Shisa: Lucky Lion-dogs of Loo-choo

You don’t have to go very far in Okinawa before you encounter shisa, in pairs or alone. Sometimes whimsical, sometimes serious, they are found on roof tops and gatehouses of houses, on shelves inside shops and restaurants, pretty much everywhere you go.

These little creatures are tasked with warding off evil and bringing luck. Although they bear a resemblance to the lion dog statues that stand as guardians at shrines and temples on the Japanese mainland as well as their Chinese progenitors, shisa are distinctively Okinawan.

On the Okinawan island of Kumejima, about 100 kilometers west of Naha, visitors can make their own shisa from local clay at Yachimun Pottery Gallery and Workshop. After the shisa has been modeled, it is air dried, fired and later delivered to its creator.

The gallery is situated in a traditional Okinawan house with hardwood floors and lots of windows. Professionally-produced shisa and other handicrafts and pottery are displayed and available for sale.

The center of the room is dominated by a long table set up for the shisa-making experience. At each place is a simple potter’s wheel atop which sits a disc of clay, another larger disc of clay stands next to the wheel. The only tools are a couple of sticks of different thicknesses. This is most definitely going to be a handcrafted product.

We are walked through the shisa creation process step by step, beginning with breaking a lump of clay from the large disc, rolling it into a cone shape and placing it on top of the disc on the wheel, upturning the thin end of the cone so that it resembles somewhat a cornucopia. This, we learn, is the body of our shisa. Next, we make a patty of clay, fold it in half and put it on the thick end of the cone/body. This is the shisa’s mouth. We are told that it can be open or closed.

If the mouth is open, the shisa is male and has the job of frightening away evil spirits, while a closed-mouth shisa, who keeps good spirits in, is female. I opt for an open mouth.

Next we are instructed to roll four small nobs of clay into teardrop shapes and position them to become the shisa’s feet. We are also told to rub the joints to eliminate seams that might otherwise become fissures during the drying and firing process.

At this point, I feel like my shisa more resembles a Mack truck than any kind of creature, but the next additions: a chunky tongue, a round bulbous nose (pinched a bit to give it character), and two eyes, finally bring my new friend and protector into view.

Lastly we add ears, which, in retrospect I perhaps made look a little too much like horns (what was I thinking?).

All that remains is to add a few decorative touches. I use my last remaining bit of clay to give my friend proper ears (I let him keep his horns–why not?), a mane and a bit of a beard. Then I use the stick tools to give his eyes irises, carve toes for him and add a few other stripes and decorative details. He’s so ugly that he’s cute!

Nearly a month later, a small box marked “Fragile” is delivered to my home. Inside is my completed shisa. He’s lost a bit of weight in the drying/firing process, and both his tail and his tongue are at jaunty angles. Did I really make him that way? I love him and I expect he will have a successful career keeping evil out of my home.

It takes 60-90 minutes to craft your own shisa at Yachimun Gallery. The gallery/workshop is open daily 9:00-18:00. Phone 098-985-7457 to arrange a shisa-making experience, or just drop by to admire the wares and make a purchase.

© 2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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