Paint-by-shisa-dog: Take a piece of Okinawa home

Painting shisa is a great way to have a customized souvenir for your home. Photos by Denisse Rauda
Painting shisa is a great way to have a customized souvenir for your home. Photos by Denisse Rauda

Paint-by-shisa-dog: Take a piece of Okinawa home

by Denisse Rauda
Stripes Japan

Everywhere you go in Okinawa, you’ll see a set of curious statues similar to gothic gargoyles one would find in any European castle. These stand at attention near the entrances of many homes and businesses.

A roadside shisa dog leads to Tatsubo, a pottery studio in Onna Village.

Instead of gargoyles, these are lion-dogs, one with a gaping mouth that almost seems like it was frozen mid-laugh and the other has a menacing, mischievous smile. If you come across any of these, you’ve spotted the island’s famous “shisa.” These statues, which vary in size, are meant to be guardians of one’s home and have a long-standing tradition spanning centuries on the island.

I thought they were kind of adorable, and when I spotted a random roadside shisa with a sign in Japanese that my friend said was for a DIY shisa pottery studio, I knew I had a chance to get a hand on my own. We followed the brightly colored shisa signs scattered down the road through small farms and jungle, from the restaurant where we’d had another Okinawa favorite – taco rice.

We finally arrived at Tatsubo, a farm with all kinds of shisa of different shapes, sizes and colors leading us around back into the studio. Once inside, two employees welcomed us into a large workshop area with many seats and tables, which could easily accommodate about 100 people. We had the entire space to ourselves since we were there on a weekday afternoon, a nice departure from the crowds we had been around everywhere else we visited in Onna Village.

At Tatsubo, there are two options: mold and create your own shisa from scratch using their pre-made and baked bases, then customizing your shisa with paint once your creation has dried; or, you can purchase any of the blank pre-made pottery shisa, then sit in the workshop and paint it to your heart’s content.

Whenever I travel, I love to try the local craft or cooking and go to craft studios when I have time to make something I can take home and treasure as a memory of my trip, so I was ready to dive in. Short on time, however, I chose to take the second option and purchased a pair of shisa at 2,800 yen (around $25) to paint, which takes about an hour. If you choose to go with the other option, be aware that it will take about 3 hours to complete the entire process from clay molding to paint drying.

The workshop area at Tatsubo has anything any thriving shisa dog pottery artist might need for their creation.

The male shisa I picked had googly heart eyes and a funny open mouth, and the female shisa had a cute smile. They are both about 2- or 3-inches tall, so they were easy to store in my carry-on bag.

I was given a set of very pigmented paints and an apron to throw on before working on my shisa. The shop employee gave me an English instruction sheet that showed me what I had to do, including the need to start first by painting the body, then using the blow dryer at my station to dry it before attempting to add the rest of the details to the shisa. Since my friend decided not to paint, I asked him to dry one shisa while I worked on the other.

I mixed a few colors together and chose to go the more traditional route with deep brick colors, olives and reds for my pottery project. It was nice to sit and enjoy the quiet studio as I concentrated on my painting. I can’t imagine if I’d be able to relax in a studio full of other tourists trying to paint their own shisa.

Once I was done painting and my friend and I finished drying the shisa, we had a quick little photoshoot in their staged photo-op table, then my creations were boxed and ready for their trip back to Tokyo to live with me.

Art is a nice way to get to know the local culture and take a moment to breathe while in the middle of the getaway hustle. And now, I too, shall have shisa protecting my home, reminding me of my first trip to the island.

Handmade studio Tatsubo
Address: Okinawa Prefecture Kunigami-gun Ona village character Maeda 3710
Tel: 098-964-4210
Hours: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., but you must arrive before 5 p.m. to be able to participate in the final painting course.
Parking: Available
GPS coordinates: 26.430984, 127.757709

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