Friday, December 31, 2010

Welcoming the New Year with fireworks

AS early as 8 p.m. tonight, the countdown begins for a lot of people and the anticipation builds up as the night goes deeper. When the clock strikes 11:30 p.m., the skies start to brighten as firecrackers start to explode in a glorious splendor from home and buildings all over the island.
Nothing beats those few minutes of magic and excitement in hearing those loud whistling sounds as firecrackers shoot up into the air and explode into a thousand explosions, booms and fizzes amid bright lights, displaying spectacular shapes and colors that you would want them to stay up there forever.
For the past two New Year’s evenings I’ve watched the splendid firework displays from the parking lot of Hard Rock Café in Garapan, but I learned that one of the best places to watch the skies lit up in wondrous colors is at the Navy Hill.
Fireworks are popularly associated with Independence Day celebrations, but its original use was during New Year’s celebrations. Fireworks are said to originate in China over 2,000 years ago. One legend has it that a Chinese cook accidentally spilled saltpeter, an ingredient used in gunpowder, into a cooking fire which produced an interesting flame.
Exploding firecrackers were believed to be produced during the Song dynasty by a Chinese monk who placed gunpowder inside bamboo shoots and exploded them on New Year’s eve to scare away the evil spirits. By the15th century, fireworks have become a traditional part of celebrations.
Across the world, many countries spend millions of dollars in lavish firework displays.
In the CNMI, the thinner wallets and meager household budgets brought by the economic downturn is not a hindrance for the people to welcome the New Year with fireworks. Thankfully, firecrackers come in different sizes and shapes and price range, making it affordable for everybody. There are available firecrackers for as low as a dollar and as expensive as hundreds of dollars, but no matter what kind of firecrackers you can afford, it is the spirit of the celebration that counts.
New Year’s Eve just would not be complete without fireworks. If you don’t want to light fireworks, you can go out before the clock strikes midnight tonight and bask in the glorious experience of watching multi-color fountains of light, flashing stars, cracking strobes and willow-bursts light up the dark skies.
Warning: A reminder to state the obvious, fireworks can be very dangerous if not handled correctly. Use fireworks with proper caution. Kids should have adult supervision when lighting fireworks because you would not want to spend the first day of the New Year swathed in bandages, minus a finger or two and writhing in pain at the hospital.
Have a blazingly spectacular firework-filled New Year to one and all!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Lost in a Disneyland dream

VISITING Tokyo would never be complete if you can’t make it to Disneyland, and a day is never enough to go around the vast place with its spectacular collection of different attractions and shows in several themed lands.
A day at Tokyo Disneyland starts with the long lines that stretch from the ticket booths to forever but once you get through the entrance, it felt like being let loose in a huge room filled with goodies you don’t know which one to pick up first.
The sun was getting high as I followed the Saipan Awaodori team toward the Big Thunder Mountain and fell in line with the thousands of others who didn’t mind the scorching heat of the sun in exchange for a few minutes of roller coaster ride that takes you into the belly of the mountain through improvised mining fields.
We cruised to Tom Sawyer’s Island where I got left by the group after I went exploring Indian settlement camp and caught up with them lining up at the Splash Mountain, a ride which is every child’s dream. The experience cruising through the cool fantasy tunnel being entertained by colorful characters we only see on TV brought out the kids in us and left us wanting for more. A final plunge had me frantically hugging my two cameras for protection as we approached a waterfall but we did not get wet at all.
It was hard to keep track of all the rides that we sampled until the Space Mountain ride which tested my guts almost beyond endurance.  As you go down the basement to ride the coaster that will take you into space, cubicles are available for those who change their minds but I was not about to change my mind. Until the time we were strapped on to our seats and the coaster just whirled out of nowhere into a dark abyss lighted only with dots that resemble galaxies and constellations.
The gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, and seemingly never-ending ride elicited screams which I was surprised to discover came from my own throat but it was over soon and I alighted pale and weak-kneed from the coaster, just like almost everybody else.
Visitors are drawn to an afternoon parade of the world’s favorite cartoon characters, followed by another more spectacular show at 8 p.m. where an electrical dream lights parade will transport you into a whole new world as your favorite cartoon characters parade before you adorned with over a million colorful blinking lights.
Dinner was forgotten as a magical fireworks show lighted the skies in front of the castle. The day passed by in a fantastic blur of memories to be sorted out and preserved later. We browsed the shops and bought souvenir items before going to the arranged meeting place to go home.
Tokyo Disneyland closes at 11 p.m. every day and we trooped out the gate with everybody else, tired but happy with the enchanting experience.
I left with one big regret—the Haunted Mansion which I was so looking forward to explore was closed for renovation but there’s always a next time.
For more information about the Tokyo Disneyland, visit

A drive around Tinian

DRIVING around Tinian is always a pleasant and refreshing experience for anyone who wants to escape from the noise of other car engines and traffic lights and changing lanes.
With four hours to spare on Sunday afternoon, I and a buddy rented a Toyota Yaris from Avis for $35. Armed with SLR and point and shoot cameras, tripods, videocam, bottles of cold water, some snacks and a map of Tinian, we proceeded to drive around Tinian’s long and secluded roads.
Once you get on the road, you can very seldom meet any other vehicle on the way so you can even drive with your eyes closed or go at top speed without looking back to see the flashing red and blue lights of a police car but we didn’t do that, not with a rented car anyway.
My buddy drove toward the north direction first, taking asking “right or left?” whenever the road forked, but he soon grew tired of my “whatever” answers and started following roads to wherever it leads, backing up when it’s a dead end.
I was too busy snapping photos of anything and everything to give him any direction and I was confident that whichever road we take will always get us back to where we started. It was actually my third time to drive around Tinian but my first with a pro who knows where and when to make the right stops when something interesting catches my lens.
Soon, we were navigating the rough and bumpy road toward Tinian’s famous Blue Hole. For the next few minutes, the world ceased to exist as we both concentrated taking photos and videos of this place that continues to attract thousands of people from all over the world. We proceeded to the other tourist sites including the famed Chulu or starsands beach, the bomb pits, the airstrip, dilapidated buildings, Japanese bunkers and other historical sites, recording each in our memory cards. We then proceeded to the other end of the island where the Suicide Cliff yawned emptily and threateningly below us, where the white-painted memorials of those who have died in the bloody World War 2 stood helpless as mute witnesses to our interruption.
We still had one hour to consume but drowsiness and fatigue from a late night overcame us and we decided to go back to our rooms to rest.
Tinian may be a small island, and we have practically poked all the areas where we were allowed to, but one never gets tired of exploring its rich historical nooks and crannies. My buddy and I made a pact to repeat the experience but next time on rented scooters.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Moonlight escapade at the Bird Island

HOW far have you ventured in Marpi in the dead of the night? During the day time things are different, with buses and vans from different tour companies unloading tourists into the different attractions such as the Grotto, Suicide Cliff, Banzai Cliff, the Last Command Post, and Bird Island sanctuary.
The farthest place I’ve been to is the Banzai Cliff a couple of times — the first time at 9 p.m. and the second time at 12 midnight. I got my fair share of goose bumps as I and some friends stood listening to the angry crashing of the waves in the cliffs below. It was eerie looking at the Suicide Cliffs from a distance and on both times, I almost imagined the thousands of Japanese soldiers screaming and they plunged to their deaths from those cliffs.
Tourists and locals visiting the Banzai Cliffs at night is very common, but it was still eerie. I never thought I would have the courage to go as far as the Bird Island and stay until after dark until a couple of weeks ago.
The sun had set behind the horizon and the bus load of tourists had gone, along with the guard assigned to the area yet we stayed on, lured by the surreal sight of the moon slowly rising in the sky casting shadows in the shimmering waters.
Every now and then, a patch of cloud dimmed the moonlight but after a few minutes, brightness again would envelop the area.
We stood holding on to the railing at the observation deck, sharing a companionable silence and enjoying the view of the Bird Island as the night stretched on forever. The cool ocean breeze gently whipping on our faces was so refreshing. The gentle lapping of the waves below seemed to beckon anyone to go wading in the shores.
There was not another soul in sight but just me and my buddy, the tiny islet below us, and the ocean stretching into infinity. Time seemed to stand still and it felt like sin to breathe and break the spell.
The ringing of my buddy’s cell phone from somewhere broke the silence and jarred us back to the present, a reminder that it was time to go albeit we were reluctant to leave. It was past 9 o’clock.
I’ve been to the place countless of times before, but seeing the Bird Island bathed in moonlight gave me a different perspective of the place.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the Bird Island sanctuary each year, taking home pictures of the place and sharing it with the rest of the world.
Having been to the Bird Island sanctuary and in all other tourist attractions in the island many times is not an excuse not to make another visit, but for a change, pick an uncommon time to be there such as on one dark night, or during a full moon and prepare to bring home a wealth of new experiences.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Driving through the back roads

IF you say Saipan is a small island and you can go around it in an hour and visit every place there is to explore, you’re right. You can drive from Marpi to Kagman to the Naftan Point and say that you’ve been around and everywhere on Saipan.
I thought I had explored every nook and cranny of the island and there is not a single spot that I can’t say “I’ve been there” already but a buddy proved me wrong last week.
Unhindered by a flat front tire and an hour’s wait for rescue as we didn’t have any tools or spare tire, we drove up to As Matuis Road past the La Fiesta Mall and all the way to the old Radar Station where we spent a few minutes taking photos of this historical structure that still stands proudly and survived the harsh elements of nature. Enjoying the utter silence broken only by the occasional chirping of birds was a real treat — no car engines, no radios blaring, no cellphones ringing, no other people around.
Driving down from the Radar Station, my buddy took a left turn and followed the rough road past the water reservoir. The road was unfamiliar and my senses immediately reeled with anticipation in exploring a new destination.
The road, which I learned is often used by bikers, looked like a dried up riverbed on most parts but my buddy drove his van real slowly, giving me the chance to enjoy the view and snap photos of anything and everything that caught my lens.
I bit my tongue to stop asking for the nth time where the road leads to. After what seemed like an eternity of humps and bumps on the road, we emerged from thicket and found that we were at the main road leading to the Suicide Cliffs.
We went down and made a quick stopover at the Grotto and took more photos of the busload of tourists who ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the spectacular view of this wonderful dive spot from the observation deck above – a spot that most people who have been living here for a long time take for granted – before driving back to Susupe to watch the sunset from the beach.
When life on the main road seems too boring and you’re following the same routine day in and day out, try to take the back road for a change and see what it has to offer. You’ll be surprised to know there is more to this little gem of an island than you think. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your camera.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tribute to the Court of Honor

ON any ordinary day, this certain area at American Memorial Park is usually deserted except for a few passersby who jog around, but once a year, this place hogs the spotlight as the community members troop there to pay honor to the veterans and soldiers who have sacrificed  so much for today’s generation.
From afar, the Court of Honor and Flag Circle looks just like any oval area with several steps leading to a platform with five flagpoles. You can see five flags waving in the wind amid colorful blooms especially during the summer, but there is more that concrete steps and flags in this oval than you would think.
Jog around the area on an ordinary morning or afternoon and all you will see is the circle, with the U.S. flag in the center flanked by the Service Flags of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force (Army Air Corps). But join the other guests in November 11 each year and you will notice a change — the place adopts a whole new atmosphere and becomes the site where the veterans are honored and the fallen heroes are remembered for their heroic deeds.
The Court of Honor and Flag Circle is actually a memorial to the Americans and people of the Marianas who died in the battles for Saipan and Tinian, or the “Operation Forager” and the battle of the Philippine Sea during the World War 11.
If you look closely, there are 26 granite plates at the Court of Honor where the names of over 5,000 Marines, Army and Navy personnel who were killed or listed as missing-in-action were inscribed. Records showed that over 150 World War 11 veterans and their families returned to Saipan from the mainland for a reunion on June 15, 1994, or 50 years later to the battles for Saipan and Tinian to dedicate the Court of Honor and Flag Circle at American Memorial Park. Veterans and Saipan residents who endured the war also gathered at the Court of Honor after a parade along Beach Road in Garapan for the dedication which ended with fireworks and concerts in the evening.
The next time you jog or stroll around the Court of Honor and Flag Circle, think beyond the cemented steps and flagpoles and thank the over 5,000 heroes who sacrificed their lives for the freedom you are enjoying today.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Spectacular views from above

HOW long have you been in the island? 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? If you have lived here all your life and performed your daily routine all these time, have you ever paused for a moment to wonder what the island looks from up above?
If you love swimming or diving, you may have already seen the underwater wonders of the island, and if you are an explorer, you may have already explored all the nooks and crannies and followed all the roads — paved, rough and even the rarely used jungle roads at one time or another. But have you seen what the island looks like from up above?
If you are one of those individuals who doesn’t care what seat is assigned to you whenever you fly in an airplane, or go to sleep immediately even before the seatbelt on sign is turned off, you may have missed a lot.
Even short flights like going to Tinian, Rota or Guam can offer you spectacular views you wouldn’t have thought about.
As much as possible, I always ask for a window seat upon checking in, and my first glimpse of the islands when I arrived here over a couple of years ago was a long strip of unpopulated jungle areas with a few roads going around and through it, bordered by pristine aquatic blue waters from all sides. My first thought was that the pilot made a mistake and we were going to make an emergency landing in a jungle but we flew on over the blue oceans for a few minutes before I finally spotted another island — this time occasional buildings and roads. My seatmate told me the first island I saw was Tinian.
In highly urbanized cities where the airports are located right within the city limits, you may even consider pilots as geniuses for finding the exact spot where to land, but in the CNMI, it’s an entirely different story. You can enjoy the view of this tropical paradise from your window seat — an island wrapped in lush greenery, pristinely blue waters and white shores marred only by a few touches of modernization.
You don’t have to necessarily board an aircraft to view the islands from above. You can drive up to elevated places such as Navy Hill or Mt. Tapochao to get a 360-degree view of the whole island, but on board an aircraft will give you a more thrilling view from a higher angle.
I haven’t had the chance to go around the island onboard an aircraft to take aerial shots yet, and I bet most haven’t done so too but if you browse the internet, you will find various Web sites with spectacular aerial photos showing the beauty of the islands.
An aerial view of the islands at night is another totally different wonder — one you should not miss when you have a chance.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Remains of an old church

SOME old structures, when repaired, come out beautiful and vibrating with a new life, but some, especially those that carry historical significance and bear witness to a glorious past, should be preserved or restored to its original form as much as possible.
In the center of San Jose village on Tinian stands one of those structures — an old bell tower — the remains of an old Catholic church.
The bell tower may look out of place in the modern and developing surroundings, but the contrast adds to the mystic of this pre-war structure despite its dilapidated and crumbling state.
The Tinian bell tower, a central landmark on the island, was the only portion of the historic San Jose church that survived the fury of the war. Over the years, this piece of history continues to attract thousands of tourists and has been one of the most photographed places in the CNMI.
Photos posted on various Web sites showed that a small plaza was built around the tower a few years back.
The old church was built by Father Pellet and parishioners in 1936.
The old bell tower in San Jose is just one of Tinian’s many historical attractions.
The island is  littered with history — latte stones, World War II relics, crumbling architecture, shrines, old abandoned Japanese buildings and the two pits where the two atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan were loaded.
During the few times I visited the island, I always experienced the same eerie feeling of intruding into a sacred part of history —knowing that every brick and mortar, every piece of nail and bar in the abandoned buildings were mute witnesses to a bloody war that shook the entire Pacific over six decades ago.
It always felt like a sin to leave footprints on the grounds and your mere presence in the historical sites seemed to be an “incursion.”
Aside from its historical wealth, the island is a paradise surrounded with spectacular vistas, secluded beaches, clear waters for scuba diving and snorkeling, and friendly people.
To get to Tinian, you can fly via Freedom Air for $69 per person, or charter a flight with Star Marianas Air. On Tinian, you can rent a car or a scooter to visit the historical and natural sites, and take you around the island.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Celebrating Saipan’s Katori Shrine

AN altar perched on top a flight of cemented stairs at the foot of a jungle area at the far end of Sugar King Park in Garapan caught my attention the first time I visited the place a couple of years ago. I was with a couple of friends who had been on Saipan for several years and they were eager to show me around.
It was almost dark and the park was deserted. I could not stop the goose bumps that crawled up my spine as I ventured farther beyond the altar.
Out of habit, I fished out my camera from my bag and started taking photos without thinking if it was allowed or not. I knew the place was sacred and held some piece of significant history.  I returned later in broad daylight to get brighter photos.
My friends just told me that the place was Sugar King Park, but it was not until much later that I learned its name: Katori Shrine.
Information from the Internet showed that the original Katori Jinja or shrine was built on Saipan in 1911 during the Japanese era.  Fire destroyed the shrine in 1944 during World War 11 but 40 years later, the then-Marianas Visitors Bureau and the Katori Federation joined hands in re-establishing the site.
Tomorrow morning, the spotlights will be focused on the Katori Shrine as it hosts dozens of religious followers and visitors from Japan for the annual memorial ceremony.
If you have been around for a long time and have not visited the Katori Shrine, think about taking some time off tomorrow to join the rest of the visitors in celebrating the shrine’s 25th anniversary.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Apparition at Santa Lourdes Grotto

THE date was December 26, 1995, and it was his visit to Saipan. Manny Duenas, born on Guam but whose family moved to the mainland in the early 1970s, was touring the island with a friend following a business meeting.
Duenas told the Variety that his friend suggested visiting the Santa Lourdes Shrine on Capitol Hill to which he immediately agreed.
“We arrived at the grotto about 1:30 in the afternoon, and I felt the very peaceful and calming nature there,” Duenas said.
He said that he immediately felt the presence of the Virgin Mary so he began his prayers with her at the altar.
As he was praying, he said a busload of tourists arrived at the grotto and everybody wanted to have souvenir photos at the altar. Duenas said he waited until the tourists left the area, before he asked his friend to have his picture taken at the altar, too.
“We took several pictures at the grotto before our journey home.  It wasn’t until I had those pictures developed, that I realized how “special and sacred” that grotto is,” Duenas said.
He said that each picture came out with fine color and detail, but when he came across his picture at the altar, he felt truly blessed and deeply amazed.
“The Virgin Mary was there with me, it wasn’t just a feeling,” Duenas said.
“I believed the Santa Lourdes Grotto and my spiritual experience is a sign that the Virgin Mary is still calling us to gather and pray for peace and to remember our Faith in God and the Holy Trinity,” Duenas said.
One of Duenas’ spiritual revelations was aired on Fox40 news back in March 9, 2008. In the interview, Duenas told Sacramento reporter Jamie Soriano that he found the image of the holy virgin in a palm branch in his backyard in Citrus Heights, California.
Duenas said that he was doing some yardwork when he saw what he believed was the image of the holy virgin with the baby Jesus cradled in her arms.
“I was just doing my work but for some reason, when I got to the second branch, I had the goose bumps when I saw the image, so I shared what I saw with my family,” Duenas said.
The interview, viewed by almost 10,000 people and which can be viewed at got a fair share of comments and reactions from people who believe and those who don’t believe in him.
Duenas said he is planning to come back to Santa Lourdes shrine on December 26 and offer a mass or rosary to commemorate the 15th year anniversary when he saw the apparition there.
Duenas was born in Dededo Village on Guam with 12 siblings. He had been to Guam only on four occasions since his family moved to California in 1972 and his last visit on Guam was in 2004. He now resides in northern California East of Sacramento. Duenas is married with seven children and three grandchildren.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Discovering a secret cove

IF you are looking for a long stretch of soft, sandy beach with gentle waves lapping on the shores, it is not the place you are looking for, but this beach located at the very tip of the southern part of Saipan is one of the island’s attractions that continue to draw in both locals and tourists each day.
The remoteness could be one of its added attractions because unlike the other beaches in the island, you have to drive it rough for a minutes past the landfill in Marpi and walk the last few meters down before you can get to the beach, or take the more scenic route and walk for an hour or so through the jungles in Banzai Cliff. If you go hiking through the jungle, seeing World War 2 relics scattered along the way, hundreds of butterflies fluttering among the flowers and hordes of other insects is a pleasant diversion.
Cow Town beach is not your ideal place for a day of fun in the sand. The shores are literally covered with sharp rocks and bushes. It is not a where you can run around or chase its other because you have to carefully pick your way with each step you take.
Huge waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean produce a thunder-like rumbling each time they slap on the jutting rocks but I find the sound pleasant.
I got the chance to visit Cow Town beach one noontime a few weeks back with a couple of friends. Finding some shade for shelter was a mission impossible in the area. The tide was low so I braved the sharp rocks and ventured into the rocky ledge and discovered a cave-like structure behind some huge rocks.
The secret cove provided us some sort of shelter from the scorching heat and we rested for a few minutes before making our way out of the rocky ledge.
Unmarred by commercialization and the advances of modernization, you can enjoy nature’s best at Cow Town beach.
For years, the beach has made it to the headlines with reports of fishermen drowning or going missing, but the lure of the place is just irresistible. Visit Cow Town beach and see for yourself what this place has to offer.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Beyond Banzai Cliff

IF you have driven all the way to Banzai Cliff in Marpi, marveled at  Suicide Cliff from a distance, got fascinated by the huge waves crashing against the rocks below, and enjoyed the quiet yet eerie atmosphere and think that you have seen everything, you’re wrong.
At the far end of the parking lot obscured beneath tall bushes is a narrow but worn trail that will not only give you a chance to stretch your legs but open more doors of excitement.
I’ve seen this narrow trail many times in the last two years as the exit point of bikers and runners in several marathon events, but I never got a chance to check out where it led until a couple of weeks ago when we had to make a trail for the company’s adventure hike the following day.
Hiking on a Friday noon with the scorching heat burning my face and shoulders, the unforgiving bites of mosquitoes on my arms and legs, and my frequent yelps of fright every time my buddies Andrew and Eric disturbed a nest of insects ahead of me was not exactly my idea of fun but it was adventure just the same.
The trail, which I learned was an old Japanese railroad now frequently used for off-road rides,  is a paradise for nature lovers — a coral forest with colorful butterflies fluttering on plants and flowers, not afraid of strangers, spiders, snails, worms, and other occupants of the jungle.
Going off the main trail a few meters into the jungle will lead you into some caves littered with remnants and relics of World War II. Half the fun is in going down the caves — or mouth of the caves as we did not explore further inside. You have to find handholds and footholds and take extra care not to slip on the sharp rocks.
We had to clear off the bushes to find a way out before we emerged back to the main trail. Further down the trail, I finally found what I had wanted to see — the late multimillionaire Larry Hillblom’s boat, or what was left of it. Near the boat was an old building which housed huge cows.
Our trek took us around the Cow Town Ranch, and down to Cow Town Beach. The tide was out and we took shelter under a huge stone crevice before heading back to where we started off at Banzai Cliff.
For seasoned hikers, the trail from Banzai Cliff to Cow Town Beach will take less than an hour, but for those who want to take it slow and easy to enjoy the sights along the way, it will take about an hour and a half.
What are you waiting for? Get some time off and prepare to be stunned by the historical treasures that lies beyond the parking lot of Banzai Cliff.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Takeshita street

As early as 10 a.m., crowds, especially the younger generation start to flock to Takeshita Street to see visit the long line of stores. The crowd gets thicker throughout the day and until 9 p.m. when most of the stores close.
TAKESHITA Street, or Takeshita-dori in Jarajuku, Tokyo is a hub for the city’s younger population. There you can find McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, The Body Shop and a wide assortment of small fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants and what-have-you.
The Takeshita Street is a pedestrian-only fashion street which starts from JR Harajuku Station’s Takeshita exit to Meiji Street (approximately 150 meters).
The stores on this street are mainly flashy fashion boutiques for young people including a variety of lineup from accessories, miscellaneous articles, character goods, and fast food and they are always crowded with mostly junior high and high school students. There also are many small-sized pioneer stores closely following the latest trends which indeed reflect Tokyo’s trend itself that changes rapidly. There also are many stores selling crepes with people standing in a long line in front of every one of them. Takeshita Street indeed lures a large number of people on weekends and holidays.
The first time I passed by the place was past midnight during my first night in Tokyo. Misako-san’s house is a few blocks up. Takeshita street looked like any regular side street with lots of colorful graffiti on the walls, so narrow that I was worried if the taxi we were riding could fit in the road. Miraculously, it did and we arrived at Misako-san’s condo unit.
The next day around 9 a.m. I got the chance to walk on the street on our way out to pick up the kids from their apartment in Koenji.  A few of the stores were preparing to open and the street started to spring to life. No cars were allowed in the street during the day.
Takeshita Street throbs with so much color and life and activity that there is barely enough room to move around.
By 11 a.m., I head the street gets really jam-packed, and you have to literally rub or jab shoulders with strangers to pass or get around. I got the chance to explore the street on my third day when I Misako-san told me we were free for the morning. Eagerly, I browsed the shops, getting in my fill of the sounds, sights, colors and smells of everything.
If you hate crowds and would rather not want to rub sweaty elbows with students and tourists from all parts of the world, this is not the place for you. But then, you will miss seeing the most extraordinary blend of hip-hop or punk fashion, vintage or the latest clothing trends, weird but nice- looking footwear especially those from a store named “Out of the World,” inexpensive trinkets, fancy jewelry and accessories, food, beverages and more.
Takeshita Street is home to the most unique sights especially on weekends. Individuals wearing red, green, pink or multi-colored hair and fancy costumes are a common sight.
Although the street is short, one day is barely enough to go around and browse the shops squeezed in. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring even the narrowest doors on the sides, and don’t fail to follow steep stairs that will lead you to the basements of the stores. You don’t want to miss a lot.
I spent two mornings on Takeshita Street during my week-long stay in Tokyo last month since it was just a block away from the house of Kinpachi Restaurant owner Misako-san’s where I stayed. Time was never enough. Except for buying some necessities such as a 700 yen wristwatch and some trinkets for friends, I spent more time taking photos than browsing in the shops.
I delighted in spending 400 yen on a glass of Hawaiian blue-flavored shaved ice and dug into it with gusto. I also went to a pizza joint located in the basement of a three-story store and paid 530 yen plus 10 percent tax for a pizza meal.
I ventured inside one of these corner stores displaying a wide selection of new and used knick-knacks– wigs, boots, shoes, bags, clothes, costumes and hordes of other items. Flipping through the jeans, a light blue maong jeans  with tattered knees and legs caught my attention, and even before I looked at the price, I knew i was never going to leave the store without it.
Going inside the fitting room, the jeans fitted me perfectly, as though waiting for my arrival. I blinked at the price tag–uhuhhh Y1,990 yen. Doing a mental calculation, the jeans costs about  $24 and I closed my eyes when the cashier rang up my purchase.
Squeezed among the stores and fast food chains and all the commercial hullabaloo going around, there’s this one house that breaks the tone, its tranquil facade presenting a total contrast to the hubbub of activities going on around it. The house should belong to a peaceful village somewhere with rivers and peaceful lagoons or fountains around it.
Everyday is shopping day at Takeshita Street, or so I learned during the week I was there. I grabbed every spare time I had to explore the street, taking photos of everything and anything, trying foods I’ve never tried before, and yet I never got my fill of everything. There is just so much to see and do but I was able to grab some items for pasalubong for friends in Saipan–a couple of shawls for an office mate, a watch for my roommate, rugs for my room, bracelets and other knickknacks for friends.

One notable thing about Takeshita Street is that despite the narrow space and hordes of people flocking the road, there is not a single piece of trash or even a cigarette butt on the sidewalks or anywhere. The street is notably clean.

Brightly colored shoes are among the most saleable merchandise at Takeshita Street.
Your Takeshita Street experience will never be complete if you will not try one of these world-famous, must-try ice cream crepes. Crepe stalls are everywhere and you can try the various fillings from Y350 to Y500 and even up to Y1,000 if you go for a combination of fillings and toppings. I tried the creme with fruits and nata de coco
Planning a trip to Tokyo? Don’t miss visiting Takeshita Street. It is located directly across from the Takashita exit of JR Line Harajuku Station.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Takeshita Street: Where cool, hip, punk and everything unique blend in

TAKESHITA Street in Jarajuku, Tokyo is a hub for the city’s younger population.
There you can find McDonald’s, 7-Eleven, The Body Shop and a wide assortment of small fashion boutiques, cafés, restaurants and what-have-you.
Takeshita Street throbs with so much color and life and activity that there is barely enough room to move around.
From 11 p.m. to 8 a.m., Takashita Street is just like any other ordinary, narrow road. But after 8 a.m., the street starts to come to life. By 11 a.m., its jam-packed.
If you hate crowds and would rather not want to rub sweaty elbows with students and tourists from all parts of the world, this is not the place for you. But then, you will miss seeing the most extraordinary blend of hip-hop or punk fashion, vintage or the latest clothing trends, weird but nice- looking footwear especially those from a store named “Out of the World,” inexpensive trinkets, fancy jewelry and accessories, food, beverages and more.
Takeshita Street is home to the most unique sights especially on weekends. Individuals wearing red, green, pink or multi-colored hair and fancy costumes are a common sight.
Although the street is short, one day is barely enough to go around and browse the shops squeezed in. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring even the narrowest doors on the sides, and don’t fail to follow steep stairs that will lead you to the basements of the stores. You don’t want to miss a lot.
I spent two mornings on Takeshita Street during my week-long stay in Tokyo last month since it was just a block away from the house of Kinpachi Restaurant owner Misako-san’s where I stayed. Time was never enough. Except for buying some necessities such as a 700 yen wristwatch and some trinkets for friends, I spent more time taking photos than browsing in the shops.
I delighted in spending 400 yen on a glass of Hawaiian blue-flavored shaved ice and dug into it with gusto. I also went to a pizza joint located in the basement of a three-story store and paid 530 yen plus 10 percent tax for a pizza meal.
I would have loved to explore further but changed my mind when I saw the cellphone Misako-san gave me to use in case I get lost. It was all in Japanese, and I couldn’t understand a single letter.
One notable thing about Takeshita Street is that despite the narrow space and hordes of people flocking the road, there is not a single piece of trash or even a cigarette butt on the sidewalks or anywhere.
Planning a trip to Tokyo? Don’t miss Takeshita Street. It is located directly across from the exit of JR Harajuku Station.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Good turnout for Chief Aghurubw’s 40th memorial tribute

AFTER four decades, the zest of the younger generations in paying tribute each year to the Carolinian leader Chief Aghurubw whose remains were buried in the small island of Managaha did not wane.
Chief Aghurubw Foundation president Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong told the Variety that the young people belonging to the clan Jhatoliyool clan were as enthusiastic as ever to come to Managahan each year.
“This year, I’m very happy for the huge turnout,” Ogumoro-Uludong said.
He said that their focus is to strengthen all the 14 branches of the clan and get more participation in the memorial tribute in the years to come.
“We acknowledge our grandfather, Daniel Ogumoro, now 84 years old, who erected the first monument to honor Chief Aghurubw,” Ogumoro-Uludong said. He added that when the chief’s remains were buried, Managaha was considered a sacred land.
He said he was glad families from Rota were able to make the trip this year for the event.
Ogumoro-Ulodong added that the ferries made four trips carrying over 150 passengers on each trip on Saturday to transport passengers to Managaha Island for the memorial tribute.
Father Rey D. Rosal of San Vicente Parish conducted Saturday’s mass in front of Chief Aghurubw’s monument. The event was also attended by Governor Benigno R. Fitial and other leaders.

History states that Chief Aghurubw, together with Chief Nguschul led their people from the Caroline Islands that was ravaged by typhoons in 1815 and resettle on Saipan.
Guests partook of the free island food provided after the mass.
Ogumoro-Uludong said the foundation extends their thanks to the supporters for their generous donations for the annual event which includes David Igitol and Frank Murokani of Tasi Tours, Inc., John McClure of Pacific Subsea, Tony Pellegrino of Saipan Sea Ventures, Juan Pan and other sponsors.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Exploring Asakusa Sensoji Temple

LOCATED at the northern part of Tokyo is Sensoji Temple, an impressive Buddhist temple which is among Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temples. Built somewhere in the 7th century, the temple attracts hundreds of tourists and worshippers from all over the world each day.
Arriving from the Asakusa subway station, we made our way to the Kiminarimon, or Thunder Gate, a majestic structure which serves as the entrance to the Sensoji Temple a few meters away.
At the street sides, sturdy individuals wearing shorts and Japanese hats call out passengers to try the rickshaw rides, or carriages pulled by men and driven around the district.
Entering the Kiminarimon will lead you to the Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade. Here is a street buzzing with the never-ending click of cameras and different accents from all over the world.
Asakusa Nakamise stretched out for about 200 meters with rows and rows of stalls brimming with all sorts of goods— from snacks, bags, shoes and clothes, hobby materials, Kimono wear, tortoise shell works, coral ornaments, jewelry, accessories, folk crafts, Japanese traditional toys, Japanese lanterns, stickers, and a huge assortment of Japanese food items.
I squeezed my way around, merging with the tourists and locals, clicking my cameras and missing the chance to sample the Japanese delicacies.
From one of the stalls, a very colorful and attractive display of folding fans caught my attention and I immediately clicked my shutter. Not satisfied, I went nearer, not paying attention to the picture of a camera posted at the center of the fans.
Suddenly, the stall owner came out, uttered a string of Japanese words which I did not understand and pointed at the picture of the camera. How was I to know that picture taking was not allowed?
Just before going up to the Sensoji temple is a huge bronze incense burner where the smoke wafting from the burning incense sticks are supposed to bring good luck.
A few feet away is a fountain of water with dragons spitting out water. Sawada-san and Misako-san, our chaperones, told us to use the ladles to transfer water from the fountain and rinse both hands or mouth and spit the water for purification and cleansing rites just before going to the temple. I skipped the ritual because I couldn’t risk getting my cameras wet.
I savored it all—the sight of the five-storied pagoda standing proudly beside the main temple, the flickering candles worshippers lighted inside the temple, the chanting, clouds of smoke from the incense burner, the splashing of water from the cleansing fountain, the lively trade going on at Asakusa Nakamise shopping street, the vendors calling out customers to buy their wares, pigeons flying around, and tourists taking photos of everything and anything,
I wanted to stay until all my memory cards or batteries were exhausted but time was running out. I wanted to taste the multi-colored ice cream from one of the stalls and lick it on the way back to our assembly place but changed my mind when I saw the sign “Don’t eating the street.” Okay. The only souvenir I took home was a pack of fake cigarettes which I bought for 399 Yen, a reminder of a colorful afternoon at the Sensoji temple grounds.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Footnotes from Tokyo (part1)

THE long walk through endless halls from the arrival area at Guam Airport to Gate 8 where we were scheduled to board the Continental Airlines to Narita Airport a couple of weeks ago should have been an omen of more walks and feet blisters to come.
I was with Jinky Kintaro, one of the members of the Saipan Awaodori Team that was set to perform for the Koenji Awaodori Festival and we had to transit through Guam. Everybody else in the group took the Delta Airlines flight straight from Saipan to Narita. The three-hour flight went by and we met up with the group in Narita Airport but the minute we boarded a van to go to Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, something seemed wrong.
For one, the steering wheel was at the right side of the car, like all the other cars. I was not driving anyway so why worry.
The horror began when we emerged from the airport parking space. Mayumi-san, our guide, drove effortlessly but at a speed which somebody who has lived in an island for the last five years would consider as “maddening.”
I was about to relax when suddenly, a huge truck was careening toward us, with the driver sitting on the wrong side of the car and driving on the wrong side of the road.
There was no time to recite my goodbyes and I closed my eyes bracing for the crash, which did not come. I learned later that Japanese people drive on the left side of the road.
Mayumi-san sped through numerous toll gates whose bars automatically lifted each time a car passes by.
Miraculously, we reached Koenji in one piece. It felt good to be alive after a terrifying two-hour ride. Used to the slow-paced life in Palau and Saipan for half a decade, Tokyo was overwhelming.
A bustling city of buildings, skyscrapers and more buildings, cars of the latest models speeding dizzily on the wide roads, and thousands of bicycles on the  streets which is being used by thousands of the city’s population as the best option for transportation.
Tokyo at this time is blisteringly, scorching hot. I thought fans were a part of the Japanese culture, now I know it is a necessity. Everybody uses fans everywhere—while walking, sitting or eating.
At 3 p.m., we were already so hungry, the memories of the airplane food long gone. We trooped to guess where—a McDonald’s outlet in Koenji where I ordered fish fillet, French fries and a glass of coke for 590 yen. But for dinner, we went to Okada Restaurant at Takashi Ma-Daira district and gorged up on Katsudon, sesame and vegetable soup, soba or the authentic traditional Japanese noodles dipped in sauce was good.
It felt so good to flop down in the soft bed at the room Misako-san (of Kinpachi Restaurant) gave me in her condo in Harajuko Street after a long day of changing planes, cars, trains, walking miles of corridors and hallways and going through the hassles of immigration and checking in and out of the airports.
Day 2
The shrill ringing of my cell phone alarm woke me up from a deep slumber. We were to go out at 7 am so I set my alarm at 6 a.m. With eyes still half-closed, I stumbled to the bathroom and woke up to the cool blast of the shower. I did not wait for the heater to work but I’ve taken my bath and changed but still, there were no other sounds of activity from Misako-san’s room or from Ronnie Boy, our videographer.
My first blooper for the day – I forgot to set my clock to Tokyo time, which is one hour ahead of Saipan time.
A few minutes later, I heard the voice of doom— we were called for breakfast. Misako-san’s mother Mama-san served bacon and vegetables, cabbage, sausage and toasted bread oozing with cheese. I mean Mama-san is a superb cook but for me whose vocabulary does not contain the word “breakfast”, it was an ordeal.
The day passed in a blur, with us picking up the kids from their apartment in Koenji and running from one subway station to another, running up and down stairs. We visited the Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sinsoji temple, but more on this next issue.
The train stations, especially the Tokyo main station was a nightmare, so busy especially during peak hours. Human bodies are like ants squirming and rushing in from all directions and pouring in and out of the trains.
Misako-san, the rest of the group and everybody in Tokyo walks so fast while I was tempted several times to sit on the pavement and cry.
Day 3
I finally had an hour in the morning off. Lugging my laptop, I hurried to a Starbucks coffee outlet a few blocks down from Misako-san’s house and ordered coffee and a slice of cake. There were a thousand sites available but I could not connect to the internet, no matter how I tried.
Asking the waiters would be useless because my Japanese is limited to four prhases –“Ohayo gozaimasu or good morning,” “domo arigato or thank you,” “konbanwa or good evening,” and the most used of all, “wakaranai” or I don’t understand.
I found a 10-minute trial internet with and was finally connected. I replied to two emails and suddenly, the trial period was up. My effort to buy more airtime was futile. It was taking so long and my battery was hovering dangerously low.
What a dark life—no internet connection, no cellphone, no nothing. No connection to my origins whatsoever.
If you’re used to the friendly hi’s and hellos of the people here, forget it in Tokyo. Everybody’s absorbed in reaching wherever they are going. Oh, better luck tomorrow, I told myself.
Later, we went up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and enjoyed a superb 360-degree panoramic view of the whole city. Tokyo is very clean, despite its millions of residents. No smoke or smog can be seen from the observatory, other cities where visibility is limited because of black smoke.
Day 4
We were in Koenji once again, waiting for the biggest Awaodori Festival to begin in the district’s major streets. The Saipan kids were joining the street dancing with the Tokyo Tensuiren group. I had a couple of hours to spare so I tried to find an internet café.
Misako-san scribbled some Japanese characters on a piece of paper and told me to show it to anybody to ask for directions. Luckily, I found one café, at the basement of a department store. With one hour to spare, I spent the first 14 minutes trying to communicate with the receptionist that I want to get connected. She spoke no English and all I understood was she was asking for my passport. Okay. It took more minutes as I keyed in personal information in a computer before she finally ushered me into a plush booth.
Finally, I got connected with some friends but suddenly, the keyboard went Japanese. I spent another 13 minutes trying to solve what key I had pressed and by the time it was okay, I had to go out because the festival was about to start. I gave her a 1,000 yen bill and pocketed the change I discovered later that I paid 780 yen or almost $10 for an hour! On Saipan I pay 50 cents to a dollar for an hour of fast connection. Talk about the high cost of Tokyo living.
Day 5
We left the house at 5 a.m. and took the trains to Tokyo Disneyland. Thousands of people were already ahead of us, but I estimated about 80 percent of the Disneyland visitors were adults. Only 20 percent were kids. (More on this later)
Day 6
Nothing scheduled for the day so Ronnie Boy and I spent the day at Shinjuku and Shibuya combing the electronics shops and other stores. I went home empty-handed. My jaws practically dropped at the sky-high prices of gadgets and camera accessories, especially those made in Japan.
Later, I went out and finally had a leisurely street photography shoot until 10 p.m. It was time to go home and pack our things.
More footnotes
Here are some helpful tips I learned the hard way to get you around Tokyo.
*Japanese time is one time.
*Study basic conversational Niponggo before you go. It helps.
*Buses and trains have priority seats for the elderly and disabled, the pregnant and those with kids. Observe it.
*Lines are observed in bus stops. We didn’t fall in line and a couple of senior citizens allowed us to board ahead. It was embarrassing.
*When you ride the escalators, stay at the left side. The right side is for people who are hurrying.
*Walk in a single file in streets and stairways. I discovered this is not some part of the culture but a necessity, with the pedestrian lanes so narrow.
*Smoke only in designated areas.
*Don’t forget your fare card because you need it to board trains and buses.
Next issue, let’s visit Asakusa Nakamise shopping arcade and the Sensoji temple, one of Japan’s oldest tem

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Magical nights at the SandCastle

THE lights go off, signaling the beginning of another night to witness “The Magic of Saipan.”
Two magicians saunter on stage to begin one of the crowd’s favorite illusions – sawing a woman in half, a performance that never fails to have everyone in the audience holding their breaths and holding on to the edge of their seats.
From there, everything flows smooth and fast as the magicians Chris Zubrick and Ryan Makowski and the dancers carry the audience from one scene to another with a dizzying speed of magic and wonder.
All eyes were glued on stage as Ryan performs his signature performance—the award winning dove act where he makes eight pure white doves appear, disappear and transform in mysterious ways.
One crowd pleaser is the “Table-Of-Death!” where Ryan gets chained down to a table with twenty-five steel spikes lit with fire looming overhead, giving him just seconds to free himself before the spikes plummet.
Adrenalin gets higher as a live Bengal tiger in a cage joins them on stage. The team works with two tigers Tumon and Ellie, a performance which they said is quite risky.
Watch the duo as they perform their classic style of very Las Vegas stage magic in a spectacular blur of colorful costumes, dazzling display of lights and fantastic mix of sounds, the graceful dance moves, the superb dinner and everything add to the enchantment of the magic that is Saipan.
It is one hour where international barriers are forgotten and everybody, young or old watches in wide-eyed anticipation to the unfolding of the universal language of magic which everybody understands.
Ryan is from Edwardsburg, Michigan while Chris is from Laingsburg, Michigan. Both had been performing magic for 17 years.
Ryan’s career started from a magic set he received for his 5th birthday, and he was hooked. Chris got enchanted by a magic toy he found inside a cereal box and that started everything.
”The Magic of Saipan,” has been voted “Best Show on Island!” and boosted Saipan as a premier travel destination for mainly Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Russian tourists.
Visit for more information, or join the long list of friends at Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or watch videos of the show on their YouTube Channel!
I had been planning to watch the Magic of Saipan for the past months but only got the chance to do so with a buddy on Tuesday evening. I regretted not watching the magic earlier.
The Magic of Saipan is one hour of must-not miss jaw-dropping thrill punctuated by non-stop adventure, comedy, suspense, drama and non-stop excitement.
Sandcastle Saipan, LLC., operations manager Ravenal Jojo Valencia SandCastle Saipan said that they offer two packages for locals —the Deluxe Dinner Show and Deluxe Cocktail Show.
Enjoy a sumptuous dinner prepared by the Hyatt Regency’s chefs as you watch the magic unfold before you. Start with the lobster bisque soup, followed by salads, a delightful assortment of crispy garden greens. Move to the main entrée of grilled fillet mignon served with black pepper sauce, roasted rosemary, potatoes and seasonal vegetables or baked lobster tail with grilled Mahi Mahi, in aromatic herbs crust with lemon dill butter sauce.
Go for the Deluxe combination plate of Fillet Mignon & lobster tail or additional lobster tail for your seafood plate for a $15 additional, and cap your dinner with tiramisu and strawberry cream profiterole with fresh tropical fruits.
The Dinner Show is from 6pm – 8:15pm, while the Cocktail Show is from 8:45pm – 10:00pm. SandCastle Saipan is open nightly except Monday and Thursday. For package prizes and group discounts, please call 233-7263, fax 233-6565 or visit

Friday, August 27, 2010

Exploring the Japanese airport bunkers

DRIVING all the way to the Saipan International Airport will give you a view of these dilapidated cement bunkers, some of the grim reminders of Saipan as one of the sites where the bloodiest World War 2 took place over 60 years ago.
I got the chance to explore the bunkers along the Airport Road a few months back with some friends and took the chance to crawl into one to see what the bunkers look like from inside.
I learned from historical accounts in the internet that these bunkers saw a lot of action as taking over the Japanese airport has been one of the first targets of the Americans during the battle of Saipan.
Standing inside the bunker, I tried to imagine how many men had taken shelter in its hard walls as the battle raged on and bullets flew outside. The walls of the bunker bore large holes as it was hit by American tanks.
The airport Japanese bunkers which stand beside the road near a soccer field are among the attractions in the island that draws thousands of tourists each year.
The sentiments however end when your sight lands on the floor of the bunkers where trash including soda cans and food wrappers and other proof of human invasion are scattered.
When you pass by the Airport Road from March to July, the traces of the bloody World War 2 seen through the bunkers are softened by the beauty of the brilliant flame trees in full bloom, a merging of history and nature that creates a scenic merging that would send any photographer’s fingers itching to snap photos. For more of the CNMI’s attractions, visit

Friday, August 20, 2010

Revisiting World War 2 relics

THE unmistakable sounds of canons exploding and machine guns firing, soldiers shouting and running is what one will hear from the lobby is more than enough to lure one to come in.
The virtual World War 2 museum located inside American Memorial Park Complete with flashing lights, booming sounds and narration of what transpired during the bloody battle on Saipan during the World War 2
The museum will give you a glimpse of what life in the islands was during the war.
Pick up a telephone receiver and press a button to hear accounts of the war from different individuals.
Leaf through the printed laminated pages of first person accounts of residents recalling the horrors they experienced as Saipan became one place where one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific took place.
The museum is littered with cannon shells and casings, soldier’s helmets, armor-piercing artillery shells, grenades, boxes and crates used to house ammunitions, remains of dinner plates and water canteens some of them with shrapnel holes, sniper hats, rifle shells, caliber rifle cartridges, and everything else.
Name it and you have it there— all mute witnesses of the horrors of war and in memory of those who sacrificed their lives to save the nation.
The virtual World War 2 museum at American Memorial Park gets a fair share of visitors both locals and tourists everyday.
Seeing a tourist, especially those from Japan whose parents or grandparents were involved during the World War 2 here get sentimental and shed tears as they tour around the museum and look at the relics is a common sight.
The Visitors Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday. Admission is free for everybody. For more information, please call (670) 234-7207, fax 234-6698, or email

Friday, July 2, 2010

Full moon at the Ladder beach

THE scene that greeted me when I emerged into the clearing of the Ladder Beach was like something out of fairytale book. Moonlight flooded the whole secluded cove below, the huge stones casting sinister shadows on the rocky sand as though they were creatures under some spell.
Mesmerized, I walked slowly down the flight of stairs passing the cave-like stone structures and flopped down into the shore, dangling my feet as near to the water’s edge as I dared.
Closing my eyes, I breathed in the comforting, salty tang of the ocean breeze and allowed the pleasant sounds of the giant waves rolling in from the Pacific Ocean to engulf me.
I had been to the Ladder Beach for several times, but being there during a full moon was a totally different experience. I wished to stay there for as long as I can but soon my buddies joined me and we trooped back to the camp fire to be with the rest of the group.
Darkness had set in for over half an hour when we earlier assembled at one corner of Obyan Beach for a full moon hike on Saturday evening. It was my first time to venture into that part of the island at night
We listened to the last minute instructions of the group leader and prepared to rough it out and venture into the darkness to a destination which we had no idea yet.
The silence as we waited for the final countdown before we kicked off was broken only by the splashing of the waves on the shore and the chirping of insects from the bushes.
At the given signal, off we went, looking for the signs along the trail that will lead us to “we don’t know where” yet.
Looking for the small mounds of white flour and white strips of tissue tied to tree branches to guide us was not that easy in the dark, and we got lost and had to retrace our steps several times.
We followed a trail along the beach for a few minutes, but soon the trail forked and led us deeper and deeper into the thick tangan-tangan jungle where we had to crawl under or climb over branches to get through.
My muscle pains from the previous weekend hike did not make things any easier, although the trail we followed was not that challenging.  We emerged from the thicket and followed the road going to Naftan Point for a long time, only to find three mounds of flour on the road which indicated we were following a false trail.
Retracing our steps, and walking for eternity in the moonlit road, we emerged into a clearing and discovered we were already at the Ladder Beach.
For individuals like me whose only form of exercise is climbing up and down the 10 steps of stairs to the office twice a day, walking from Obyan Beach to the Ladder Beach is unthinkable, unless you’re the athletic type who would not hesitate running or cycling around the island anytime.
You may have explored all the nooks and crannies of this small island, but sometimes, you’ve got to rough it out, take the road less taken and make a change from your usual hours to experience a totally different perspective of this island’s beautiful spots.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Excitement from the ledge

HE stood at the edge of the rocky limestone ledge, swinging his arms in a circular motion while I stood unmoving a few meters across the railings, my camera propped on top of a Taga stone-shaped cement, forefinger poised ready to press the shutter.
I swatted a flying insect near the lens when I heard the inevitable splash. I missed my target. The diver surfaced, treading water as he swam toward the shore. Luckily, he went up the stairs again, as well as some boys and a couple of girls. This time I vowed not be diverted by flying insects or anything else.
Watching the swimmers who never seem to get tired of jumping from the ledge, do summersaults and flip flops, and going up the cemented steps and diving again is exhilarating.
A couple of years back, I had the luxury of time to watch the swimmers trying to outdo each other in how high they can jump, how many flips they can do and how fast they can swim back to shore. I got the chance to watch the kids again only last Saturday.
Taga Beach is actually just a small cove of white sandy beach with amazingly clear, blue green waters tucked between limestone cliffs, but the cemented stone paths and the limestone cliff provide kids and adults the perfect site to jump off.
Taga Beach, a popular destination for tourists and a frequent hangout for locals is almost never vacant any time of the day – even under the scorching heat of the noonday sun.
With available facilities including chairs and tables, an outdoor shower, ample parking spaces and cottages, the place is a favorite not only for swimmers but for families and organizations to hold gatherings and events so if you hear music, the clink of glasses, and laughter from afar, you will know a party is in progress.
Oh, and one thing you should not miss at Taga Beach— the superb sunsets. Just don’t go there without a camera or you’ll regret it.

One night on Forbidden Island

THE word “forbidden” kept ringing in my ears as I frantically grabbed footholds and handholds among the sharp, jutting rocks. It was getting dark and I was trying to stop the uncontrollable shaking of my knees and the rising fear that one false step could send me hurtling down the steep cliffs resulting in serious injury, or even my end.
We were on Forbidden Island on the east coast of Saipan, shoes and jeans dripping from the knee-high water we had to wade through to reach it.
I had thought about  visiting the area for the past two years and so there I was, finally. Our group split into two, the more daring ones going up to follow the eagle trail while the others followed the almost equally hard turtle trail set by hashers Dan and Eric.
After an eternity of hardship, the leader who was ahead of us shouted “dead end” and we started the more agonizing trek back.
Forbidden Island provides the daring with a stunning view, great snorkeling nooks, pristine hidden pools and a cave.
But in the falling darkness, it looked eerie, devoid of any form of life save for the bird and a few plants that were able to tough it out.
I looked at Forbidden Island with a new perspective. It’s different when you just look at it from the view deck above than when you explore it and come back with blue, red and violet bruises on your hands, arms and legs, and knowing panic when you see your buddies fall on the sharp rocks and get up with huge bloody gashes on their legs.
The trek to  Forbidden Island is quite challenging and is not for everyone, especially those who are afraid to fall or who have fear of heights.
Going down, you have to hold on to pieces of ropes tied on tree branches or stumps, or grab stones for footholds and handholds which could roll down any minute. You have to find the trail amid tall tangan-tangan and thick bushes.
The dying embers from our bonfire cast an eerie glow as we gathered our things to leave the  area at past 9 p.m.
We still had to survive the upward trail, with only flashlights to guide us back to the parking lot. We left the site with the waves in their seemingly endless race against each other, crashing into the rocky shores.
It’s been six days since then and I still feel the muscle pains, but it was worth it. If you haven’t been to Forbidden Island yet, you’re missing a lot. (This article was first published HERE.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

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)