Okinawa: Shisa, the half dog half lion that is everywherebabibubebo | 13 01 2009
The first thing you notice about Okinawa is the beautiful ocean. The second will probably be all of the half dog, half lion statues that are everywhere! These things are called “shisa” or in Japanese, シーサー, that come in all shapes and sizes. Seriously, they are everywhere you go and you cannot avoid them! Apparently they make for good souvenirs because anywhere in Okinawa that sells anything, also has some shisa for sale! I was wondering the whole trip exactly what the deal with them was.
So what are these things!?
According to wikipedia:
Shīsā (シーサー) (Okinawan: siisaa) (alternative spelling shishi or shisaa) is a traditional Ryukyuan decoration, often found in pairs, resembling a cross between a lion and a dog, from Okinawa mythology. Many people put a pair of shisa on their rooftops or flanking the gates to their houses. Shisa are wards, believed to protect from various evils. When found in pairs, the shisa on the left traditionally has a closed mouth, and the one on the right an open mouth. The open mouth to ward off evil spirits, and the closed mouth to keep good spirits in.
Originally pairs like these were called “shisa and guardian dogs”: the right with its mouth opened is the guardian, the left with its mouth closed is the shisa. Some people believe that one is male and the other is female, and provide various justifications for which is which; for example, “the female has her mouth shut as she should” or “the male has his mouth shut to hold in all the family’s good fortune”. (Compare this to the distinction between male and female guardian lions in Chinese culture.)
The shisa, like the koma-inu (lion dogs), is a variation of the guardian lions (“fu dogs”) from China. The shisaa, or lion dog, is an Okinawan cultural artifact. In magic typology, they might be also be classified as gargoyle beasts. They are traditionally used to ward off evil spirits.
You will see these for sale just about everywhere you go in Okinawa and while there are a lot that seem to be mass produced, you can find some that are unique and made by local artists that put their personal touch on their work. My personal favorite are the shisa by Mitsuo, his gallery is called Shisa Mansion, or in Japanese シーサーマンション. Mitsuo’s Shisa Mansion gallery is in Japanese, but here is a link where you can see photos of his work. Below is the style I picked out.
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Kiyomizudera (Healing Water Temple)