Chances are you’ve probably tried playing karuta, a traditional Japanese game that is so simple, yet so fun and competitive. If not, you may at least recognise these cards…

The rules are pretty straightforward: cards are spread out, a designated caller names one, and the first player to grab that card before other opponents do is the winner. The process is repeated over and over, and the player who accumulated the most cards at the end is the champion.

Ogura Hyakunin Ishu cards

A full set of these Ogura Hyakunin Ishu (collection of one hundred poems, one each by one hundred poets) cards consists of two hundred cards: one hundred yomifuda (“reading cards”) and their corresponding hundred torifuda (“grabbing cards”).
Both faces are made of layered paper, and it is not possible to distinguish the yomifuda and torifuda by their construction, materials or reverse sides.
Each yomifuda features the name of one of the one hundred poets, their portrait and their famous poem.

It works with any number of cards or players – many who have taught English in Japan will likely have played variations of this game with vocabulary words or pictures. Karuta, a word which has Portuguese roots (derived from “carta”) is a part of the traditional Japanese New Year celebrations, and played with the whole family.

Two types of cards are typically used in karuta: yomifuda (reading cards) and torifuda (grabbing cards). The words on the yomifuda are read and players have to find its matching torifuda as quickly as they can. Simple, but requires a focused mind and a swift hand! Not limited to family use, karuta is actually also played competitively.

Usually adorned with traditional designs and hiragana (maybe this will help you practise if you haven’t yet mastered reading the script?), and many regions of Japan have adopted their own twist on the game, featuring local images or poems. A nice set of karuta cards is a must-have at home, whether to entertain guests or simply display.

For more information on the craftspeople of Japan and to buy some of the products talked about here, visit, an online shop that sells items with engrained Japanese spirit to 120 countries worldwide while aiming to also teach you all about where they come from.

Main Image: akiyoko /