The Shiisa Dojo: A Pictorial Journey

Yesterday I visited a very special “dojo”.

It was not your average dojo though… because they didn’t practice any martial arts there! They did something completely different…

Let me guide you.

To actually find the dojo is not the easiest task to begin with. After zig-zagging through a number of small alleys and cobble streets, you will se this:

Other view:

That’s the dojo.

A beautiful, wooden, old-style Okinawan house. When approaching the entrance, you immediately get a sense of what is going on in this dojo:

That’s a Shiisa.

“What is a Shiisa?”, you may ask. Well, a Shiisa is a traditional Ryukyuan “decoration” (pottery), often found in pairs, resembling a “mutated” lion-dog, from Okinawa mythology (originally from China though). Most locals put a pair of Shiisa on their rooftops or flanking the gates to their houses.


Because Shiisa are wards, believed to protect from various evils (mainly typhoons and such). When found in pairs, the Shiisa on the left (the female) traditionally has a closed mouth, and the one on the right (the male) an open mouth. The open mouth to ward off evil spirits, and the closed mouth to keep good spirits in.

They’re quite clever, those Okinawans…

Anyway, let’s continue. Exploring the outside of the house also reveals this amazing big dragon, protruding from the wall:

(It looked better in reality…)

So… having explored the outside, let’s go in, shall we?

Enter the Shiisa-dojo!

It’s a pottery-dojo!

This is the place where Shiisas are made!

And to see a master at work, we simply have to find the Shiisa-sensei:

It looks kind of fun, right? Well, everything looks fun when you don’t know how much hard work that is required…

Here’s the storage, and oven, where the real magic happens:

So why had I come here?

Because I wanted to make my own Shiisa of course! But looking at some of the Shiisa ready for the oven made me think: “Can I actually do something like that?”

It looked impossible! I would probably have to meditate in a cave in the mountains for five years before I could even attempt that!

I felt just like a beginner coming to his first Karate lesson. It’s a strange feeling… Seeing the black belts doing seemingly lightning fast kicks and punches… wondering how I’m ever going to imitate that…

But in this case I looked at the finished Shiisa, and wondered how I’m going to imitate that!

They even sold some of their Shiisa in a shop nearby, as you can see.

Well, everybody has to start somewhere.

And I started with this:

Balls of clay.

It is interesting how a ball of clay can transform into something as mighty as a Shiisa. The hands of the skilled Shiisa-sensei transforms it gradually, just like a Karate sensei transforms his white belts gradually to black belts.

Of course I’m not implying that having a black belt is the end product. But from black belt and onwards the sensei is often not actively involved in the rest of the transformation…. or evolution, development, what ever term you prefer.

The Shiisa becomes an expression of the Shiisa-sensei’s mind. If he feels good today, the Shiisa will probably look good. If he hasn’t slept or hasn’t eaten anything, the Shiisa will probably look sloppy.

In the same way, you are an extension of your sensei’s thoughts and ideas. From day one, you have been sculptured. Starting as a pile of clay (white belt), gradually transforming in the hands of the sensei into something hopefully resembling a capable warrior (black belt).

A physical manifestation.

Hopefully you have (or had) a good sensei.

Luckily, the Shiisa-sensei I had was the best! But isn’t that what all beginners say?

Picking up a ball of clay, I knew this was going to be harder than it looked…

But the dream of one day having made the perfect Shiisa (of course sold for ridiculous amounts of money!) kept me from going back home.

“It’s now or never!” I thought, and rolled up my sleeves.

After almost two hours of playing with clay, oops, I mean “studying the long lost secret art of making Shiisa”, I finally managed to make something remotely resembling a Shiisa.

First of all, these are the ones the Shiisa-sensei made (in approximately 15 minutes):

Here’s the one I made:

Some people might say “That’s two hours wasted right there” and I am tempted to agree.

So what’s the moral of the story?

The expert at anything was once a beginner. And in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

The aim is therefore to become an expert…

But keep the beginners mind.

I’m already looking forward to my next Shiisa-class.


  • Viking
    All forms of art tend in the beginning to be complicated and unachievable. After a while it tend to be easer butt still you feel as you don't know that much. After a long long time everything is dead easy and you realise that you only have learned a fraction of what you imaged that you had the potential of learning. By the way nice "white belt" pottery you made.
  • Andi
    Yeah, I've been there, or I may say, beauty of the sight guided me there when I used to walk back from Kenritsu Toshokan to Kokusai doori via Tsuboya. Very nice place. I just didn't dare to enter :O) Rock on!
  • @Andi: That's cool! Hmm... Kenritsu Toshokan sounds interesting... I'll keep rockin'!
  • deera bazooka
    jeese you're so cool! i really want to go to japan! :-D and that's a beautiful place! haha cute shiisa u made there. and time wasted -_-"
  • Batman
    I like this a lot :) and your Shiisa looks really cute
  • Martin Mallet
    I like your shiisa.

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