Hyakunin-isshu: A Japanese Card Game of Poems

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Hyakunin-isshu*is a famous and ancient Japanese card game. It was created over a thousand years ago, by putting together 100 poems written by 100 people to be read aloud in the game.

The poems, called tankas (see below), were made in parties at the emperor's palace. Therefore the 100 writers of the tankas are relations of the Imperial family, aristocrats or Buddhist priests that were invited to the poem-party. The name and title of each writer is written on each reading card (see below)

About the tanka

A tanka is a poem 14 syllables longer than the haiku. It looks like this:
  • Line of 5 syllables
  • Line of 7 syllables
  • Line of 5 syllables

(This, looking like a haiku, is the kami-no-ku, or 'upper' part of the poem.)
smiley -
  • Line of 7 syllables
  • Line of 7 syllables
(This is the shimo-no-ku, the 'lower' part of the poem.)

What You Will Find in the Box

  • 100 Pictured 'Reading' cards
    These have the name of each writer and their whole poem written on them in their original form, in kanji1and hiragana2mixed. The poem is backgrounded by coloured pictures of the writer.
  • 100 'Taking' cards, with letters only
    These look bleak compared to the colourful picture cards, only have 14 letters, ie the 'lower' part of every poem, written vertically in three rows and in hiragana only3.
The cards are traditionally made of thick card, each one measuring about 7cm x 5cm.

How to Play

The 100 'taking' cards are spread out randomly on the floor. One person reads a poem aloud from the 'reading' cards, and the players, sometimes including the reader themselves, quickly search among the cards on the floor and tries to find the right matching card. The finder must put their hand on the card quickly, calling out "hi"4and gets to take the card, and the reader moves on to the next poem. If several players find the card at the same time, the one who reached it first wins the card, obviously.
The player with the most cards at the end is the winner.

Beginners need to wait for the reader to read the lower part before they can do anything. But this being such a widely played game, trained players have the poems memorized so they can start looking for the lower part after hearing only the first few syllables of the upper part. 7 of the letters, mu, su, me, fu, sa, ho and se ,each start only one poem, making it possible for the advanced to dive for the matching card upon hearing one letter.

However, if you take the wrong card by mistake, you must pay a penalty by putting back one of your earned cards on the floor. This happens quite often, since the taking cards are deliberately designed to look alike, and some lower parts start with the same word 5. A few upper parts start with the same word too, making it harder for trained players to jump at the right card. And when the cards have mostly gone near the end of the game, the reader may start reading already read cards in between new ones, thus confusing players even more.

1Kanji is something like Chinese letters, with a meaning in every letter.2Hiragana is one way of writing the Japanese alphabet, each letter representing a syllable but no meaning. 3Which makes them all look the same (yes, even to the Japanese themselves) without close inspection, thus making the game harder.4Which is "yes" in Japanese. 5The most common starting word for the taking cards is hito=person, used in 5 poems.

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