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Meet the magical Okinawan shisa

I don’t think that there are any foreigners living in Japan who have never seen shisa, also known as lion-dogs. Originally, they are native to Okinawa and can be seen everywhere on the main island and on about two dozen islands around it. It does not mean that you can’t meet them, say, in Tokyo. Personally, I have met them at the entrances of Okinawan-style restaurants, private houses, and at art and souvenir shops.

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Shisa, or shi-shi, as Okinawan people say, is a magical creature from China. It wards off evil and hence is always placed at the entrance or on the roof of a house, shop or even hotel.

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Those small guardians are both male and female. The shisa on the left is usually (but not always, as we can see), depicted with a closed mouth, and the one on the right – with an open mouth. Nobody knows for sure their gender. The shisa with a golden sphere under one paw symbolizes wealth.

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This traditional Ryukyuan decoration always impresses me. Whether it is formidable, humble or super-modern, happy, angry or playful, shisa is always a work of art, waiting for proper appreciation.

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Visiting Okinawa will be an awesome experience until the infamous typhoons come in late September. But even after the typhoon season is over, the temperature does not drop lower than 20 degrees Celsius up until November.

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During my last visit to Ishigaki Island in Okinawa I also bought a nice small couple of shisa. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes, so even the pickiest buyer will find the one he likes.

Article by Olga Kaneda

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