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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‘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

Exploring Tonga Cave

20130515_160840Right in the heart of Songsong Village on Rota is a huge cave which I tried to visit the first two times I was here but just didn’t get around to it. First, I ran out of time, and second, I was all alone and kind of scared to go in. –
My chance to go into this huge cave came last month when I finally had company and I got a bonus because he’s a photographer too.Tonga Cave is just a few meters from Rota Breakfast & Bed, beside the IT&E office, and very near the residential areas. Follow the sign on the road and the grassy drive will lead you straight to the cave.The first time I visited the cave was one late afternoon. I went up as far as the main entrance but got scared and went back down, promising myself I’d go back as soon as I had some company. A couple of kids were on their way to the cave but they were called back by their parents halfway up.

20130515_161301Just before climbing up the hundred or so rough concrete stairs to the triangular mouth of the cave, there were two small holes just big enough to let a small person in and they led down into the darkness below. I wanted to explore those holes but not when I had my heavy cameras with me.

I pulled my buddy Pat away from the small enclosures and watched him race up the steps to the entrance. I was short of breath when I finally caught up with him.

Tonga Cave is a mix of the natural and the artificial, with the concrete steps providing easier access to visitors, and with stalactites and stalagmites that made it look like a huge yawning mouth with uneven teeth.

There was no one else in the cave and our steps and voices echoed in the vast chamber. Tonga Cave is not like other caves where you go deep into the bowels of the earth. This cave is open at the other side and the entrance is covered by rocks and hanging vines casting eerie shadows.

Perched on a rock in one part of the cave, I felt like I was looking down at another planet with the small stalagmites covering the cave floor. The cave was damp but not wet. Huge vines hanging from the rocks above the cave entrance added to the charm of the cave. You can almost imagine Tarzan swinging up above.

I heard from Rota residents that the cave was turned into a hospital by the Japanese   during World War II. The residents used the cave as shelter during typhoons, and it was once home to a colony of Mariana Fruit Bats.

It was easy to imagine hundreds of people taking refuge in the huge cave. The cave’s high ceilings dwarfed us. There was hardly any air flow inside the cave and pretty soon, we were sweating despite the open air, forcing us to hurry up taking photos and go out to get a breath of fresh air.IMG_0735

I lingered for a bit longer at the entrance to the cave while Pat went to explore another crevice among the stone formations a few yards down. We met some new friends on Rota who told us there was another bigger cave somewhere on the way to the Bird Sanctuary which would require an experienced guide and flashlights. There’s always a next time.20130515_160927

The next time you’re on Rota, check out Tonga Cave, a piece of history that adds to the allure of this island.

First published at the Marianas Variety

A Japanese gun among the bushes

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I HAVE been visiting Ladder Beach on the northern part of Saipan for the past five years, so I was familiar with how the parking area could become bushy and “jungle-like.” On a recent visit, however, something presented itself that had previously remained unnoticed.

Just before you make the left turn toward the Ladder Beach parking area, somebody had painted two posts. I had a quick peek at what was there just before we drove on. It looked like a big rusty gun standing there in the thick shrubbery. My friend Donna  and I decided to stop on our way back and examine what was there — it turned out to be a Japanese anti-aircraft gun, rusty but still formidable looking.

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It was hard to get to where the gun was because of the hundreds of spiders and insects in the thick vegetation. Carefully making our way around the World War II artifact, we inspected it without touching it. We feared that the whole thing might collapse without warning.

The gun was intact, and for a few moments I could not help but imagine the deafening sound that it would certainly have made during the Battle of Saipan.

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Spiders nestled in their comfortable webs all over the gun — signs that not a lot of people had ever seen it, even though it was right there within reach.

Going on a trek by yourself to look for good photo opportunities is different from being on a guided tour with someone who knows about the history of the island. Alone, you are often surprised at the number of things that you have never seen before, or things that you have seen but never paid much attention to — or even things you never thought existed in places you frequently visit.

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Donna shooting the gun behind a stone

That Japanese gun is among the World War II artifacts to be found in the area around Ladder Beach and all the way to Obyan and Naftan Point.

The next time you visit Ladder Beach, keep your eyes open, pay closer attention and you will see a pair of green posts. Stop and get out of your vehicle. It is where the Japanese gun is located.

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A lot has been happening in the Ladder Beach parking area. The bushes have been trimmed, the ladder has been cleared and, very soon, it will become one of the most sought-after venues for weddings, picnics and family gatherings.

There’s more to the island than you know! Explore!

First published at the Marianas Variety

War Remnants on Tinian

TINIAN — Right across from the famous Taga House is an old structure that had often caught my attention, but I never got the chance to explore it when I visited this island previously. It is a bullet-riddled concrete structure that still stands as one of the many mute witnesses to the bloody battles of almost 70 years ago.

Whenever I’m here, I usually head to North Field or to the other end of the island and the Suicide Cliffs to shoot photos.

Some weeks back, I finally got the chance to explore the small structure.

It’s very accessible, especially to those who are not daring enough to explore the bunkers and pillboxes scattered all over North Field and the rest of the island. You don’t need to walk far or drive through thick bushes. The structure is right beside the road and has well-maintained and clean surroundings. There are spiders inside though.

Unlike the other bunkers and pillboxes where you are in constant fear that something will crumble and fall on you, or that creatures bigger than spiders are about to jump on you, this structure is much safer.

Despite the huge holes left by bullets in the walls and the exposed steel bars, the structure is still intact and will remain standing for years to come.

It was fascinating yet scary to look at the different patterns of the holes in the walls. It was terrifying to imagine the horror of those inside it as bullets and artillery shells pounded the island.

Outside the bunker are the remains of an American plane engine which some have tentatively identified as belonging to a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp.

Anyone who visits the House of Taga and the nearby Korean monuments only needs to cross the street to check out this structure.

 

Revisiting Star Sand Beach

TINIAN — An afternoon of aimless driving at North Field a couple of weeks a go took me and two companions to a fork in the road leading to Unai Chulu, or Star Sand, Beach, a popular destination known for its star-shaped grains of sand.

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I’ve been to this beach over four years ago but didn’t get another chance to revisit until that afternoon.We were exploring nooks unfrequented by tourists at North Field and heading to the beach was not in our plan, but we went there anyway.

It was a fun trip because we followed unfaaltmiliar roads and ended up in more dead ends than we could count, but we also got to see more of the island.

We saw a family that included a teenage boy arranging young coconuts opened at the top on a table. The price was $3 for each coconut and I wondered how they expected to sell a lot.

But the boy convinced us to buy at least one coconut and told us a busload of tourists was coming. The boy then ran to the beach and motioned us to follow. He scooped a handful of sand and started sifting through it on his palm, looking very closely until he found what he was looking for and showed it to us — a tiny grain of sand shaped like a star. I’ve seen it before but not my two companions.alt

 

Unai Chulu is not your ideal beach if you want to lie in the sand to soak up the sun or even to swim. The beach is bordered by sharp rocky cliffs and huge angry waves splashing against them. Thick shrubs cover the shoreline but its star-shaped bits of sand are unique. It may, however, take you forever and too much eye straining before you finally see a star-shaped grain of sand. I tried it before and almost gave up before I was able to identify one. But our new friend, the teenage boy, found a couple of star-shaped grains of sand in no time at all.Susan Manuel, a local businesswoman, picks up sand from this beach along with colored rocks and puts them in tiny customized bottles as island souvenirs. This means that the star sand of Tinian has already made its way to different parts of the world.

Unai Chulu was also an invasion site during the war. A Japanese pillbox on the beach gets a fair share of visitors each day.alt

Moreover, MyBirdMaps.com website classified Unai Chulu as one of the top locations for bird watching in the CNMI.

If you are on Tinian, visit this beach and check out its star-shaped sand.

First published at the Marianas Variety

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.