What is karuta?

Karuta is a traditional Japanese card game that uses two different types of cards – yomifuda (“reading cards”) and torifuda (“grabbing cards”). The two kinds of karuta cards that are most often seen are the “iroha-karuta" and “hyakunin isshu-karuta”.

    • Iroha-karuta (いろはかるた)
    Iroha-karuta uses famous proverbs and/or easy phrases so even young children can easily understand.

    • Hyakunin Isshu karuta (百人一首かるた)
    Hyakunin Isshu karuta is the most popular type of karuta, and is the kind of karuta used in official tournaments and the anime Chihayafuru. The Karuta Club of Lansing plays this type of karuta. The Hyakunin Isshu (literally translated "One Hundred People One Poem") is an anthology of one hundred poems written by one hundred different poets compiled by Fujiwara no Teika (藤原定家) while he lived in the Ogura district of Kyoto, Japan. The main theme of the poems is love: forty-three poems out of one hundred are about love and romance. As for seasonal themes, autumn is the most popular, being the central theme in sixteen poems. The best male karuta player in the world is referred to as a "Meijin" ("Master") and the best female player "Queen".

    Hyakunin Isshu karuta is a game where a reader (not actually playing in a match) recites each of the poems at random and players try to quickly touch the card associated with the read poem before their opponent. 100 yomifuda each have one of the Hyakunin Isshu on them, and the reader draws them out at reader. 100 torifuda each have only the last part of each of the Hyakunin Isshu. Each player takes 25 cards and places them in three different rows facing them (50 of the 100 cards are not used, so players must be careful of poems read that do not have a torifuda in play). Understanding that there are unique starting syllables in each poem, players can recognize which of the torifuda they need. Some poems can be recognized after hearing the very first syllable, and others take as many as the first six syllables.

    Although Hyakunin Isshu karuta might give off an impression that it is an elegant and classy game, it is actually considered a sport. As a matter of fact, matches can be very intense, as skilled players deke it out for the right to be declared winner. Hyakunin Isshu karuta is often described as combat on tatami-mat, as it requires concentration, photographic memory, instantaneous force, and physical strength. However, this doesn't mean that karuta can't be fun! People of all ages play karuta for the enjoyment the game brings to them.
    While not presently a very popular game, karuta is seeing an increase in interest due to the popularity of the anime/manga Chihayafuru. An anime that I recommend, Chihayafuru is about Chihaya Ayase and her dreams to start a karuta club in her local school and become a karuta Queen.

    Karuta is fascinating, and is very much fun to play! Let’s start playing karuta together at the Karuta Club of Lansing!

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