Melting Pot Saipan’s unique blend of history, cuisine and culture just three hours from Tokyo
Toshi Yamaguchi is signaling frantically to a place somewhere behind me that, at a glance, is just an expanse of cobalt blue interrupted by air bubbles rising exuberantly from my diving regulator. Then something emerges from behind a mound of coral—a large, disc-like object with a long tail cruising through the water like a hybrid of the Star Ship Enterprise and Thunderbird 4.
It seems blissfully unaware of the two gawping humans nearby, so I tentatively set off in pursuit of what transpires to be a spotted eagle ray. For a few seconds, while admiring this beautifully marked, elegant relative of the shark, I have the unexpected pleasure of swimming alongside.
Until, that is, the 3-m creature turns its bill-like head toward me and hits the accelerator pedal, plowing through a shoal of butterfly fish and disappearing behind a steep-sided wall of colorful coral and anemones, today the playground of a handful of clown fish.
I was already in awe of these waters before I met the ray, and not just because of the vibrant array of
marine life. According to my dive computer the water temperature is 28 C, remarkable considering we are not so far from the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans that, at its most cavernous point, could accommodate Mt. Everest with a couple of kilometers to spare.
What’s more, Toshi Yamaguchi, my instructor from Mariana Sports Club Inc., later estimates visibility to be around 55yd, adding that the average is about double that in these waters. The waters he refers to are those surrounding the Micronesian island of Saipan, the de facto capital and largest of the 14 tropical islands that make up the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).
Formed by underwater volcanoes, Saipan features some of the chain’s oldest and most diverse coral
reefs, including artificial ones comprising WWII military hardware, such as U.S. tanks and Japanese warships lost in 1944, during the Battle of Saipan.
It’s this diversity that has attracted to Saipan diving enthusiasts from around the world over the past 40
years, especially since the CNMI joined the U.S. in 1986, when tourism there had reached its zenith.
Although the golden era of tourism in Saipan has tapered off somewhat since the Asian economic
crisis of 1997, the island still has two major draws for Japan-based leisure-seekers: it’s just a three-hour flight from Narita International Airport; and it boasts balmy temperatures of around 29 C during Japan’s midwinter chill.
Despite its small size—14m by 5m—the island’s strategic position in the Pacific Ocean meant it was
annexed at various times over the past four centuries by Spain, Germany and Japan, although it was first settled more than 3,500 years ago by the Chomorro people.
Yet, it is the North American influence that is most prominent today. In addition to malls and fast food
chains, English with an American twang often can be heard, though an estimated 20% of the population
speaks a modern-day version of the Chomorro language, filled with Spanish and Japanese loan words.
Perhaps more reflective of the cultural melting pot that the island has become is the cuisine on offer.
The colorful Thursday night market at Garapan brings together the best restaurants in town, serving Thai, Indian, Philippine, Chinese, Mexican and Japanese fare.
Meanwhile, 360, one of the island’s top restaurants, boasts a varied menu that somehow manages to fuse all of the above and is worth a visit just to admire the fabulous views afforded by this revolving restaurant on the top floor of one of the island’s highest buildings.
The Japanese influence is also conspicuous, especially in lively Garapan, Saipan’s shopping and
entertainment hub. During Japan’s 30-year annexation of the island, Garapan was known as Little Tokyo and, although it was flattened during the war, it was revitalized in the 1980s, largely thanks to Japanese visitors who shopped for designer goods during the bubble years.
Historical attractions on the island also are largely Japan-themed. Sugar King Park is home to a Shinto
shrine and bronze statue of Haruji “Sugar King” Matsue, inventor of the sugar cube and head of the Japanese company charged with developing Saipan’s sugar cane industry before the war. It also hosts a fast-corroding, red-and-black steam engine that was used to haul sugar cane from the fields to Matsue’s factory, which was destroyed during the war and today is the site of Mt. Carmel cathedral.
Other historical memorabilia have a more somber tone. In addition to a plethora of military hardware, both on land and underwater, there are numerous symbolic remnants of the war, during which time an estimated 50,000 civilians and Japanese soldiers lost their lives.
Perhaps the best known of these locations are Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff, where an estimated
20,000 Japanese and Okinawan residents leapt to their deaths on imperial orders, so as to avoid capture by the invading U.S. forces.
Much of the interior of the island is inhospitable mountainous jungle that is littered, it is said, with live
ordnance. This may explain why most visitors stick to the lovely white-sand beaches on the western side of the island, making day trips to Managaha Island, which features Saipan’s best snorkeling, or Bird Island.
Located just across the cove from Bird Island is the Grotto, another snorkelers’ paradise frequently touted as being one of the globe’s top-three cavern dives.
This low, collapsed limestone cave is accessed by a 116-step stairwell that descends steeply to the edge of a cobalt blue pool, filled from the sea courtesy of three underwater tunnels.
After being guided on two peaceful beach dives, the prospect of jumping into what is essentially an
underwater cave that is 22yd deep seems a little daunting and not recommended to the claustrophobic.
What’s more, powerful water surges make it imperative that one be accompanied by an experienced guide.
Fortunately, Yamaguchi has dived at this site hundreds of times during his 18-year stay in Saipan and, confident in his judgement, I accompany him on a slow descent to the rocky bottom of the cave.
It’s a surreal experience: the darkness of the interior is punctuated by three glowing, opal-blue windows of light let in by the arch-shaped tunnels. As we exit through what seems to be the narrowest of the tunnels, a school of Soldierfish and Copper Sweepers rush by, toward a narrow coral-lined gully, the waves crashing above sending intermittent spots of light that make the fishes’ movements seem almost stroboscopic.
A trippy experience, but one that is almost trumped by my final underwater adventure in Saipan, is a voyage aboard a yellow submarine. The striking, yellow Deepstar takes visitors to the bottom of Tanapag Lagoon, taking in a U.S. fighter plane and the 407-ft Japanese freighter, Shoan Maru, which was torpedoed in 1944. Predictably enough, my fellow passengers, who are mostly Chinese,
begin to sing a famous Beatles song, just as a reef shark cruises past my window. It all appears a bit fantastic but, on Saipan, reality seems a world away.
Pacific Islands Club
Mariana Sports Club
360 revolving restaurant
Pacific Development Inc.