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Shisa shopping in Okinawa, Japan - GTH
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Exploring our world through gay eyes

Shisa shopping in Okinawa, Japan

Large hand-made Shisas can be found along Yachimun Street in Naha, Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Large hand-made Shisa can be found along Yachimun Street in Naha, Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Unlike most travelers, I don’t often purchase souvenirs when vising a new destination. If I didn’t control myself, my home would soon be overflowing with knick knacks from all corners of the world. Sometimes though, I fall in love with a destination and have to bring a small reminder back home. On a recent visit to the islands of Okinawa, Japan, I couldn’t resist buying up a token of the local and mysterious Shisa.

My tour of Okinawa was so magical that I knew that I needed to find an item that was so iconic, so representative of the place, that I would never forget it. Enter the Shisa. Shisa are traditional Ryukyuan decorative statues, mostly seen in pairs. Resembling a cross between a lion and a dog, these figures are placed by local residents on their rooftops or flanking the gates to a home. When seen in pairs, the Shisa on the left usually has its mouth open to ward off evil spirits, while the one on the right has a closed mouth to keep the good spirits in.

Shisa are found everywhere in Okinawa, even the sweet shops.  © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Shisa are found everywhere in Okinawa, even the sweet shops. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Like the Komainu found at the entrances of Shinto shrines in mainland Japan, Shisa are a variation of the guardian Fu Dogs that originate in China. However where the Fu Dogs and Komainu seem to follow a fairly standard design, Shisa come in a kaleidoscope of diversity. They  can be of one of many eclectic designs that typically reflect the laid back, colorful atmosphere of Okinawa.

Given the unique nature of Okinawan Shisa, finding the perfect pair to bring home could be a daunting task. Dozens of variations on the Shisa theme can be found in the shops lining Kokusei Dori in Naha, often mass produced and likely to be an imported souvenir (tip: read the ‘Made In’ lable). If a run-of-the mill souvenir Shisa doesn’t strike your fancy, you can stroll along Yachimun Street just off Kokusei Dori.

Traditional Shisa are still honored as spiritual guardians on in many of the small villages on Okinawan islands, This one is from a home on Taketomi island. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Traditional Shisa are still honored as spiritual guardians on in many of the small villages on Okinawan islands, This one is from a home on Taketomi island. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Known as Tsuboya. This short 400 meter street is home to many artisan pottery studios that throw their Shisa by hand, continuing generations-old traditions. The prices go up dramatically though; where a typical souvenir set of Shisa may set you back $20 to $30, the handmade pieces will cost you at least double that. On the other hand, If price is no object, consider buying and shipping back a set of true Shisa made for the home: at three feet tall each and starting at $3,000 for the set, they’re practically a steal of a unique cultural icon for your home.

Suppose you want to be a little more hands on and want create your own Shisa as a reminder of your time in the island. This is certainly an option as well. A quick trip north of Naha to Murasaki Mura will lead you to an artisan who’ll help you mold a Shisa, paint and cure it. If you don’t want to get your hands full of clay, you can also pick up one of their pre -made Shisa and limit yourself to the painting part.

Cheap souvenir shisa can be found through out the islands, such as these at a store on Kokusei Dori in Naha. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Cheap souvenir shisa can be found through out the islands, such as these at a store on Kokusei Dori in Naha. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

I picked up my Shisa on Yubu Island: a simple red clay pair that reminded me of the simplicity of life in Okinawa, Japan’s tropical paradise. As a bonus, I brought back a phone charm Shisa to the US and retooled it into necklace charm that I wear whenever I travel to keep those bad spirits at bay.

If You Go:

A significant portion of this review’s underlying trip was hosted by the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau. My opinions, however, are my own, and I was not paid to express any bias for or against this product or destination.

 

 

Large clay Shisa stand guard at the entrance of Tsuboya on Yachimun Street in Naha. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Large clay Shisa stand guard at the entrance of Tsuboya on Yachimun Street in Naha. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

Shisa found along Kokusei Dori in Naha come in many bright colors.© GTH & Nathan DePetris

Shisa found along Kokusei Dori in Naha come in many bright colors.© GTH & Nathan DePetris

These cute clay Shisa were found at a hotel on Iriomote Island in Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

These cute clay Shisa were found at a hotel on Iriomote Island in Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

From artwork to cell phone charms, Shisa are represented in many ways in modern Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

From artwork to cell phone charms, Shisa are represented in many ways in modern Okinawa. © GTH & Nathan DePetris

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