Legend of the Shisa

Shisa, the lionlike talismans can be seen protecting doorways and adorning rooftops throughout the islands. It's said that during the reign of one of the ancient Ryukyu kings a dragon was terrorizing Naha, destroying settlements and devouring townsfolk. When the king encountered the dragon, a local shaman and his boy gave the king some advice they had received in dreams. The boy took hold of a pendant the king wore around his neck, a lionlike figurine that had been a gift from a Chinese emissary. Held aloft toward the dragon, the figure produced a ferocious roar, so powerful it toppled boulders from the heavens to pin the dragon to the shallow seabed, where it died and became part of the islands, now a park near Naha.

These days, shisa are Okinawa's most iconic image. Homes and businesses display them in pairs, one on either side of their entryways, the open-mouth one scaring off evil spirits, the closed-mouth partner keeping in good spirits. These good-luck totems are popular souvenirs and come in many shapes, materials, and colors.

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