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If you wander around Ishigaki you're bound to notice an abundance of ornaments and statues presented in pairs which look like a cross between a dog and a lion. These are 'shiisa', and their origin can be found in an Okinawan folklore. A legend describes how a sea dragon was defeated by a brave islander who held a necklace decorated with a figurine in front of him as the creature approached. According to this myth, as soon as the dragon saw the shiisa a huge boulder fell from the sky and landed on its tail, which in turn led to its death.
Although it seems unlikely that anybody actually believed this myth, it was believed that shiisa had the power to ward off evil spirits, hence, on the completion of a new home the builder would place shiisa on the roof to protect the residence.
Originally these shiisa had a relatively simple appearance, but over time they have evolved into far more elaborate forms. Shiisa are always found in pairs, one of which has its mouth shut and the other has its mouth open. It is generally agreed that the shiisa with the open mouth represents the male who is the gatherer, whereas the female, with her closed mouth, is the protector of the house. There are countless stone statues of shiisa positioned around ishigaki and its surrounding islands, some of which are as large as a human.
If you enter a souvenir shop in ishigaki you're likely to be presented with a huge range of shiisa to choose from, all of which provide their own representation of the shiisa form in terms of shape, facial expression, and colour. Indeed, when it comes to selling shiisa to the masses, colour seems to be the key. However, if you take the time to explore beyond the shop frontages you'll also be able to find some very tasteful shiisa which have been hand-crafted from traditional materials.