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Okinawa: You can create your own magical shisa dog

Ryukyu Gama in Nago is a tourist-friendly shisa workshop on Okinawa. Making your own shisa dog, Okinawa's popular guardian, will be a good souvenir from this island.

CHIYOMI SUMIDA/STARS AND STRIPES

By CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 16, 2014

Shisa dogs, crosses between a lion and a dog, are imaginary guardians that Okinawans have loved and cherished for centuries.

Some welcome visitors at the entrances of homes and other buildings, while others gallantly perch on rooftops to ward off evil spirits.

Today, they have become a symbol of Okinawa, one of the most popular vacation destinations in Japan. Hence many pottery workshops on the island, such as Ryukyu Gama (kiln) in Nago, open their doors for tourists to make their own shisa dogs.

Ryukyu Gama is located conveniently near other tourist sites like the Nago Pineapple Park or the Churaumi Aquarium. No reservation is required unless a group is larger than 10 people.

On a recent visit, I found the workshop in a large bright red building, flanked by a pair of huge shisa dogs at the entrance. Before I reached the workshop corner, hundreds of shisa dogs greeted me. On one table was an army of solemn traditional guardians; on the next was a gang of playful figures with beaming smiles.

Walking through an aisle of display models helped me get an idea of the kind of shisa dog I wanted to make.

My imagination swelled in anticipation of making a big pair of dignified-looking shisa dogs, like many I often see in town, until a friendly workshop staffer, Seiya Tamaki, gently reminded me that something so large might be a little ambitious for a first effort.

I compromised and chose a modest-sized wall-hanging model instead.

The supplied materials and tools were basic and simple, including a clay ball about five inches in diameter, a wood roller, a bamboo spatula and a toothbrush. Following the directions shown on a small DVD monitor and occasional advice from Tamaki, I got to work. Spreading the clay flat is like rolling out bread dough. Familiar and easy work so far.

A challenge came when it came to making a mouth and a nose. A big opening was for the mouth and three marshmallow-size round clay pieces were for the nose. Gradually, the face began to take shape as if it was emerging from the earth.

After about three hours of struggle, I was done. All I needed to do was wait for it to be delivered to my home after going through a firing process in a kiln.

I was told earlier by a workshop staff that a shisa would resemble the person who made it.

Now I can hardly wait for it to arrive, to see if it looks like me.

 sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com

Two-year-old Mari Iwata from Tokyo finishes painting a shisa at Ryukyu Gama pottery workshop in Nago. The workshop opens its door to tourists to experience shisa making. The imaginary creature is believed to ward off evil spirits from coming in and keep good luck at home.
CHIYOMI SUMIDA/STARS AND STRIPES

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