights PIC has to offer.

I was not especially looking forward to our next destination — the slides. Compared to other slides, those at PIC are short and small and looked friendly enough, until you try them.

I had never tried going down a slide even when I was a kid. I was planning to just stay at the pool and watch Tom but he had other ideas. He hoisted two blue water mattresses and dragged me up the stairs. I was alarmed but there was nothing I could do except sit on the mattress obediently and wait for my end.DSC_2757

Without warning, the pool attendant gave me a push and down I whooshed like a bullet, ducking, when huge amounts of water splashed on my head as I passed a waterfall. I went down one twist after the other and one more turn before I was finally ejected into the pool, my mattress and I flying to different directions.

Flailing my arms, I surfaced, sputtering. I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls. I also had a wardrobe malfunction. My shirt strap came down and left me exposed. Luckily, everyone was busy and no one except Tom saw me. Lesson learned — when you go on the slide make sure your bathing suit fits you snugly.

Miraculously, I had enough guts to go down the slide again, and I finally mastered the technique of how not to get separated from my mattress at the end of my wet ride.

I also agreed to float from the Point Break. The surging water was enough to make me say no but the pool attendant sent my tube spinning several times before giving it a final push. I almost died. Or I thought I did. DSC_7532I closed my eyes and hugged the tube tightly. I felt like throwing up before reaching the Lazy River. It was a few seconds of agony that seemed to last forever.

If you don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut or an acrobat, don’t start from the Point Break. Or you can but just don’t let the attendant give you a spin. That spells the difference between an enjoyable and a dizzying afternoon.

Anyway, when you want rest and relaxation, try a lazy afternoon swim in the Lazy River. Rates are lower during weekdays and not a lot of people use the facilities but if you want to mingle with an international crowd, go for a weekend swim. The muscle pains are worth the bliss that awaits you.

First published at the Marianas Variety here

http://www.mvariety.com/special-features/around-the-island/58488-lazy-afternoon-on-the-lazy-river

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

‘Trespassers’ at Poña Point Fishing Cliff

IMG_0001 ROTA — A fork on the road leading to a small clearing with a signboard that announced “Poña Point Fishing Cliff” caught my attention the first time I went driving aimlessly here a couple of years ago. I saw the sign again while on the same road last March, but I didn’t have the guts to see it.

From the main road, the path to the fishing cliff was obscured by tall bushes and the downhill road looked soft. I was afraid I’d get stuck all alone in the jungle, but I finally s reached Poña Point Fishing Cliff when I again visited Rota two months ago.IMG_0022

I was with buddy photographer Patrick whose fascination with the island was greater than mine so I was finally able to explore places I was reluctant to visit before.

Following the sign, we drove down the short grassy trail, not knowing what was ahead until we reached a rocky area. We had to walk the remaining distance as our rented car could go no further.IMG_0023

Picking our way among the sharp rocks toward the edge of the cliff was a real challenge, and then there was the blistering heat of the sun and the strong wind that threatened to blow me away.

From a safe distance, I looked out and held my breath at the very spectacular panorama spread out before me. The tide was out and the endless blue ocean merged with the blue sky, the gentle waves rolled against the sharp rocks a hundred feet below the cliff. It was fascinatingly scary. Way down, rocks broken into several huge slabs resembled slices of cake topped with green vegetation.IMG_0003

We were atop a cliff and above the sea, and in the howling of the wind, the chirping of the birds and insects, and the crashing of the waves below, we felt like trespassers in a sacred area. It felt like it was a sin to click our camera shutters.

We were tempted to get closer to the edge of the cliff to capture better images, but the wind was too strong.

Poña Point Fishing Cliff is one of the island’s top destinations and is also one of the venues for fishing derby events each year, along with Malilok and Matmos Fishing cliffs.IMG_0010

As we were headed back to the main road, Pat suddenly stopped the car, grabbed his camera and pointed it toward a dead tree. Following his example, I grabbed my camera and was just in time to see a bird with a huge lizard wriggling and captive in its beak while another bird was about to grab the lizard from the first bird.

If you’re on Rota and want to see Poña Point Fishing Cliff, just drive past the Rota Zoo in Songsong and the Japanese cannon until you see the sign beside the road then make a right turn. Don’t be turned off by the soft-looking ground — there’s a hard road somewhere under the green grass that will lead you to the cliff.IMG_0026

For more articles and photos about Saipan, Tinian and Rota please visit https://wanderlustontheraks.wordpress.com/.

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

60-minutes of bliss at La Mer

TUCKED into a luxurious row of rooms on the second floor of Saipan World Resort is heaven on earth — La Mer Massage.

Sathiyan Kalarkkal, who is in charge of the establishment, said La Mer has been open for several years now but not a lot of residents know about it. One afternoon a couple of months ago, photographer buddy Donna and I ventured into that part of the hotel.

A couple of masseuses led us into a luxurious room with two massage tables, and a shower room with a circular tub for flower and coffee baths. Stepping out of our clothes, we submitted ourselves to the expert hands of our masseuses for a 60-minute relaxing massage which included deep tissue massage on the back, shoulders and feet.

Amid the soft gurgling sound of water in a small fountain in the corner of the room, we were soon lulled into a deeply relaxed state and would have fallen deep asleep if not for our occasional grunts whenever our masseuses found sore muscles.

When the massage was over, we were given a tour of the three other massage rooms that offered the same luxury and comfort as the one we had been in.

La Mer Massage specializes in Ayurveda, according to Kalarikkal. Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit word which means life and science, and is one of India’s natural healing techniques that are 5,000 years old.

Kalarikkal said most of the oils are from India, but they also have locally produced ones including coconut oil.

La Mer’s Original Coffee Esthique is one of their most popular massage courses. For 90 minutes, you will be treated to a coffee bath involving coffee beans for cleaning your legs and feet, back and face.

Kalarikkal said coffee beans have fermentation and deodorizing effects on the body and they help create firm smooth lines on one’s skin that create a younger look.

After experiencing the massage and beauty courses offered by La Mer, you’ll feel refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated. Also, check out the various facial courses.

The next time stress overtakes you or if you want to escape from the daily routine, head to La Mer which is open from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day except Thursday. For reservations, call 234-5900 extension 210.

-First published at Marianas Variety