A statue of an imaginary creature--a cross between a lion and a dog--often seen on rooftops and gateposts in Okinawa. It is believed to ward off evil, protect the household from disaster, and invite good fortune. Shisa are usually placed in pairs: the open-mouthed shisa (-a gyo) brings good luck while the closed-mouth shisa (-un gyo) keeps misfortune at bay. (It is also said that the syllables a-un, represent the beginning and end of life, everything in this world.) Originally, shisa were crafted from leftover materials after workmen finished tiling a roof. Every workman had his own style, and one look at the shisa was enough to tell who had tiled the roof. The traditional tiled roof is becoming a rarity these days, however, as are the rooftop shisa.

The first shisa are believed to have been introduced into Okinawa sometime in the 14th or 15th centuries during the Ryukyu kingdom. Their origins trace back thorough China across the Silk Road, Egypt the ancient Orient, and India. The koma-inu and shishi figures seen at Shinto shrines are thought to share the same origins. Similar lion-dog figures believed to have the power to ward off evil can be seen in other countries as well.


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