Intimidation: Shisa of Okinawa

 “Straightforwardness intimidates people. They prefer the veneer, despite what they claim.”  ~ Donna Lynn Hope 

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

This is NOT an Intimidating Shisa

Intimidation,” the artist said upon walking up as he noticed me admiring a large set of traditionally styled and fired clay Okinawan Shisa dogs. “That what I call,” he continued in very broken English, still much better than my skoshi Japanese.

There is a story surrounding both Okinawan Shisa lion-dogs and the ones Jody “owed” me from so poorly mistreating the ones I brought home from Okinawa back in 2001. See The Cat-Dogs of Okinawa for that back-story. Long story short: Jody thought the dogs were rather creepy, and relegated the indoor set I had to the harsh Pensacola outdoors for the 2+ years I lived with her before moving to Okinawa. Needless to say, I have been looking intently for just the right set, without much luck since coming to Okinawa in the summer of 2013.

My dated - and damaged - set of Shisa from 2001

My dated – and damaged – set of Shisa from 2001

Jody, since moving to Okinawa and seeing just how ubiquitous these protectors are in this corner of the Far East, had finally come around to the idea of the lion-dogs as effective spiritual guards of the household. She finally, in the last few months, moved past favoring the “cuter” stylized dogs portrayed in more playful stances, lacking the teeth-filled grimaces of the more frightening lions. And she knew that I really wanted a uniquely Okinawan set, a pair of guardians that we could take with us from the Far East to wherever we happened to hang our hats.

Now to get Jody past her dislike of hats. But that’s for another story….

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Jody really does look so cute in hats!

Camp Foster, one of the really large Marine Corps bases here on Okinawa, was holding a Spring Festival this past April, where the Marine Corps invited onto base a whole host of Okinawan vendors who could offer a wide variety of wares for perusal and purchase. The Festival started on Friday, and continued over the rest of the weekend at the base’s field house, a huge facility which ended up being filled with more product and crafts then we expected.

We stopped by late Friday afternoon, after attending a rather sad memorial service for one of Jody’s co-worker’s untimely demise. As you might imagine, we weren’t in the best frame of mind to do some serious shopping. However, to ease our troubled spirits, we decided to grab some comfort food and take a slow walk around, taking in all that the vendors had to offer. There was some Tibetan furniture that immediately caught our eye, and we engaged the vendor is some light haggling, something so common in the Far East but almost wholly missing on Okinawa. See Opportunity Knocks for more on our previous purchases from this Korean family.

We continued on and found other interesting Okinawan crafts, and decided that we would return the next day and take a longer gander at the merchandise on offer.

But then we spotted them. The dogs. The ones that immediately caught my eye.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation WM

They were large, expensive, and yes, intimidating. And there didn’t appear to be any wiggle room on the price….

We returned the next day, and the two Tibetan items that we were clearly interested in had been sold, and at prices that were offered to us the previous evening. We had learned the hard lesson of Okinawa once again: if you see a unique item of the Far East that speaks to you, get it while you can. We rounded the facility again, where Jody bought some rather large antique kokeshi dolls. And we again stopped by to revisit the Shisa that had so captured my imagination.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation face 2 WM

The vendor was, and I’m sure this is a loose translation, Soul (Soulful Handwork Pottery Art). The Potter, Sano Toshio, is one of the more acclaimed on the island which still uses the old traditional Okinawan ways of pottery. He has won numerous awards, including the highest prize at the 2014 Okinawa Prefecture Craft Pubic Exhibition. His work can be seen at his personal website and the shop’s blog.

The dogs are at once intimidating. Their stance is one in which they are ready to fight, ready to pounce with teeth frighteningly displayed along with their fixed stare. They are made in and using traditional Okinawan ways, finished with highly stylized twists and turns, lacking the refined finishing and glazes of what many westerners consider higher-end pottery. Until very recently I had not favored such earthenware, but have come to really appreciate such works as truly and only Okinawan. These examples were actually perfect.

Okinawa Shisa 2015, Shisa purchase intimidation 2 WM

But still that price. I wasn’t ready to spend so much money on something I could see being broken on yet another military move back to the states. We left that Saturday afternoon, and decided to return Sunday to take one last look around.

Unlike the furniture and some other items we were potentially interested in the days prior, the dogs were still there. It appeared Sano-san wasn’t moving much product, so perhaps he would be more willing to drop his price. But I had also had a change of heart. In the last 24 hours I really thought about the idea of value, about what was worth an expenditure of treasure and what wasn’t. For example, we didn’t hesitate to spend large sums on travel. And for specialized scuba diving equipment that allows for deeper and longer explorations of the deep. In such context, the price becomes not just tolerable, but congruent with the valued offered by such works of art.

Okinawa Apr 2015, New Shisa, Shisa purchase intimidation face WM

Intimidation resides safely in our home. As treasured Okinawan customary works of art they are impossible not to admire. But it is only in their physically menacing presence that the moving power of these protectors can be truly felt. It’s hard to put a price on protection.

See more Okinawan Shisa dogs in my Flickr photo-stream here.

Weathering the “Typhoon of Steel” (鋼の台風): The Tomori Stone Lion

“…the same yesterday and today and forever.” ~Hebrews 13:8, attributed as a description of the Battle of Okinawa


“That’s our Lion,” I exclaim as we enjoy an ice cream break at Okinawa’s Peace Prayer Park on New Year’s Day.  The book cover picture was exactly where we had ventured earlier in the day, quite by fortunate accident.  I had read this very book years ago, and of course the image is familiar, but I failed to make the unlikely connection:  the weathered, worn and war-damaged stone Shisa Lion that seems lost to time we visited was also one of the most famous historic icons of Okinawa!  For history buffs, this very lion is one of the most recognizable images from the Battle of Okinawa, and remains one of the few icons of Okinawan culture that survived the “Typhoon of Steel” (鋼の台風 tetsu no ame [“rain of steel”] or tetsu no bōfū [“violent wind of steel”]) in-place, and relatively intact.

Peace Prayer Park, Okinawa's Memorial to WWII

Peace Prayer Park, Okinawa’s Memorial to WWII

We were on our way to Okinawa’s Peace Prayer Park, their massive memorial to the war that savaged this island in 1945.  It was New Year ’s Day, and the traffic was quite light, making this drive fairly enjoyable for a change (driving on Okinawa can be, well, tedious).  Getting off the expressway and taking Highway 507, we were more than halfway there when we passed an old, weathered and worn sign on the road, barely readable, but pointing the way to “Tomori Stone Lion:  0.8 km.”  I learned a long time ago that when traveling overseas some of the best experiences are the ones had off the beaten and well-traveled path.  Although I had missed the turn, I immediately started to look for a place to turn around – which can be equally as tedious on Okinawa’s country roads…lined with an open gutter on either side!


A Shisa is a lion or “lion dog,” originally from China (Shishi), which serve as powerful talismans to ward off evil, but also are one of the central cultural icons closely associated with Okinawa.  These guard dogs can be found just about everywhere you look on Okinawa, from entrances and roofs of homes, to castles, temples, bridges, mausoleums, and, as with the Tomori Lion, as guardians of an entire village (as we this day learned).  Having started a collection of Shisa photos on my Flickr account, and since this particular lion had its own tourist sign, we had to go check this one out.  Clearly there was some significance here.

We made our turn, and then quickly came to a “T” in the road.  No other sign.  Which way?  We turn right, and proceed down the road, well past 0.8 kilometers.  We start taking side roads, which then become cane field roads, and the 4-wheel drive comes on.  But no luck finding this “Stone Lion.”  We really had no idea what we were looking for…or where to find it!

The Stone Lion is somewhere near the central red area....

The Stone Lion is somewhere near the central red area….

This part of Okinawa suffered some of the more horrific and desperate fighting in WWII, especially since the Japanese forces were continually being pushed further and further into this southeastern corner of the island.  The unstoppable allied forces approaching from the north had the last of the Japanese organized resistance pinned down to the south toward Yaese hill. With their backs to the sea with no hope of victory or rescue, and with surrendering considered dishonorable, the fight was almost always to the death for the Japanese.  And not just for the military; many of the locals fell victim of the Japanese military, who thought they were actually doing the populace a favor by sparing their misery at the hands of the Americans.  Or, worse, many Okinawans believed the propaganda that Americans were savages who would rape their women and eat their children, and to avoid such horrific fates, opted to commit suicide en masse in the islands many caves or by jumping off what is now known or referred to as “Suicide Cliffs.”  For a historically non-confrontational people who traditional shunned weapons (hence Okinawa is the home of karate-jutsu), the war almost sacrificed a whole people and their culture.

Yes, he (Mr. Miyagi) is Okinawan.

Yes, he (Mr. Miyagi) is Okinawan.

We make our way back to that “T” intersection and try the other way.  Just when we were ready to give up, we spotted another battered and barely readable sign, this time pointing down the road (in our direction of travel for a change), which specified 0.3 clicks.  No joy AGAIN, and, of course (!!), nowhere to turn around on yet another lonely (yet tranquil) country road through the cane fields of southern Okinawa.

Typical cane road, complete with tire-popping gutters and no where to turn around!

Typical cane road, complete with tire-popping gutters and no where to turn around!

Having invested this much time and energy into the search, I became determined to find this Stone Lion.  While it would have been easy just to drive away to our known destination, something inside pushed me to stay and continue our search.  As we approached the village of Yaese once again, I spotted a man walking alongside the road, someone who appeared to be out for a walk.  I slow the car and roll down my window….

“Sumimasen!  Eigo??” (“Excuse me!  English??”)

The old man smiles, lips still clenched holding a smoke in his mouth.  He mimes “a little,” or skoshi in Japanese.

Before I could get out my question, he has removed the cigarette so he could speak.  “Shisa??”

“Hai!!” came my excited, yet surprised response (“Yes”).  When – and where – in America would this ever happen??

He started to speak to me, with less than skoshi English, and simply pointed in a general direction.  With the car stopped on the road, and what I’m sure was a look of complete confusion on my face, he motioned if he could ride in the car with us.  He knew there was no way these gaijin were going to find that Shisa on our own!

We hurriedly shift all the scuba diving equipment over to one side of the seat as the man tossed his smoke down into one of those open gutters.  He climbs in the car, and points ahead speaking Japanese.  So we are off, all three of us now, in search of our elusive lion.

Roadside approach to the hilltop Tomori Stone Lion

Roadside approach to the hilltop Tomori Stone Lion

The man pointed the way, leading us up and through a very quiet subdivision with some very narrow and not too straight roads, the kind which are tight and narrow driving a full-size car, complete with more blind corners than I would’ve cared for.  We make at least 3 turns – and approach a rather step hill.  Here the man’s smile becomes larger and his voice more excited.  We are close, I think to myself.  But he also wants the car stopped:  this is enough of a detour out of this man’s life, especially since non-horizontal ground is now involved.  As he departs, he points the way one last time.

“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I reply with the friendliest smile I could muster (“Thank you very much,” the polite and more formal form).  “Hai,” came his simply reply, but one given with what I’m sure is his normally friendly smile.

Steep one-way inclined approach.

Steep one-way inclined approach.

We drive up a steep road, and see a small shrine on the side of the road, alongside a sign point up an even steeper one lane road for the Tomori Stone Lion.  The 4-wheel drive comes on again!!

Stairs and Monuments

Stairs and Monuments

This road ends in an extreme incline, enough for the parking break to be fully set.  It also ends at a set of stairs, which we gladly take up to the crest of a wooded hill.  And there is our prize:  a large, well-worn Stone Lion.

Okinawa Tomori Stone Shisa 2014, proud lion standing tall

Tomori Shrine

Tomori Shrine

This Shisa faces the Yaese Mountain ridge, which, according to local Okinawa folklore, was encouraged when the villagers of Tomori (then known as Tomimori, the village which existed in the area prior to the war) consulted with a Okinawan Feng Shui master who divined that such an orientation would allow the protective lion-dog to keep the evil spirits of Yaese Mountain in check, allowing for restoration of the natural balance of the physical world and spiritual dimension.  Although such folklore lacks accurate timeframes, the Tomori Stone Lion is first mentioned in writing in 1689.  However, the Tomori Lion is considered the first such village Shisa built on Okinawa, dating to sometime in the 17th century, and forerunner of all other village Shisa.  Since the guardian seemed to work, no doubt other villages sought the same types of protection through their own Shisa of varying shapes and sizes.

Okinawa Tomori Stone Shisa 2014, hilltop peaceful park

Today the historic village of Tomori has been subsumed by Kochinda Town, itself just a suburb of the highly urbanized Naha City.  Despite its proximity to the big city, this district amazingly retains a quaint mix of sugar cane fields and quiet suburban single-family dwellings, complete with yards and parking.  The prefectural government has designated the Tomori Lion as a “Tangible Prefectural Cultural Asset” and built the park on the tree covered knoll where it sits.

Okinawa Tomori Stone Shisa 2014, still a rural location

However, it wasn’t until much later in the day when we were taking a refreshment break at one of the Peace Prayer Park’s food vendors that I happened to come across the book that restored my memory and placed the Stone Lion in proper context.  It was an exciting, and illuminating find!!

Tomori Shisa in 1945

Tomori Shisa in 1945

Okinawa Tomori Stone Shisa 2014, Shisa and Asian stairway (B&W)

Tomori Shisa in 2014

Okinawa Tomori Stone Shisa 2014, proud lion fixed gazeWhen the fatalities are as high as they were in Okinawa, objectives numbers don’t make much sense and lack the emotional impact that such injury demands.  The true toll will never be known, but it most likely lies somewhere between 220,000 and 275,000 people over the 3-month battle.  That’s a quarter of a million souls lost, perhaps somewhere between 1/3 to ½ of the Okinawa civilian population.  To see Okinawa and its people and culture now compared to the historical WWII photographs shows just how fierce the fighting was…and how Okinawa has not just survived but has recovered from its wounds and prospered in spite of them, as evidenced by our voluntary host-country ad hoc tour guide who so easily could’ve dismissed our requests for help.  Chances are he lost family members and relatives from the actions of my family members and relatives.  The world can be a very connected – and forgiving place if we just let it be.

War-Ravaged Shisa

War-Ravaged Shisa



The same, yesterday, today and forever, this Stone Shisa remains in its original location, majestic and standing, flashing a sardonic grin and piercing eyes fixed in a resolute gaze.  And now serves as the centerpiece of a wooded, quiet park on the knoll of a steep hill, a striking and disparate image to those of 1945.  The Tomori Lion remains standing strong in spite of the numerous visible wounds suffered in 1945.  And although it fulfilled its duties for well over 250 years, it is unlikely that it alone could’ve stopped the Typhoon of Steel, even if the juggernaut of allied forces approached from Yaese Mountain and into the mouth of the Lion.  As one of the last original icons which exists from prior to the war, the proud and tall Shisa continues to echo the past, however, with eyes front always searching for a better, more peaceful Okinawan future.  This find, and all it implies, is surely a fitting start for our 2014.

Beauty and the Beast, the Okinawan Edition

Beauty and the Beast, the Okinawan Edition

Directions:  I would trust what you read online!  The stone lion is on the south side of 507, very near the intersection of 507 with 52 in/near the village of Yaese.  Look for signage, but it is really tough to get there on your own!