Create your own magical shisa dog
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.
Ryukyu Gama (kiln) in Nago
Directions: Ryukyu Gama is on Highway 84 in Nago, Okinawa. Take the Okinawa Expressway north and get off at the northern end exit No. 10, Kyoda. Take Highway 58 north to the Hakuginbashi intersection. Turn left (there’s a sign to the Churaumi Aquarium, Nago Pineapple Park and Mount Yae). Proceed on Highway 84 until you see a bowling alley, Nago Super Bowl, on your left. The Ryukyu Gama is across the street on your right.
Times: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
Costs: From 1,500 yen for painting a ready-made shisa figure to 5,000 yen for making a shisa to your liking.
Delivery fee is 1,200 yen but is available only within Japan, including PO boxes on U.S. military installations.
Food: There is no food at the facility. An A&W restaurant is across the street.