Letters From Japan ~ Vol X ~ Guam


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

The casual suggestion from a coworker last spring that he wanted to take a dive trip finally culminated into a trip to Guam last weekend. We had originally planned to head to Saipan but waited a little too long to make our travel reservations and ended up having to go to Guam instead. I didn't really have a preference since I hadn't been to either place although my partner, Jim, had been to Guam two or three times before.

Before I go much further, I should enlighten my mainland friends and relatives as to where and what Guam is. I admit that I knew little about it until I found out I was going there. In short, Guam is the largest and southernmost island of the Marianas Islands located in the Northern Pacific . It has been the westernmost possession of the United States since 1898 and is located approximately 6,000 miles west of San Francisco, 3,700 miles southwest of Honolulu and 1,500 miles southeast of Tokyo. The island itself is about 30 miles in length with a width of 4 to 12 miles.

The beautiful, tropical island of today belies the fact that Guam was once a site of fierce fighting in World War II. It was captured by the Japanese on the same day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and occupied until it was invaded by the United States three years later in 1944. After fierce fighting and casualties running into the thousands, the United States once again regained possesion of the island.

Nowadays, since Tokyo is less than 3 hours by air from Guam, it is a popular destination for Japanese tourists. This is a good thing because it meant that we could find a good deal of Y58,000 (~$580) for a four night hotel/air fare package. We flew out of Tokyo Wednesday evening after work and flew back early Sunday morning because later Sunday flights had already been booked.

Upon arrival at 1:30 am Thursday (time difference from Tokyo is one hour) we separated from our tour group and rented a car which we drove to the Guam Plaza Hotel where we were staying. We got up early Thursday and departed for MDA Dive Shop in order to catch a dive boat. After losing our way (it's located on North Marinas Rd., South!?) we showed up with only minutes to spare before discovering that Jim's wallet was missing from his open fanny pack. Since MDA is a reputable shop, diving without a license was out of the question and we ended up missing the boat dive. Feeling a bit deflated, we retraced our steps hoping to find the wallet.

As luck would have it, it had fallen out at the hotel and had been picked up by a security guard. After thanking Levi, the guard, profusely we headed back to MDA to see what we could do to get in the water. An afternoon boat ride didn't seem to be a possibility so we geared up on a few things and, on MDA's suggestion, headed out to Gab Gab Beach for a shore dive.

Gab Gab Beach is located within the U.S. Naval Station just a short drive south from the dive shop. The naval station is unofficially open to anyone who drives through when the guard station is not manned which, apparently, is most weekdays. We followed MDA's directions and found the beach with little problem. The dive site offers corals and sloping reefs with depths ranging from 10 to 100 feet. Since it's located on the south side of Apra Harbor, the waves and current are minimal.

The dive is rated very easy which was good for me since I hadn't dove in over a year and am still very much new to the sport. We waded into the calm, warm water wearing only T-shirts, bathing suits and scuba equipment. I was a bit dubious about wearing so little since I had never dove in the tropics before but figured if Jim didn't have a problem with it, I shouldn't either. My concerns turned out to be unwarranted since the water was at least 85 degrees and very comfortable.

We donned our flippers at the appropriate time, snorkelled out and descended, after having planned a no decompression dive of 70 feet for 40 minutes. I had some problems equalizing the pressure in my ears but finally we were able to descend and explore the reef a little bit. Tropical fish swimming through the corals paid us little attention as we swam among them. Around 50-60 feet, Jim found his cheap watch, although officially good to 100 feet, had crapped out on him and I became the official timekeeper. Shortly after reaching 70 feet, I discovered that my watch, supposively water resistant to 150 feet, had also bitten the dust! Since we were heading back around anyways, we gradually ascended, explored a bit more and ended the dive early since diving without reliable timekeeping is a dangerous thing to do. In summary, Gab Gab was a nice dive and had I not been concentrating as much as I was on basic scuba diving skills, would probably have seen a lot more of the underwater environment.

We rinsed off and drove around the naval base following historical trail markers which marked points of historical interest including Japanese coastal fortifications, battle sites and a few war relics including a Japanese two man "midget" submarine. I found the trail to be very informative and quite interesting. We climbed into shoreline caves where Japanese gunners once crouched to defend against invasion. I could barely imagine what it must have been like 50 years before.

After stopping back at MDA, we drove to check out a possible night dive site on the other side of Apra Harbor in case we got ambitious the following night. From there we went to a local Kmart-like store called Gibson's in order to do some dive watch shopping. On display was the newest Citizen dive watch, called the Hyper Aqualand. It cost a few hundred dollars but includes functions which sense depth and temperature. Not only that, but it stores the dive profiles (depth and temperature data plotted by time) for up to 30 dives and comes with an interface and computer program for downloading the information into my computer! Being a sucker for high-tech toys and deciding that it might save me money in the long run by negating the desire for a dive computer, I fell for it.

That night we headed to a bar called Wet Willie's which was across the street from our hotel. The burgers were not bad but not exactly a feast. The place is a dive but the most redeeming quality about it is that it's a _tropical island_ dive since it's right on the beach and the water is just a few meters away. After getting bored of waiting for the Bud girls to show up, we took a stroll down the beach and back and ended up across the street at another bar, a couple doors down from the 7-Eleven. Nothing much was going on but we played a game of darts, conversed for some time with a couple of local girls, then headed back to the hotel (sans girls) to rest up for the next days diving.

Friday morning we arrived at MDA to pick up our gear bright and early and made it to the dive boat, the Pegasus, with plenty of time to spare. We were joined by about 8 Japanese (it was their charter, actually) and a newly certified U.S. Navy lady sailor. By the time we headed out, the weather was overcast with wind and rain so we had to stay within the harbor. They decided on a wreck dive, the Tokai Maru which was a Japanese freighter sunk by torpedo in August, 1943.

We descended via guideline. Although the Navy lady (nice lady although she had a strange habit of saying "negative" when she meant to say "no") and myself paired up and planned to hang out at around 60 feet, we felt comfortable and continued down to a maximum depth of 83 feet along with my friend Jim and one of the dive masters. It was hard for me to get oriented with the sunken ship since it was quite large (about 500 feet long). Lying next to and below the Tokai Maru is the WW-I wreck of the SMS Cormoran which was scuttled by its German captain in 1917 to keep it out of the hands of the Americans. Although we took a short look at it, I didn't realize it was another ship until I was told later. We joined up with the Japanese and their dive master, peeked into one of the ship's holds and then ascended to complete the 25 minute dive.

The water temperature was a constant 86 degrees for the entire dive and I was very comfortable wearing only a T-shirt and swimsuit although the Japanese, snug in their wet suits, probably thought we were crazy. I continued to marvel at the ability to wear so little -- this was a far cry from Michigan diving!

The boat promptly took us to our next destination, Finger Reef, which turned out to be next to Gab Gab, our previous day's dive site. We chatted and swam while "off-gassing" residual nitrogen from our bloodstreams for about an hour before heading down for an easy second dive. We followed Dave, the instructor, down for a tour of the reef. There were corals and reef fish in abundance. Dave had brought enough hot dogs to go around so we all got a chance to feed the brightly colored fish which swarmed around us as soon as the food was brought out; it was like being in the middle of an aquarium. Other sights included brightly colored sea anenomes and a small cave through which one can swim. This dive lasted 43 minutes and the water temperature was a degree cooler than the first dive at 85 degrees.

Afterwards, the two of us had an unremarkable lunch at an all-you-can-eat buffet place on Marine Drive called Fiesta and headed over to the Ocean Jet Club in Agana for some jet skiing. It was the first time for both of us but we had no problems picking it up. Of course, with real waves and jet skiis without stabilizing floats (e.g. jet-ski training wheels) I can easily imagine the activity becoming much more challenging.

After cleaning up at the hotel, we headed out to dinner to the Island Fisherman restaurant. This place is a place to remember for delicious, fresh seafood. It's quite large since it caters to tour groups and on one side, there is a "shopping area" which looks like a well-stocked sea food market including tanks of live fish, shrimp and Maine lobsters. Each item is priced by the pound; just tell them what you want and the way you want it cooked and you're in business. We decided on Mahi Mahi (fish), shrimp, vegetable stir-fry and rice. Everything was delicious, particularly the grilled Mahi Mahi topped with lemon butter sauce. choo oishikatta! We were given the "local" price (25% off the tourist price) and paid only $65 for the two of us. I say "only" because that same kind of meal would easily cost over twice as much in Tokyo.

Many places in Guam offer two prices, one for "locals" and military personnel and the other for tourists (mainly Japanese). It seems like this practice is discriminatory and, hence, should be illegal but I guess not. Maybe it can viewed in the same way as a senior citizen discount. Even though we were hardly locals, we were offered local prices with no prompting. Needless to say, we didn't complain.

After dinner, we looked around for night spots. We peeked into a bar called Barney's. There were plenty of cars but it was rather dead and too many military types (and not enough girls) for our taste. We decided to check out the new disco called Onyx located in the Sand Castle in Tumon, within walking distance of our hotel. We got there around 9:30, paid the cover charge of $8 and, since it was early yet, easily found a seat. It's billed as a "New York style" disco whatever that is. It's actually laid out pretty nice with a large two-level dance floor, a second floor which looks down on the dance floor and the sound system and ventilation was very good. The music was a mix of house, rave, techno, hip hop and rap (just don't ask me to define those terms!). By around 11, things were hopping pretty well and it was very crowded by 12 when we left.

Within Onyx, there were quite a few Japanese along with plenty of foreigners so it was easy to imagine that we were somewhere in Roppongi except the place was bigger than any discos I've seen in Japan (but then I haven't been to that many). We sat for a while eyeing the girls; Jim was pretending he was still single and I didn't have to pretend. We didn't remain wall flowers the entire night and did some dancing. The highlight was my 10 minute fling with a 22-year-old Japanese "office lady" on the dance floor; we did some "dirty" dancing until her "chaperone" led her away. (Pretty lame highlight, eh?)

The next day we were able to sleep in since this was our last day before our return (diving within 24 hours before flying is a serious health risk). We got going around 8:30 or 9 and discovered that, if you want to do anything on Guam, particularly on a weekend, it's best to make reservations in advance. All the parasailing places we checked were fully booked and Jim had to make several calls tracking down a horseback riding place called the Southern Corral only to find they were booked as well. They told us to call back at noon, though, in case there was a cancellation.

Hungry for some truly American food, we went to the Downtown Deli in Agana which sounded much better in the phone book than it was in person. Actually if they only used real deli-like bread instead of normal slices of bread, they'd be worth returning to. Also, the pickles were in very sad shape. I don't know what they were but they sure as hell weren't kosher!

Right down the road from there is I Love Books, Guam's "largest and most comprehensive retail bookstore" which is actually one of the smallest, least-stocked bookstores I've ever seen. Nevertheless, they had what we needed and we stocked up on diving guides of Guam, Palau and Truk.

We had some time to kill before noon so we stopped into the War in the Pacific Memorial Park visitor's center. On display are many photos and a written history of the events before and after of the war with Japan. It's a very informative and interesting place and worth stopping in. It was also the only place we saw that had some diving postcards including a shot of the Tokai Maru.

We called the Southern Corral at the appropriate time but couldn't reach anybody. We decided to head over to the place anyway. On the way we ended up taking a little driving tour of the south side of the island, along route 17 to route 4. This area, consisting of separated, small communities stood out in a refreshing contrast to the crowded, over populated tourist strips in Tumon and Agana. There was plenty of lush greenery and volcanic, green covered mountains.

We finally got a hold of Leslie at the Southern Corral and, although they hadn't had any cancellations she fit us in anyway just because we'd made the trip to that side of the island. We still had some time before our appointment so we searched for a spot to do some snorkeling. Most of the beach land on the south east side of the island seemed to be private property but we found a place somewhere around Aga Point, close to the southern tip of the island.

We had to wade through a hundred yards or so of knee deep water before reaching the break water. We snorkelled out just beyond the breakwater to where the corals were 3 to 10 feet deep. It was only my second time snorkelling and the first time in an area with some noticeable current so I was a little nervous so far away from shore. We were careful not to venture far out, though, and it was worth the effort due to the multi-colored corals which were in abundance along with some fish and a plentitude of sea cucumbers. After half an hour or so we waded back in to shore, dried up and drove down the road to the Southern Corral where we met Leslie and her crew.

Leslie was a really nice lady and the ranch was a down-home kind of place with down-home kind of horses (are there any other kinds?). Probably the most notable was Heinekein, a little guy but quite spirited and mischievious. He was known for his love of beer and would instantly come running over whenever somebody popped open a can. Soon our horses were saddled up and ready and the two of us along with three of the "cowpersons" headed out. Actually they were so casual and non-business inclined that we weren't even asked to sign a release form in case of accident. In the litigation happy climate of nowadays, I hope they don't get nailed by a lawsuit for an unpreventable accident.

My horse was named Thunder and I struggled to remember what I had learned in my riding lessons until I realized that I'd never had riding lessons! Thunder was a good guy, though, and usually responded to my directives although he knew I wasn't completely in charge. We climbed some of Guam's southern mountains and obtained a very pretty vista in all four directions. As an aside, we were actually atop the world's tallest mountains because these peaks are next to the famous Marianas trench which descends thousands of meters into the ocean.

We made it back with no problem, although one of the guys actually got tossed from his horse when he got irritated because his saddle cinch had slipped. This was a horse that they weren't letting customers ride yet, with good reason! We returned to the ranch after about an hour. We bid the gang adieu (well, actually, we said "bye") and continued along route 4 along the southwestern side of the island.

Apparently there's no law restricting loose running dogs on Guam, not in that area anyway. We almost nailed several dogs running across the street and saw several others just standing or laying around. In fact, the Southern Corral's dog had been hit with a car and walked with a slight limp. There were also a couple unpenned horses grazing along the side of the road so I'd recommend not taking any blind corners (or even straightaways) too fast.

As the sun set, we drove north along the western coast back up towards the naval station, MDA dive shop and back to our hotel in Tumon. We unloaded, cleaned off our gear and ourselves and then headed out for dinner. The Island Fisherman, the restaurant from the previous night, was so good that we decided to try it again. This time we had red snapper, clams, vegetables and garlic toast. It was just as delicious as before although I'd recommend against the clams. Actually they were quite delicious but $20 worth of clams came out to 10 clams which was about $2 each; much too expensive for the amount of food you get out of them.

After dinner we stopped at a Payless supermarket to look for magazines. I ended up taking a mini shopping spree and ran through the store looking for items that I either are hard to get here in Tokyo or are unreasonably expensive. I ended up with hot drink mixes, parmesan cheese, taco and other sauce mixes, pop tarts and a box of cheerios and a box of frosted mini-wheats. It was a pleasure being able to read all the packaging of the items being sold and spending good old "greenbacks" again.

After shopping we drove back towards the hotel and took a quick look into a bar/grill called Leo's. It's easily distinguishable by the half of a pink VW bug attached to the building in the front. It was fairly dead even though it was a Saturday so we took off and ended up stopping in to Wet Willie's again. Jim, an old foosball hand, showed me a few foosball tricks (I was more of a hockey machine player myself) and we played a few games. We ran in to another foosball player, a local guy from Yap and I stepped aside and let the two old hands go at it.

Since we had to catch a 6 am flight, we headed back early around midnight to pack and grab a couple hours sleep. The flight home was uneventful and even Narita was painless because we had the pleasure of flying through the new spacious terminal #2. Traveling to/from Japan during non-peak times of the year is truly a pleasure (or much less painful anyway).

Interestingly, everybody we met on this trip, without exception, told us that the best diving either in Micronesia or even worldwide was in Palau, a nearby island. Even the guy from Yap told us that Yap diving was second only to Palau; he didn't even try to claim his island was the best. So we're thinking now that we're definitely going to have to hit Palau next time. Gives us something to look forward to...

As for Guam, I found it to be a nice place and certainly worth the trip (and the diving) but urban development has taken its toll, particularly in Tumon. The strip is crowded with very large hotels with new ones under construction all the time. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to have thought about updating the infrastructure of basic facilities like water and sewage. One time, the Hotel Okura and its block lost power completely for some reason or other. Even worse, due to the recent rains, the sewage systems actually overflowed and were pouring through manhole covers onto the street. We knew by the smell that it wasn't just rain water run off.

I hate to end on that note but that's the end of the story!

(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: October 28, 1994
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005