a game of Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

Over the holidays, I saw in tv once a group of women in very traditional kimonos, faces painted in traditional Japanese makeup (very white faces with only a red dot for lips), all intent in playing a card game, all serious as they whisk a card one at a time. It was pretty interesting. Hence I was really thankful when, for our first class for the year earlier, our Nihongo sensei introduced the very same card game that I saw on tv – Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

The Hyakunin Isshu (百人一首) is a collection or anthology of tanka or poetry; hyaku for 100 and nin for persons thereby meaning to say that 100 poets contributed to the collection cum anthology, one poem per one person. It also refers to the card game uta-garuta (uta means song), a japanese traditional New Year game, which uses a deck composed of poems from one such anthology. Of all the Hyakunin Isshu, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu is the most popular and notable and it was this deck of cards that our sensei brought to our lunch break class.

The deck of cards are divided into two sets – one bearing the poems with the kanji of course and the other with purely hiragana text containing the two last 14 sounds/syllables/characters from the tank/poem.
The deck with the poems.


The rule of the game is that the game master is to recite the poem in singsong, monotonous rhythm. Supposedly, at the first few sounds/syllables, the player should be able to identify the song, look for the card bearing the last 14 characters of the tanka and whisk it away from your opponent as fast as you can. Hubs once represented his class for this game and he had to memorise all 100 poems!

But, well, since this was our first time, we had to listen to our sensei’s singsong voice and wait for the first few characters of the last 14 and look for the corresponding character on the cards splayed in front of us. It was a really enjoyable way to practice our hiragana. What was even more interesting is that the hiragana was the old version, with very curvy い and え and where を is used as お.
I would have loved to whisk away the cards when I get to identify them, but I was hesitant to show off haha. I didn’t fare bad though.


Why play this only during new year!? This would be great as well on any gathering/small parties.

Thank you sensei, for being very patient and creative in teaching us 🙂

Thanks for the comment! :)

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