A chicken recipe good enough to join the regular rotation

A marinade of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and fresh lemon juice helps to start the cooking process in this colorful and flavorful chicken dish.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to prepare boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I have my favorites, and my “go-tos,” of course. But the old reliables get a bit boring after a while. 

So any recipe that offers a different taken on chicken is always welcome. If I can get it on the table in under an hour, all the better.

And if the recipe is elegant enough for guests, that’s the cooking trifecta.

The recipe below, variations of which appear in several of my cookbooks — and this is my further take on it — combines many of my favorite ingredients.  

The lemon juice in the marinade behaves like citrus juice does when preparing ceviche. It starts to “cook” the meat before it goes in the oven to bake. It also tenderizes and adds flavor. And this being chicken, of course it needs to be baked through. 

As the chicken breasts are marinating, prepare the topping of diced tomatoes, green olives, onions and red bell pepper. 

The original recipe called for pitted green olives. I substituted pimento-stuffed olives because I like the way the color complements the red bell pepper and the tomatoes. You could also use black olives.

Serve over rice, pasta or with mashed potatoes. Offer crusty Italian or French bread too, to soak up every bit of the delicious juice.

This is so easy and flavorful that you might be adding it to your regular rotation too. 


The finished dish, ready for serving.

Chicken Breasts With Green Olives, Tomatoes and Red Bell Pepper

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 50-60 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 cloves garlic, minced (divided)

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 medium onion, diced

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with their juice 

18 pimento-stuffed green olives, halved at the middle widthwise (use more if you really like olives)

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped (optional), divided

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

In a glass 9-by-13-inch baking dish or a comparable size ceramic-coated gratin dish, combine 2 tablespoons olive oil with 1 clove garlic and lemon juice. Stir lightly to combine. 

Prick the chicken breasts with a fork all over on both sides. This will help the chicken to absorb the olive oil-lemon juice marinade. Arrange in a single layer in the dish. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  

Cover with plastic wrap and let chicken sit for 10 minutes. Uncover, and turn over each chicken breast. Season the second side with salt and pepper. Re-cover with plastic for 10 minutes. Return breasts to original side for another 10 minutes.

If leaving chicken at room temperature for 30 minutes makes you nervous, especially in the very warm summer months, put the chicken in the refrigerator while doing these steps. 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, place 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 clove garlic, onion and red bell pepper and sauté until vegetables begin to soften but not brown. 

Add tomatoes and their juices, olives and sugar and cook, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes, until the mixture begins to thicken. Stir in half the parsley, all of the thyme, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread the tomato-red bell pepper mixture over the chicken. Place dish on the middle rack in the oven and bake about 20 minutes. You may need to cook for 10 minutes or more if the breasts are thick. 

If the vegetables have slipped off the top of the chicken, reposition. Use the liquid and baste the chicken all over. 

Sprinkle with remaining parsley, and serve.

Adapted from a recipe in “The New York Times Passover Cookbook: More Than 200 Recipes From Top Chefs and Writers” Edited by Linda Amster (William Morrow and Company, 1999)


The pursuit of Liberty, the latest fawn to visit my backyard, and the young bucks of the herd

This is Liberty, born this week in my backyard, as were three fawns in June 2017.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

By the time July rolled around this year, I had given up the idea that I would be lucky enough to have a fawn (or two or three) born in my backyard woods.

Last year, the singleton I named Friday was born on June 9, and the twins Sunday and Sammy were born 16 days later. (See posts of June 10, 2017 and July 1, 2017.)

When I got back from my daily walk in the early afternoon Friday (July 6), I saw a doe standing on the grass at the back lefthand corner of my house, not a spot I usually see the whitetail deer as they roam around the neighborhood. 

I went inside and visited the various windows that give me the best view of my backyard woods. 

While Liberty was looking in my direction, her mother had jumped the fence into my neighbors’ grassy backyard.

And then I saw the fawn. It was alone in the lefthand corner of my property (as you face the house), among the tall weeds, almost to the back fence, where I first found the newborn Friday last year. This sighting in the “nursery” was a full month later than 2017. 

I grabbed my camera, went outside and walked around the right side of my house, turning the corner to the back as slowly and as quietly as I could, trying not to snap twigs or rustle the fallen leaves. 

By this time, the doe had jumped the wooden fence to my neighbors’ grassy yard. Don’t poo-poo this observation. Last month I saw a doe in action, doing this exact leap, from nearly a standing start. 

A quick spring, legs tucked close to the body and gracefully up and over the spiky railing.

As I focused and zoomed in on the fawn, it looked like the cute creature’s fur was a mixture of wet and fluffy, usually a sign of a newborn that has been licked clean by its mother. And it was smaller than another fawn I’d seen last week with its mother wandering around the cul-de-sac across from my house. 

Surely the one I saw Friday had to be a different animal.

I named the fawn Liberty, in honor of our just-celebrated Independence Day.

It wasn’t until I loaded this frame onto my laptop that I noticed I had captured Liberty sticking out a tiny tip of tongue.

Obviously, a fawn’s cognitive abilities aren’t fully developed at a day or two old, but Liberty had figured out that Mom was not readily accessible. I watched the miniature mammal ram its wee head into the fence, as if it could slip between the slats or somehow dislodge the impediment.

This morning I saw a doe sitting in my backyard in almost the exact same spot as Friday afternoon’s visitor. But I didn’t see the fawn. 

Knowing that deer, like birds, often return to where they’ve previously nested, I thought it likely that little Liberty was lurking somewhere.

Again, when I got back from my walk, I checked the yard. The doe was standing, nibbling the weeds, and with her was her offspring. Liberty, testing its spindly legs, was having a jolly time darting around the backyard, venturing as far as the pine-tree-laden woods that adjoin my property, but dashing back to within Mom’s eyesight every few seconds. 

Liberty is the fifth fawn I’ve seen this summer. 

Sadly, the first one died. It was discovered late one June afternoon, nestled among the pine needles on a lawn of a house at the front of my subdivision. 

Some well-intentioned neighbors picked it up and carried it to a more secluded spot. In the early evening, they drove to my house to get my input on this action. I’m not an expert, but word had gotten around the neighborhood about the three fawns born here last year.

Picking up a fawn and moving it is never a good idea. The mom, who generally goes off to eat and drink after giving birth, knows where she’s left her newborn. Odds are very good she’ll return to be reunited with her baby, feed it and protect it.

I could see this baby was breathing and twitching its ears to chase away insects. It was curled up and well-hidden, facing a wooden fence, resting on pine needles and sheltered by tall cypress trees.

It was getting dark, and I knew that standing in the street talking to my neighbors would preclude the mother from coming back. So we dispersed.

Prolonged, very heavy rain moved in overnight. Though it was quite warm, this turn of events was likely to hamper the fawn’s survival, especially if the mother had not returned to nurse it.

On my walk the next morning, a neighbor who lives directly across from where the fawn was, reported that she’d see a doe circling the street for about 15 minutes. 

Unfortunately, by this time, the fawn had died. Flies were buzzing its body and its lifeless eyes were open.

Later, the man whose property where the fawn died, buried it.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I see groups of deer nearly every day. My record is 22 at once, probably two or three families having a get-together. 

This fawn is 10 days to two weeks older than Liberty. One of the young bucks was nuzzling it while the deer where grazing in the cul–de-sac.

I never tire of gazing at these big-eyed gentle creatures, though I know I’m in the minority here, with many neighbors complaining about the deer eating flowers, leaves and the bushes in their yards. 

Nearly every day, they run from the cul-de-sac by my house, trampling the lawn at the corner house — there are two visible trails through the grass — across the street, and into the backyards of the houses on the next street over. Or they do this route in reverse. 

Judging by size, these three bucks are probably about the same age, though their antlers are growing at different rates.

Aside from hoping to see the fawns, I like to observe the progress of the young bucks’ antlers.

This summer, I’ve seen five bucks so far, all probably only a year or two old. One’s antlers are growing straight up. Another buck’s fast-growing headgear has begun developing its points. Velvety fuzz is notable on them all. 

Occasionally, they lower their heads and gently butt each another, as if playing. Come mating time in the fall, this activity won’t be so friendly.

And every so often, I see one of the boys doing his own curious examination of the newest addition to the family.

Sister cities of Naha, Okinawa and Fuzhou, China celebrate their bond with a walled Chinese garden

A pavilion, waterfall and Soaring Rainbow Bridge overlooking Ou Ye Pond are at the heart of the Colors of Autumn and Winter section of Fukushuen Garden in Naha, Okinawa. The stacked stones upon which the pavilion sits are meant to evoke Mount Ye, in Fuzhou, China, sister city of Naha.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the eighth in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s eluding capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at cooking class in Naha; and June 16 about Peace Memorial Park, a former WWII battlefield and now a sprawling complex that commemorates the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

In the northwestern part of Naha, near one of the larger parks in the city, is an oasis of calm and beauty featuring many of the characteristics one would expect to see in a classical walled garden in China.

Towering pagodas, a tumbling waterfall, turtle- and koi-stocked pond, keyhole gates, pavilions, covered walkways, gentle bridges, stone figures, unusual rock formations and a variety of floras can all be found at Fukushuen Garden, completed in 1992 to mark the 10th anniversary of Naha’s sister-city relationship with Fuzhou, China, and the 70th anniversary of modern Naha City (2018 population about 320,000).

The White Pagoda, in the Colors of Summer section, is made from granite. The Bird Pagoda is similar in size and shape, though the space between levels seems smaller.

Much of the stone and wood used in construction was brought from Fuzhou, capital of coastal Fujian province, in the southeastern part of China. Italian traveler extraordinaire Marco Polo was said to have stopped briefly in Fuzhou in the late 13th century. 

The province, known historically as a smelting center, is far closer to the island of Taiwan to the east and Hong Kong than it is to Beijing, China’s capital. Later, it became an import city for the exportation of tea.

The carved dragon pillars are at the entrance to Dong Ye Hall, also in the Colors of Summer section. In Chinese lore, dragons offer protection and good luck.

In Naha, about 600 years ago, this section of the city was known as Kumé, a bustling center of Chinese trade and culture influenced by immigrants from Fujian province, and so it was logical to locate the garden here. 

Centuries before Okinawa became part of Japan, it was the seat of the independent kingdom of Ryukyu, which traded with China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other countries in southeast Asia.

The round shape of the Pavilion of Spring, signifies harmony. The hanging red lanterns are another symbol of luck. The pavilion overlooks Peach Blossom Stream, representing the Min River in Fuzhou. From the Lingbo Corridor and viewing platform (right), visitors can feed the carp and turtles.

The garden celebrates the four seasons, with landscaping reflecting the different times of the year. Artisans from Fuzhou came to work alongside Okinawan gardeners to ensure the finished site, which covers about 8,500 square meters (about 2 acres), was faithful to a Chinese garden, in particular, one in Fuzhou, today a city of about 8 million people. 

Xi Jingping, China’s president, was governor of Fujian province when it was emerging as a center for new technology.

It was a sunny, pleasant Sunday afternoon when I visited, having first stopped at Naminoue Shrine and the Tsushima Maru museum (see earlier posts) before I walked several blocks to the garden. 

On the shady stone path, heading for a keyhole gate.

The grounds were nearly deserted, odd for such a lovely day. Later in my stroll, I came across four women dressed in colorful, rented kimonos, taking pictures, but one always acting as the photographer.  

I motioned that I would be happy to take a photo of the quartet together. (Making this sort of offer is always a good way to strike up a conversation.) As it turned out, all were from Shanghai, and visiting Okinawa for just a few days. 

They were in their late 20s and early 30s. One was a dance teacher and spoke good English, so we chatted for about 15 minutes. Then, more picture-taking, and we went our separate ways.

Li Bao (701-762) was a famed Tang Dynasty poet, still revered today. 

Admiring the loveliness of Fukushuen Garden for about an hour or so will not only insulate you from the contemporary city outside its encompassing wall, but will transport you effortlessly to an era long ago and far away. 

Quick reference: Fukushuen Garden, 2-29-19 Kumé, Naha, Okinawa. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Closed Wednesdays. Admission: Adults, 200 yen (about $1.82), children middle school or younger, 100 yen (about $.91). Small machines sell food to feed the fish and turtles. The closest monorail stop is Prefectural Office station. Walk northwest from the station, for about 10 minutes.

At Okinawa’s Peace Memorial Park: Once a World War II battlefield, now a somber place for remembrance

Every person known to have died during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 has his or her name inscribed at the Cornerstone of Peace at Peace Memorial Park. The names are in the deceased’s native language. A total of 118 black granite stones list about 250,000 names.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the seventh in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s eluding capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; and May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at cooking class in Naha.

On the southern tip of the island of Okinawa, formidable jagged cliffs rise several hundred feet, picturesque and imposing in equal measure. 

Nearby, pine tree branches reach up and outward forming living sculptures, and scrub sprouts from cracks in the rocks, once again providing cover for wildlife.

Endlessly, the tide breaks toward the shore and recedes, revealing a swath of deserted beach. A few small boats bob in the distance as fisherman throw their nets, anticipating the day’s catch. Birds ride the currents, soaring and swooping as they look for their next meal.

The peace and quiet that pervade the landscape adjacent to this scene today belies what happened here, as the Japanese military, its back literally against the Pacific Ocean, played out the dwindling days of its last major stand of World War II.  

The former battlefield is now a somber memorial, sprawling over more than 116 acres. The exquisitely manicured terrain includes the Cornerstone of Peace, comprised of folding-screen-like columns of black granite arranged in semicircle rows that list every name of every person (in their native language), military and civilian, foreign and domestic, totaling about 250,000, believed to have died on Okinawa. 

The 118 “waves” of the Cornerstone of Peace were unveiled in the summer of 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 82-day battle. 

Two information kiosks nearby aid visitors intent on locating specific names, which are arranged by Okinawa prefecture (largest section), other Japanese prefectures and foreign countries (smallest section). 

The Flame of Peace at Peace Plaza, marking Okinawa’s location, overlooks the Pacific Ocean. On a rainy Friday, I couldn’t see the flame itself at all.

The rows’ southern end borders Peace Plaza, overlooking the sea, at the center of which is the Flame of Peace, a pointed cone surrounded by a flat black and light blue stone disk. Three flames meld here, brought from Aka Island, west of Okinawa, the first place that American forces landed in the Kerama island chain, and one each from the atomic-bomb devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I spent the better part of a warm rainy Friday at Peace Memorial Park, walking slowly along the stone paths between Japanese prefectural monuments constructed in myriad shapes and sizes and from a variety of materials, and visiting the concise exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. 

The tower in the distance at left is Okinawa Peace Hall, containing a seated Buddha-like figure made from 3.5 tons of Chinese lacquer. The red-roofed building on the right is Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum. In front of the museum are the folding-screen-like walls of the Cornerstone of Peace.

I saw few other visitors, leaving me alone with my thoughts to contemplate what had happened here and on Okinawa in general. 

My uncle, my father’s twin brother, fought on Okinawa, with C Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division (part of the greater 10th Army). Though I asked him many times, he never, ever related to me his experience here, or at Leyte in the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star.

When the Japanese staged a strategic retreat from the Shuri Line in late May 1945, they had only one direction they could to go: south. 

The Allies controlled everything north of the Shuri Line, about two thirds of 60-mile-long Okinawa, which the Allies invaded on April 1 after a week of offshore bombardment from a fearsome U.S. Navy armada, the size of which — more than 1,450 vessels — dwarfed every other Pacific campaign. 

With the fall of Naha, the prefecture capital, and Shurijo Castle itself — headquarters of the Japanese 32nd Army — the Axis power regrouped in another series of caves and underground tunnels around an agricultural village known as Mabuni. 

The tunnels and caves were not as well-fortified, -provisioned or -equipped as those around Shurijo Castle, the preparation of which had taken almost a year. 

Shortages of food, armaments and ammunition were increasingly severe, and every inch of space was crammed with filthy bodies, giving rise to the spread of disease.

What the Japanese soldiers found most intolerable was the lack of fresh water. And the vaunted Japanese morale was sinking fast, too. 

Snipers were still picking off Allied soldiers, but the Japanese, confronted by superior manpower and firepower, very soon had a decision to make: Surrender — anathema to their military code — or suicide.

Below and behind this cliff is the gated entrance to the cave that served as the final headquarters for the Japanese 32nd Army and its commander, General Mitsuru Ushijima. The cave is not open to the public.

When the Battle of Okinawa was finally over on June 22, more than 100,000 Japanese troops were dead, including General Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the 32nd Army. (There is some controversy as to whether he committed seppuku — ritual suicide — or died from gunshots to the head. “Eyewitness” testimony attesting to the former turned out to be unreliable, but a bullet to the temple would have been against Ushijima’s samurai-like code). A sign points to his headquarters but the cave entrance is gated and not open to the public.

About 11,000 Japanese did, in fact, surrender. 

The Allies lost about 12,000 men, with 36,000 wounded and more than 26,000 other casualties, including battle fatigue. Among the dead were General Simon Bolivar Buckner, commander of the 10th Army, killed on June 18 by flying pieces of exploding rock and metal caused by an artillery shell. 

However, it was the beleaguered, starving civilians, many hiding in caves, who paid the highest price. Estimates put their dead at 100,000 to 150,000. No definitive number can ever be determined because nearly all village records were destroyed as a byproduct of the fighting. Some were killed by Japanese soldiers, even those conscripts who had fought alongside Imperial forces.

The National War Dead Peace Mausoleum contains ashes from about 180,000 people. It is among the most frequently visited of all the memorials.

In addition, the landscape was in ruins on an island whose beauty had often been compared to Hawaii and other pacific spots: unspoiled beaches, an abundance of tropical fruit and flowers and a friendly population.

Compounding the problems, Japanese propaganda spread the falsehood that American soldiers would rape and kill Okinawan women. Many threw themselves off 200-foot-high cliffs, some holding their infants and children, believing this drastic action was their only option.

In the museum’s Room of War Testimony, visitors can read transcripts or watch video about how Okinawan civilians tried to survive. Some tell of the brutality inflicted by Japanese forces, who occupied the island in early 1944. The military took their food stores, killed indiscriminately and gave orders to many islanders to commit suicide.

Another section re-creates a dimly lighted cave where civilians huddled, sharing the few provisions they had, often guarded by a Japanese soldier. Nearby are examples of tattered clothing and implements such as a ceramic canteen, illustrations of their meager  supplies.

One of 32 memorials on Mabuni Hill sponsored by a Japanese prefecture, in tribute to its war dead.

Also of interest is the post-war Keystone of the Pacific exhibit. The reconstruction frenzy under way in Tokyo, which had been extensively bombed with conventional weapons, did not extend to the same degree in Okinawa. 

American occupation forces turned their attention to Cold War defenses — and later the Vietnam War — more interested in strengthening military bases than helping the Okinawan people, who were struggling to rebuild and get their lives back on track. 

Understandably over the decades, the Okinawans’ increasing desire for American troops to leave and the island to be returned to Japanese sovereignty served only to heighten tensions. Demonstrations and political pressure finally paid off in 1972 eliminating U.S. control, but about 28,000 American military remain on the island today.

A closer look at the seven-sided Okinawa Peace Hall, opened in 1978. At the top of the stairs to the left is a bronze sculpture “Boy,” added in 1982 to remember the children who died. The smaller white tower at right is the Bell of Peace, rung on special occasions.

Also on the park’s grounds is Okinawa Peace Hall, known for its seated Buddha-like figure made from 3.5 tons of Chinese lacquer, a tree sap widely used in Asian arts and crafts. It took artist Shinzan Yamada, who lost two sons in the the Battle of Okinawa, 18 years to complete the nearly 40-foot-tall praying statue. Also inside the building are books with the names of everyone listed on the Cornerstone of Peace.

Two recreation fields, a picnic area and a playground are on the northern edge of the property, particularly popular on holidays and special occasions.

Another of the Japanese prefectural memorials on Mabuni Hill.

It’s highly likely that the Okinawan families and others who come for a relaxing outing also at some point visit the Cornerstone of Peace to pay tribute to the memory of their loved ones, lost in the waning days of World War II.

Getting to Peace Memorial Park by bus

Naha, my base for six days in Okinawa, is less than 15 miles from Mabuni, reachable by car in about 30 minutes. My preference is to take public transportation — always an adventure — so my travel time was considerably longer.

My first task in Naha was to find where to wait for bus number 89. Construction was ongoing on a new modern terminal — the whole structure was covered by scaffolding and tarps — so much of the “normal”  operation was literally being run from street level. 

There was a lot of signage, and I luckily picked the right side of the street on which to wait. I had expected to pay the driver when I got boarded — the brochure I had indicated the fare — but I quickly found out the correct procedure: Take a slip of paper showing the zone number where you got on, and watch the overhead monitors on the lefthand side by the front window to learn the destination price. (A machine gives change, but try not to have too large a yen bill to pay.)

Bus 89 is a local and leaves three times an hour for Itoman City. It wends its way through Naha making frequent stops, so the leg to Itoman City took about 45 minutes and cost 580 yen (about $5.25). No matter; I got a look at a part of the city I hadn’t seen.

The “terminal” in Itoman City was a nondescript one-story building with absolutely nothing to indicate this is where buses arrive and depart from.

Inside, two men sat at desks piled high with stacks of papers. Hmmm. Where was I supposed to wait for the hourly bus number 82? Pointing at my destination’s brochure, they understood my pantomimed question.

Outside, they pointed to the opposite side of the building. Two shaky wooden benches with flaking blue paint backed up to an exterior wall also in need of maintenance. Fortunately, the “waiting room” had a roof because it was raining harder than it had been while I was on the bus. Not surprisingly, several vending machines were nearby, because, well, wherever you are in Japan, you’re never very far from a vending machine.

The second bus cost 470 yen ($4.25) and took about 40 minutes, and dropped me on the outskirts of Peace Memorial Park.

And yes, I did the trip in reverse to get back to Naha. 

Quick reference: There is no charge to tour the grounds, Cornerstone of Peace and the monuments of Peace Memorial Park. For Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed December 29-January 3. Admission: Adults, 300 yen (about $2.71); children, 150 yen (about $1.36). Audio guide is included. No photographs are allowed inside the museum. Okinawa Peace Hall: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Adults, 450 yen (about $4.07); junior and high school students, 350 yen (about $3.16); elementary school and under, free. 614-1 Mabuni, Itoman City, Okinawa. http://www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp


Pulling back the curtain on life in late 20th-century North Korea as revealed by six individuals who fled to the south

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text. All rights reserved.

“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2009, $26)

With the meeting of representatives from North Korea and United States tentatively scheduled in Singapore on June 12, I thought I’d revisit an excellent book I reviewed in January 2010 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It was written before Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. While there have been increasing overtures to the West, much remains the same: A repressive regime, made all the more dangerous by its flouting of an active nuclear program.

Western media access to the Hermit Kingdom has for decades been severely limited, so it’s long been difficult to get a true picture of what life is like throughout the Communist country.

When journalists do get visas, ever-present government minders generally force them to stick to rigid itineraries and visitors often don’t get beyond the showcase sights of the capital, Pyongyang.

NK book coverSo one approach to finding out exactly what life is like in the north is to talk to defectors, which is the avenue that Barbara Demick took in her richly detailed “Nothing to Envy.”

Over a period of seven years, Demick, then a Los Angeles Times reported based in Seoul, South Korea, talked to about 100 people who had fled for their lives.

For her book, she concentrated on a half-dozen, all of whom hailed from or had ties to Chongjin, a port city on the Sea of Japan known for its iron-producing factories, in the far northeastern part of the country. Chongjin is the third-largest city in North Korea, then with a population of about 500,000. It’s much closer to Vladivostok, Russia, than it is to Pyongyang, about 250 miles away.

Through hours of interviews, Demick skillfully draws out the heartbreak and loss of six individuals (she’s changed some names to protect family still in North Korea): Mrs. Song, a factory worker, mother of four and a true believer in “dear father Kim Il Sung”; her oldest daughter, Oak-hee, a rebel and nonconformist; Dr. Kim, a bright, perfectionist daughter of a construction worker; Jun-sang, a university student in Pyongyang and son of Japanese-born Koreans who carries the burden of his family’s hopes; Mi-ran, Jun-sang’s first love, who despite her “tainted blood” (her family’s roots are in the south) becomes a teacher; and orphaned Kim Hyuck, a prison and labor camp survivor who lives by his wits.

The title comes from a song — which deifies the late leader Kim Il Sung — that all schoolchildren learn:

“Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world,

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid,

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.” 

Not quite.

By the 1990s, the country was almost totally isolated, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost not only its ideological big brother but also a monetary lifeline. The economic collapse that was lurking before Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 exerted an intractable grip thereafter.

Chongjin’s factories closed, rations were slashed and famine became widespread. By some estimates, between 600,000 and 2 million died in North Korea during the decade — possibly as much as 10 percent of the population.

As the government failed to feed the people, an entrepreneurial spirit boomed in the form of farmers’ markets and fledgling businesses, which were, by the way, all illegal.

Mrs. Song, who dutifully dusted the pictures in her home of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, showed particular resilience, especially her cookie-baking enterprise.

For some, the desperate situation and disillusionment served as motivation to escape. Plus, word was beginning to filter into North Korea about the positive impact of economic changes in China.

Chongjin residents began to realize that a vastly different world existed not too far from their doorsteps. When they learned of exit routes, Mi-ran and several family members were among the first to leave by making their way northwest across the country, finally negotiating the Tumen River and into China. Making their way into South Korea was equally fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Once free of the mind-numbing propaganda and the personality cult of the Kims, it wasn’t all happily ever after for Demick’s six. Largely unprepared for the modern world and the plethora of daily choices and decisions presented by a free society — culture shock writ large — all were faced with anxiety-inducing challenges.

Or as Demick writes: “The qualities most prized in South Korea — height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes, English-language fluency — are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks, which accounts for the low self-esteem typically found among North Koreans in the South.”

For example, Dr. Kim, who in her old life had been expected to forage in the woods for herbs and roots to make traditional remedies, had a particular frustrating time. Her medical schooling and practice for eight years weren’t recognized by South Korean officials. So at age 40, she started over, embarking on a four-year medical program.

Similarly, Kim Hyuck, the former prisoner and longtime lone wolf, found himself unable to make small talk, which severely hampered his chances at building friendships.

“He was quick to anger,” Demick writes. “He bristled at authority. He couldn’t sit still. His stature, too, put him at a disadvantage in a height-obsessed society. His legs were underdeveloped and his head too large for his body — his physique typical of people who have been deprived of food during their formative years.”

But as the days and months in South Korea turned to years, the job-hopping Kim Hyuck, then 26, at last began to find his place when he was able to help a new defector avoid the pitfalls he’d encountered. When Demick last saw him, he’d enrolled in college.

Demick, now New York correspondent for the L.A. Times and contributor to The New Yorker magazine, is lending her expertise to her newspaper’s coverage of North Korea as it readies for the summit.

Perhaps in the future she’ll be able to reconnect with the individuals in her book, and update the success or failure of their leaps to freedom.

Six people, six journeys. Their stories are still unfolding.

See my April 3, 2017 post for details about my trip to the DMZ between North and South Korea. 



Bean and bell pepper salad is a winner for a potluck — or any time

For a texture- and nutrition-rich bean salad, start with these ingredients (clockwise from top): yellow bell pepper, celery, red bell pepper, marinated artichoke hearts, red onion, black beans and red kidney beans.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For office potlucks, I used to make scratch cakes or cookies, or the occasional savory bread pudding, which were always warmly received.

But one pre-potluck night, after getting home much too late from work, I didn’t have the energy or patience to embark on one of my go-to recipes for the next day’s event.

I thought I’d try a bean salad, which I’d never made before, but also didn’t seem like it would require too much time or effort, just some nontaxing chopping.

Colorful, crunchy and packed with flavor, it was a winner. Eager requests for the recipe followed.

And so did expectations.

For every future potluck, I did not hear the polite inquiry, “What are you bringing?”

The question was much more direct, friendly and hopeful, of course, but with the undertone of almost a command: “Are you bringing the beans?”

They were that popular with the office crowd. So I complied, time after time.

Try this bean salad, and you’ll see why. It’s a nice balance of a bit of sweetness from the kidney beans, a bit of acidic bite from the vinegar and a whole lot to chew on.

It’s good all-year round but particularly handy now that we’re moving into picnic and outdoor grilling season because it contains no mayonnaise. I still wouldn’t leave it sitting out for hours, but it certainly won’t go off as quickly as summertime favorites potato salad or coleslaw.

I like a mix of red kidney beans and black beans, but feel free to use cannellini, navy beans or anything else that you like. Can volume varies from 14 to 16 ounces, so don’t worry if what you buy differs slightly from the recipe. It’ll work.

If you don’t like bell peppers, eliminate them and increase the amount of celery to 2 cups.

Red onion can be pretty powerful, so you might prefer using milder sweet Vidalia onions.

I find the marinated artichoke hearts too large straight out of the jar, so I cut them into smaller pieces. That way, a bit of fleshy artichoke is included in nearly every bite.

Once all the ingredients are mixed, taste and adjust the seasonings. More salt and pepper, or a touch further of granulated sugar might be needed.

I make this as a side dish, but to stretch it even further, serve over white rice.

Or to feed a larger crowd, double it.


After combining all ingredients, taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed.

Two Bean, Bell Pepper and Artichoke Heart Salad

Hands on: 20 minutes

Total time: 20 minutes

Serves: 6 to 8 as a side dish (makes about 6 cups)

1 (15-ounce) can light red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 (12-ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained, but reserve the liquid

1 cup diced celery (about 4 ribs)

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper

1 cup diced red onion

3 to 4 tablespoons marinated artichoke oil

4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon dry ground mustard

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Prep the beans, artichoke hearts and vegetables and set aside.

In a large glass mixing bowl, add marinated oil, vinegar, sugar, mustard, pepper and salt. Stir until well-combined. Add beans, artichoke hearts, celery, bell peppers and red onion. Mix until all the vegetables are evenly coated with the dressing.

Cover and chill several hours or overnight. If pressed for time, serve immediately.

Cooking class in Naha, Okinawa: A hands-on lesson in making soba noodles from scratch

Clockwise from upper left: Mozuku-su (seaweed with cucumber and ginger garnish), fried Japanese doughnut, jasmine tea, white rice and Okinawa soba soup (with tofu slices, pressed fish cakes [on right], green onions, handmade soba noodles and red ginger garnish).
By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the sixth in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed eluding Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; and May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle.

For someone who loves pasta as much as I do — all shapes, sizes and varying international specialties — you might think I would have tried making linguine, ravioli or some other shape from scratch.

That was never the case, until I took a cooking class at Taste of Okinawa and made soba noodles by hand. It not only took longer from start to finish than I was expecting — about three hours — but was far more labor-intensive as well.

As with the other cooking classes I’ve taken in Asia (for my experience in Chiang Mai Thailand, see my post from May 1, 2017, and for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, see December 12, 2016), we started with a market visit. Taste of Okinawa staffer Rina led us among the stalls and aisles to pick up some ingredients we’d use to make our dinner.

And as with my other classes, Taste of Okinawa was happy to accommodate dietary restrictions (it’s helpful to notify in advance if making this request). Instructors need time to prepare a different broth, for example, made from bonita flakes, instead of the usual pork-based stock.

I had been to the Makishi market earlier in the week and seen a brownish, oblong-shaped item neatly stacked in rows. I had an idea what this was and I picked up a sample to smell it. The vendor was not happy with my having done so, and I quickly replaced it and apologized.

But my nose confirmed that it was dried fish of some sort.

Dried bonita, a type of tuna, is used extensively in Okinawan and Japanese cooking. The vendor I had previously visited did not have a hand with a big red “X” warning shoppers not to touch.

At the market, Rina refined my identification, saying that this was dried bonita, one of the key ingredients in Okinawan cooking, and indeed in Japanese cooking overall.

At the vendor we visited who sold this bonita, a machine made quick work of shaving the rock-hard dried fish into wispy paper-thin flakes, an orange-pink in color. The flakes were packed in a plastic bag and we left for the next stop.

This machine rapidly spits out sliver-thin shaved pieces of bonita.

There, Rina picked out dried mozuku, a brownish, thin-stranded, nutrition-rich seaweed that we would use in making a side dish. Deep-fried Japanese doughnuts were also purchased, and this would become our dessert.

Back at Taste of Okinawa, staff had prepped recipe ingredients into small glass bowls and other containers while we were at the market.

The interior furnishings were very simple. Two long communal tables were positioned along the length of the left wall, framed by wooden chairs on both sides. On the right, a small bar, craft beer taps, stovetop, refrigerator, oven and food prep area occupied the space.

We donned colorful aprons, and stood at our individual stations: three on one side of one of the long wooden tables, the other two facing us.

Some of the ingredients we’d be using to make dinner were premeasured by staff at Taste of Okinawa. We cut the carrot, green onion, shiitake mushrooms and fish cakes to size as instructed.

Our group included an Okinawa-based Marine brigadier general, his wife, his sister visiting from California and her adult daughter, and me.

Instructor Zoey, a Taiwanese-born, self-described “highly competitive” young woman, stood at the head of the table and gave us a brief summary of her culinary background (more on that later) before we began our soba noodle production.

The first step required little effort from our two teams: We briefly shook close-topped plastic bags to aerate the white wheat flour. (Some soba is made from buckwheat.)

Next, in a small bowl, baking soda and salt were blended with one egg and a little bit of water. This differs from a basic Italian pasta recipe, which generally is just flour and eggs.

In a large mixing bowl, a well was made in the center of the flour and the egg-water mixture was added. By hand, we took turns bringing in the flour from the well’s sides until the ingredients held together in a ball.

Then, with the dough separated into five portions, we each began kneading our ball on a floured surface for about 15 minutes. Zoey said the texture we were looking to achieve was soft and smooth “like a baby’s bum” and enough give to leave a small indentation when pressed lightly with a fingertip.

The dough was placed back into a plastic bag to rest for about 30 minutes at about 115 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius), in this case, a warmed microwave oven.

Meanwhile, we worked on the other dishes for our meal. The mozuku was reconstituted in a bowl of water, and we practiced our knife skills by making julienne strips of cucumber, carrots and shiitake mushrooms; cut pieces of green onions; and grated ginger. The mozuku dressing consisted of sugar, vinegar, soy sauce and bonita stock.

The mozuku was drained, the dressing mixed in and then garnished with the cucumber and grated ginger.

My uncooked soba noodles weren’t perfectly even in size or length, but they tasted just fine in Okinawa soba soup.

Working with the dough again, Zoey instructed us to roll it out into a rectangular shape to about 1/8-inch thick. This was pretty tricky, even with an elastic dough, and my rectangle was decidedly lopsided.

Then, accordion-like, the dough was folded back over itself three times to form four layers.

Our last step was the hardest and most time-consuming: Cutting the folded dough into (in theory) identical 1/4-inch-thick pieces, then unraveling the layers — using as much extra flour as needed — and piling the strands on a cutting board.

The more exact the better, but since the end product is a tangle of noodles, consistency is a goal, not an obsession. The point of slicing the dough so thinly is that when the strands are placed in a large pot of boiling water to cook for 60 to 90 seconds, they will double in size.

After the noodles were cooked, we placed them on a rimmed baking sheet, poured a bit of vegetable oil over the top and stirred continuously with chopsticks for a minute or two to help separate them as they cooled.

The noodles were given a quick dip in water to rinse off the oil.

Finally, it was time to make a bowl of Okinawa soba soup. In my case, it was vegetarian, and using tofu where the others had pork belly, which was prepared in advance by staff.

So, my soba noodles were swimming in bonita broth, topped with pieces of tofu, pressed fish cake slices, green onions and red ginger.

Mmmmmmmmm. Was the effort worth it? Absolutely. The noodles were slightly chewy, and oh, so easy to slurp (as is customary in Japanese cuisine). I had an extra portion of noodles leftover, which went into a plastic bag and were stored in the mini-fridge in my hotel room overnight. I had them plain for breakfast the next morning. That might not sound appetizing, but they were!

Once cooking class was finished, Zoey performed another aspect of her job: Making snacks and light meals for early evening diners at Taste of Okinawa.

Taste of Okinawa, when not hosting afternoon cooking classes, is also a craft beer bar and restaurant. Zoey, who has had a strong interest in cooking since she was a preteen, describes the menu as fusion cooking with Italian and French influences and “my own personality in it.”

While we were talking after class, she was preparing orders of nachos, salads, and fish and chips for the early evening patrons.

Born in Taipei, Zoey has been cooking since she was 7, and calling up her grandmother to get help and advice while her parents were at work.

By 11, she was in a bookstore writing down recipes from a Jamie Oliver cookbook — while not understanding much English. Computer-generated translation helped her make sense of her notes.

After attending a cooking high school in Taiwan, and her interest in bettering her English only increasing, she wrote up a business plan at 21 and asked her parents to help support her while she worked in kitchens abroad, including Spain, gaining experience and widening her culinary horizons.

Eventually, she landed in Paris in 2013 and enrolled in an intensive, nine-month course at Le Cordon Bleu. Having already spent years catering dinners and events to promote her mother’s antique jewelry business, Zoey didn’t find Le Cordon Bleu overly taxing, but it did help her to refine her palate and culinary vision.

“If you know ingredients, how to choose it, how to use it, that’s the best cuisine,” she told me.

From friends of friends, she heard about an opening at a new place — Taste of Okinawa. She arrived in June 2016, helping to design a menu and create the first cooking classes.

She’s planning to add a class in Chinese to the one she already teaches in English. Classes are also available in Japanese.

I had a lot of fun making soba noodles. When I next attempt this at home, I’ll be sure to budget a full afternoon and remind myself as I’m struggling to unravel my noodles of the deliciousness to come.

Quick reference: Classes can be booked in advance online. Adults, 6,500 ¥ (about $59), children, 3,500 ¥ (about $32). Cold jasmine tea is included in the price, and craft beer and other beverages are available for purchase. Inquire about a group rate for more than 10. Visa, MasterCard and American Express accepted. A booklet of recipes is included to take home. Class: Tuesdays-Sundays: 3:30-6:30 p.m. Restaurant hours: 5-7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays for snacks and light food; 7-11 p.m. for full menu. The website has a printable map and detailed instructions for finding the location. 1-6-21 Tsuboya, Naha, Okinawa. Phone: +81-98-943-6313; website: tasteof.okinawa



Okinawa’s Shurijo Castle: Restored fortress of Ryukyu kings was headquarters for Japan’s 32nd Army during World War II

Monarchs of the Ryukyu Kingdom sat in a chair like this in the seiden (main hall) to receive important political guests at Shurijo Castle, in what is now Okinawa, Japan. The facing dragons are symbols of the king and can be found in many places around the castle.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 8 post about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Maru and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during World War II; and April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony.

About a year before the American-led invasion of Okinawa commenced on April 1, 1945, the Japanese Army began digging in.


The Allies’ hard-fought Pacific Island victories were bringing World War II ever closer to Japan’s home islands, with horrific losses on the battlefield on both sides.

Japan’s Imperial forces were losing ships and aircraft at an unsustainable pace. With resources dwindling and resupply lagging far behind demand, it became clear to military planners that defense and counterattacking were now the best strategies to conserve what men and matériel they had left, and to delay as long as possible the Allies’ turning their attention to advancing toward Tokyo.

So in the spring of 1944, thousands of Japanese soldiers and Korean laborers, poorly fed and often ill-treated by senior officers, set about excavating coral, dirt and limestone without the aid of tunneling equipment — think pick ax and wheelbarrow — on the southern third of the island.

(The Japanese Army, outnumbered two to one in manpower, and with a tenth of the firepower of their enemy, knew they could not defend the entire island, though there would be brief, spirited resistance against U.S. Marines fighting in the north.)

Near Shuri, the second-largest town on the island, steep ridges, cliffs and dense foliage marked the landscape, the very features that would bedevil the attacking Americans. The castle itself, ringed by stone walls 20 feet thick at the base and some reaching 40 feet tall, was strategically perched on the highest point.

When Operation Iceberg began, the view west toward Naha, Okinawa’s largest town, would reveal a massive Allied armada hovering within easy striking distance of Shuri.

This was an entrance to the underground cave complex from where General Mitsuru Ushijima commanded Japan’s 32nd Army.

The caves beneath Shuri Castle became headquarters of the Japanese 32nd Army, under the command of General Mitsuru Ushijima. More than 1,000 men — the size of a fighting battalion — would be housed in timber-reinforced tunnels and side shafts that were 50 feet underground at their shallowest depth.

The fortifications, covering 13,000 feet (about 2.5 miles), included a well-stocked kitchen and pantry, dispensary, telephone switchboard area, operations rooms, an overtaxed ventilation system and much more. Humidity hovered close to 100 percent, moisture covered nearly everything and the soldiers developed rashes because their skin never dried.

Even with these hardships, the tunnels were so secure they could withstand fire from 16-inch naval shells.

Said one incredulous Marine, when the fighting was over, as quoted in the excellent “Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb”: “Two-tiered quarters, running water, everything beautifully engineered — it was like a ship inside the hills. That’s why you never saw a [Japanese soldier] most of the time: They’d be bombed, bombarded, napalmed — and safe inside those thousands of caves. And caves with mouths so small you wouldn’t see them until you were almost right on them and they started shooting.”

(For those interested in an exhaustive, detailed and highly readable examination of the Battle of Okinawa, I highly recommend George Feifer’s “Tennozan,” published in 1992. The word comes from the all-or-nothing gamble a 16th-century Japanese ruler made on a lone battle. Now it means “any decisive struggle.”)

Eventually, underground fortifications spanned the width of the island at the Shuri Line, about 12 miles across at that point, reaching both coasts to north of Naha (four miles away) on the west and Yonabaru on the east. (Okinawa is 60 miles long and ranges from two to 18 miles wide.)

It wasn’t just the walls that were destroyed at Shurijo Castle. After three days of bombardment from the USS Mississippi in May 1945, the entire complex was rubble.

About two months into the Battle of Okinawa, over a three-day period in late May 1945, Shuri Castle itself was totally destroyed by fire, the result of almost continual bombardment by the USS Mississippi from offshore. Photographs show the surrounding barren landscape, random bits of shriveled timber the only things left of what had once been a splendid architectural achievement.

Ushijima and part of the 32nd Army retreated south, to Mabuni on the Kiyamu Peninsula, where the final fighting would take place. After a total of 82 days of battle, Okinawa fell to the Allies. (Obviously, this a much-condensed version of the deadliest campaign of the Pacific war, with an especially high toll paid by civilians. Estimates range, but it’s possible up to 150,000 Okinawans died, a third of the pre-war population.)

After the war, the priorities were to rebuild housing and resurrect businesses, and to replant farms to re-establish what had once been the lifeblood of many Okinawans.

Reconstruction at Shurijo Castle and Park, as it is now known, would have to wait for decades, but finally the former home of Ryukyu’s dynastic rulers was opened in 1992 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the end of American administration and the return of Okinawa to Japanese rule.

The seiden is the center building with the decorative arch. When the castle was rebuilt, construction was based on the 18th-century version.

Based on excavations, survey plans and photographs, the castle is a faithful replica of the 18th-century version of the structures from the days of Ryukyuan royalty, when the islands were an independent kingdom. (Fires destroyed earlier castles dating to the 1400s.)

Over 500 years, economic, artistic and intellectual exchanges with China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asian countries enriched island life, allowing the development of a unique culture. (Part of this time, the invading Satsuma clan from Japan was in charge.)

Chinese-influenced arts, such as lacquerware and textiles, were localized by the Ryukyuans. Brightly colored garments fashioned from a fabric-dyeing method called bingata, which I’ll write about in a future post, were favored by women of the noble class. Cranes and flowers were popular motifs, and the kimono-like clothing was also worn for traditional dances.

Chinese architecture also served as an example for the style of the seiden (main hall), with its up-curving eaves, roof tiles and part of the exterior painted a brilliant vermillion.

At the base of the stairs leading to the seiden stand two dragon pillars made from sandstone. One dragon, its mouth open, faces the other, with its mouth closed. Dragons, symbols of the king, can be found all over the property.

A scale model of the una (striped area) in front of the seiden illustrates what the site looked like for special ceremonies.

On the first floor, in a series of rooms, the king conducted political business and hosted ceremonies. Today this area is devoid of furniture but the supports, ceiling and partitions are a buffed, shiny red. (When entering the seiden, be prepared to take off your shoes, as is Japanese custom. You’ll be given a plastic bag to carry them in until you leave the hall.)

Upstairs visitors will find the king’s red-and-gold “seat” on a raised platform. Guarded also by facing dragon pillars, the seat — less imposing than a high-backed throne — was reconstructed from pictures and references that date to King Sho Shin, who ruled from 1477 to 1526.

An area on the second floor was the domain of the queen and her attendants, and another room served as a place of worship, where the king and his female attendants would pray for peace and the safety of the kingdom.

Current exhibitions, in buildings adjacent to the seiden, are “Treasures of the Kings” (painting, lacquerware and textiles) and “Ryukyuan People’s Picnic” (multi-tiered food boxes, thermoses and self-contained picnic sets elaborately decorated with gold and inlaid mother of pearl). The exhibits run through July 3.

Following the path after these stone stairs, topped by Zuisenmon Gate, will lead to the una and seiden.

When Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in May 1853 in Naha, seeking rights for American ships to provision in Okinawa (then called Lew Chew, with many alternate spellings), the Ryukyu kingdom was in its waning years. Without an invitation, the imperious Perry and a procession of 200 from several of his ships, including two bands, arrived at Shuri Castle.

Over the next year, Perry’s willful and sometimes threatening negotiations in the Japanese home islands would bring to an end centuries of self-imposed isolation and jump-start trade with the West.

With the Meiji Restoration in 1879, an emperor replaced centuries of shogun rule and the Ryukyu Islands were annexed by Japan, which changed the name to Okinawa.

From this part of the gardens, the view features Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture, and the Pacific Ocean in the background.

Shurijo Castle’s grounds cover more than 300 acres, and some areas are still being restored. The property can be separated into three sections: administrative, centered around the seiden, its core buildings and a large plaza; the ceremonial and ritual area to the west, most of which is outdoors with lovely gardens and views; and the residential area to the east, where no male except the king and his relatives could enter. This was mainly managed by women of the court, and these buildings are not open to the public.

Some markers do mention the war damage, but the information is brief. Vertical gates, some partially obscured by overgrown trees and vines, block the cave mouths and access to the 32nd Army complex. No part of it is open to the public.

Bezaitendo Shrine was the repository of Buddhist scriptures that were a gift from the king of Korea. Enkanchi Pond surrounds the temple. The original building dated to 1502, about 80 years after the Ryukyu kingdom was established.

Shurijo, and other Ryukyuan sacred sites and monuments on Okinawa, were added as a group to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.

Allot at least two hours to see all of the buildings, stone gates and temples (more if you are reading everything and taking photos). Arriving early before the crowds is also recommended. If kids are along, make sure to pick up a “stamp collection rally” pamphlet. A stamp and red ink pad are near all 25 of the buildings open to visitors, so kids can update their pamphlets. Prizes are awarded depending on the number of stamps collected. A complete set earns the “stamp of the king,” a page of stickers, a 5 3/4-by-7 1/2-inch plastic sleeve for papers, and a booklet “The Bright Red Castle of Ryukyu Kingdom,” illustrating the castle’s history.

Quick reference: Shurijo Castle, 1-2 Kinjo-cho, Shuri, Naha City, Okinawa. 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily April-June and October-November, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily July-September, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily December-March. Adults, 820 ¥ (about $7.50); high school students, 660 ¥ (about $5.50); elementary and junior high students, 310 ¥ (about $2.80); 5 and under, free. Closed the first Wednesday and Thursday in July. Easily reached by taking the monorail to Shuri Station. It’s about a 10-minute walk from there to the western entrance near Enkakuji Temple. This area and some of the other outlying buildings can be seen without paying admission. oki-park.jp/shurijo/en

For an in-depth discussion of the tunnels and caves, with illustrations, and the overall Battle of Okinawa, see http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/CSI/CSI-Okinawa/

At Scotland’s Stirling Castle, seven sumptuous new tapestries showcase centuries-old craftsmanship

This section of the seven new tapestries at Scotland’s Stirling Castle is called “The Unicorn in Captivity.” It took two years to weave. The overall project spanned 13 years, and was completed in 2015. The seven tapestries together are known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In October 2017, I visited Scotland for 10 days. This is the fourth in a series about my wanderings. See my December 15, 2017 post about Abbotsford, home of Sir Walter Scott; January 9, 2018 about the Royal Yacht Britannia; and February 3 about the Pipers’ Tryst Hotel and National Piping Centre in Glasgow.

In addition to its strategic importance and favored status as a Scottish royal residence of yore, one aspect of Stirling Castle bridges the 16th century to the 21st, and from the Old World to the New: Its unicorn tapestries.

Large, heavy and expensive (especially if they featured gold thread), tapestries provided eye-pleasing beauty, a measure of insulation in vast drafty rooms and topics of conversation for European monarchs and their castle invitees.

Though cumbersome and sometimes spanning the length and width of a wall, tapestries were transported from palace to palace, delivering a continuing message of the crown’s wealth and prestige. In the long run, however, the tapestries’ very mobility may have done irreparable damage to the fibers and overall integrity.

In 2002, as part of a refurbishment, Stirling Castle undertook what would become a 13-year, £2 million project to create seven new tapestries, called “The Hunt of the Unicorn,” inspired by Scottish Renaissance works that hung in the palace when James V and his wife, Mary of Guise, were in residence in the 1530s and 1540s.

Before 1603, facing unicorns were featured on the Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland. Images of the mythical animal can be found in many locations at Stirling Castle.

The unicorn occupied a prominently place in Scottish heraldry, is the figure seen on the castle’s logo and can be found in locations high and low around the property. National Unicorn Day (really) is marked on April 9 annually.

The original tapestries, noted in a 1539 inventory of more than 100 in James V’s possession, have not survived. But tapestries from a similar time period and theme do; they were probably woven around 1495-1505 in the textile hotbed of the southern Netherlands and once the property of French aristocrats.

Their colorful history includes being looted during the French Revolution and possibly covering potatoes in a barn before being recovered in the 1850s.

These highly prized tapestries were purchased in 1923 by John D. Rockefeller Jr., of oil-money fame, for his New York residence. He donated them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1937. They’re now at the Met’s Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan.

The tapestries hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall. The upper left section is “The Unicorn at Bay,” illustrating the beast surrounded and under attack. The one in the upper right is “The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”

The seven new Stirling tapestries, the biggest weaving project taken on in the United Kingdom in a century, hang in the Queen’s Inner Hall, next to her bedchamber. The hall is the palace room in which she would have greeted honored guests.

Well into 2015, the Stirling project employed a multinational team of 18 weavers, some based at the castle and others at the West Dean Tapestry Studio (part of West Dean College) near Chichester, England.

Creating just one tapestry consumed more than 16,000 hours of work, using, when possible, the techniques and tools that would have been available in the 1500s. Four tapestries were made at the castle and three at the college.

An exhibit in a temporary wooden building in the Nether Bailey, northeast of the castle proper, allows visitors to better understand the processes that went into crafting the new tapestries.

A few material concession were made. In the 16th century, tapestries relied on plant-derived dyes, such as woad, a flowering member of the cabbage family, for blue, and madder, a perennial Eurasian herb, for red. The 21st-century tapestries utilized longer-lasting chemical dyes, perfected at West Dean’s dye laboratory.

Wool, silk and gilt comprised the weft sections (horizontal threads) of the old tapestries, but the modern versions substituted mercerized cotton, a treated stronger fiber, for the silk.

Getting the color palette right and tracing full-size drawing of the originals — known as making a cartoon — were part of pre-production, which required visits to New York to view the former Rockefeller tapestries. In the cartoons, some alterations were made to restore areas where the originals were damaged or nonexistent. They were also reduced in size by about 10 percent.

Modern weavers executed each section with the image positioned on its side. This is “The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn,” the last tapestry to be woven. Only two fragments from the original survived, so artisans re-creating it could only guess at the part of the story being told. This is a photo of a photo from the exhibition I saw when I visited the castle in 2017.

Eventually, a stronger-paper version of each cartoon was temporarily stitched to the weaving as a guide for the workers. As in medieval times, the modern masters worked with the image on its side. But in a break from tradition, the cartoon was replicated from the front, easier for the weavers, and for visitors interested in watching the project come to life.

Medieval pictorial tapestries served several purposes. They could be appreciated solely as decoration and admired for the skills involved. But more importantly, they told a story, often with secular and/or religious components.

“The Hunt of the Unicorn” obviously portrays just what it says: Silk-and-velvet-clad noblemen, accompanied by professional hunters and dogs, in the multi-stage pursuit of their quarry and its horn, which was believed to be imbued with mystical powers of purification.

Some suggest that the hunt could also be a courtship tale, with the unicorn representing a lover’s object of desire.

Alternatively, a strong argument could be made for the tapestries as Christian allegory, with the unicorn representing Christ.

For example, in the section called “The Unicorn in Captivity,” which took two years to complete, with the weavers working from right to left, the ornately collared and tethered animal lies on its side, enclosed by circular fencing, under a thin-trunked pomegranate tree heavy with fruit. In the background, among myriad other flowers are wild orchid, violets, thistle and bistort, a medicinal herb.

In the secular version, the golden chain tying the unicorn to the tree represents marriage and the pomegranates indicate fertility. Is this the beloved tamed?

In the religious version, the small booklet I got at the castle suggests that the wounded unicorn represents a risen Christ, and the juice of the pomegranates symbolize his blood.

A closer look at “The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle,” which shows the unicorn in the upper left being killed and in the center draped over the back of a horse.

The religious allegory is even stronger in the panel titled “The Unicorn Is Killed and Brought to the Castle.” In the center, the dead animal, its horn somewhat parallel with its mane, is draped over the back of a handsome horse. The unicorn’s neck is ringed in hawthorn, evoking Jesus’ crown of thorns.

Whatever the meaning, the tapestries illustrate that an ancient craft, practiced across cultures and over the centuries, is still a viable art form in today’s digital age.

Quick reference: Stirling Castle: 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily March 26-September 30, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. October 1-late March. Closed December 25-26. Admission: Adults, £15 (about $20.33); ages 60 and over, £12 (about $16.26); ages 5-15, £9 (about $12.20). Castle Esplanade, http://www.stirlingcastle.scot

The Met Cloisters: 10 a.m.-5:15 p.m. daily March-October, 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. daily November-February. Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1. Admission: Adults, $25 adults; ages 65 and older, $17; students, $12. 99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, New York, New York. 212-923-3700. http://www.metmuseum.org/visit/met-cloisters.

In Naha, Okinawa: Japanese newlyweds provide a great photo op after their traditional Shinto wedding

Quite by accident on a Sunday morning, I came across a wedding party posing for pictures at the Naminoue Shrine in Naha, Okinawa.

By Betty Gordon

© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series of posts about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 8 post about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; and April 15 about the sinking of the Tsushima Mara and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during World War II.

I had another of those turn-the-corner “wow” moments that seem to happen in Japan as I walked smack into a wedding party posing for post-ceremony pictures at a Shinto shrine in Okinawa.

To the Japanese, a Shinto wedding may be commonplace, but to an American tourist, just this scene provided a glimpse into the very heart of an ancient culture.

The bride was dressed in a snow white kimono, known as shiromuku, the most formal of Japanese wedding attire. Nearly every other person standing in three horizontal rows on gray concrete steps was in a dark suit or dress (with a few splashes of white), including her new husband in a traditional kimono.

The newlyweds pose at the Shinto shrine’s outer hall. I think the cutouts at left are a funny juxtaposition to the formality of the bride and groom’s traditional kimonos.

Further contrast was provided by the bright red triangular roof at the shrine’s outer hall (haiden), the dangling white paper lanterns and the cloudless blue sky.

Most of the bride’s hair and part of her face were shaded by an arched, balloon-like hood, known as wataboshi, which serves the same purpose as a Western veil: To reveal her fully only to her groom. (Wataboshi also come in different shapes and some expose more of the bride’s face.)

She was, in fact, head to toe in white, down to her leather sandals (zori) and split-toed socks (tabi).

The Sunday morning sun was so bright that it made the opaque silk seem like shimmering, freshly fallen snow. I knew a garment of this expense and quality would have some sort of elegant design embedded in the fabric.

Cranes, chrysanthemums and spirals were repeating motifs on the bride’s kimono.

Zooming in with my telephoto, I could see traditional cranes, their long necks extended, beaks closed and wings fully spread, with spindly legs trailing as if taking flight. Cranes are a symbol of peace, longevity and hope in Japan, all sentiments appropriate for a wedding.

Interspersed around the cranes, particularly at the bride’s shoulder, neck and flowing sleeves, were repeating spirals and floral motifs, including chrysanthemums, a flower long associated with the Japanese imperial family. The flower is also a symbol of longevity.

The groom’s black outer coat (haori) over his kimono displayed his round, white embroidered family crest (mon) near each shoulder, once below the elbow on each sleeve and between his shoulder blades on his back. This, too, seemed to have a plant or floral motif.

A man’s kimono is far shorter than a woman’s, and loose striped trousers (hakama) conceal the garment’s hem.

Two braided cords (himo) held his kimono in place, secured at the waist with knots, the shape of which reminded me of a cross between an old-fashioned shaving brush and a blooming flower.

His sandals (setta) and socks were also white.

I had gone to another part of the shrine, and when I returned to the picture area, the bride’s hooded veil had been removed to reveal this elaborate hairstyle. The groom’s family crest is displayed on his shoulder. 

Both bride and groom were holding closed fans, another traditional accessory.

Shinto, “the way of the gods,” is the oldest religion in Japan and has no written doctrine. Its kami (deities) inhabit all forms of nature, from mountains to animals to earthquakes. Many of the ritual, prayers and offerings are intended to ward off evil.

Families may also have an altar-shrine at home for offerings and worship.

A wedding ceremony, officiated by a Shinto priest, is attended by only the close family of the bride and groom. It may take only 20 minutes.

The couple is purified, sake is ritually consumed, and the groom reads the marriage oath. Rings may be exchanged, and the ceremony generally ends with an offering, such as sacred tree branches, to the kami. (Obviously, I didn’t get to see any of this.)

For the reception, usually held at a hotel and running an exact amount of time, the bride would definitely don another outfit, possible a kimono, and the groom might change also.

If the newlyweds were hosting a post-reception small party just for their close friends, another change of clothing would be likely.

I was not the only one engrossed with the formal attire, as other shrine visitors also snapping photos. A few even asked to pose with the bride and groom once they had completed the more formal images.

As their official photographer continued working, I went off to have a closer look at the grounds at the front of Naminoue Shrine, the most important shrine in Okinawa prefecture.

Its name translates to “Above the Waves,” appropriate in that is located on a bluff overlooking the ocean and Naminoue Beach, the only seaside sandy strip in the city of Naha.

(While I was briefly at the beach, en route to the Tsushima Maru museum, I looked up to see the roof finials and realized how close I was to the shrine. I knew it would be an interesting detour — but I didn’t know just how interesting.)

With the shrine’s proximity to the sea, it’s where fishermen in ancient times would pray for an abundant catch, where sailors would appeal to the deities for a safe voyage and farmers would ask for a plentiful harvest.

Like so much else in Okinawa, the original shrine, which dated to Ryukyu dynastic days in the 15th century before the islands became part of Japan in the 19th century, was destroyed during World War II.

Only the torii, the two-railed gate designating the separation of sacred property from the everyday world, is original. At many shrines, the torii is painted a bright vermillion, but that was not the case here, where it was grayish and possible made from concrete.

Near the torii is a statue of the Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) in full military dress.

Shrine visitors write messages on votive tablets, called ema, asking for, among other things, good health and fertility. The ema then hang clustered together on a large board.

At all Shinto shrines, believers (and souvenir seekers) can buy a variety of inexpensive good-luck charms (onamori) and votive tablets (ema). The charms are usually tiny pieces of wood or paper, upon which wishes for good health, fertility, safe driving and other sentiments are printed. They are tucked into a decorative cloth pouch, which can be worn or secured in a special place. Above all, the charms are not to be opened to reveal the content.

Ema, made from very lightweight wood (perhaps balsa), vary in illustration and size from shrine to shrine, but most are small. The one I bought at Naminoue was about 61/4 by 4 1/4 inches and 1/4-inch thick.

Messages are written on the tablets, making similar requests as the charms, and posted on large boards to hang together at the shrine.

When I finished looking around, I returned to the area where the photos were being taken to find that the bride’s wataboshi had been removed, revealing her elaborate hairstyle.

The swept-up style, definitely something reserved for formal occasions, brought to mind the lavish look worn by geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training), who live mostly in Kyoto and Tokyo, not Okinawa.

Some sort of form is helping to give volume to the hair where it curves out over the bride’s ears. 

Bows, combs, golden flowers and other ornaments were tied, dangling and clipped into the bride’s heavily lacquered coif. Even after examining my pictures, I was uncertain if this was her hair or a wig, but I think it’s her hair.

I did pose the question to my Japanese friends in Tokyo, and the older daughter, Hatsumi, told me that this hairdo was achievable in about an hour, using copious amounts of hairspray.

My friends also let me know that the bride’s white kimono was almost certainly rented.

“What use would she have for it again?” Hatsumi said.


Quick reference: Naminoue Shrine, 1-25-11 Wakasa, Naha, Okinawa. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Free admission. http://naminouegu.jp