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How to Play Uta-Garuta
Japan is widely known as the land of the rising sun, but did you know that Japan is also the land of a thousand card games?
One of their most popular card games is Karuta (歌留多). It’s known among adults as one of its two types, Uta-Garuta. The other variant of Karuta, Iroha Karuta, is intended for children. This is because of its simpler content, using basic proverbs instead of poems.
The original Karuta originated in the 16th century when Portuguese traders introduced the Japanese people to their decks. The decks were then interpreted locally and became the Karuta known today. It’s an easy game to understand but can be quite challenging depending on your fluency with the Japanese language and your ability to think quickly and move even quicker.
In English, Uta-Garuta (歌ガルタ) is translated as ‘poem cards’. This is because every card in the deck has a specific Waka (和歌) poem taken from ancient Japan. A Waka poem, also known as Tanka poetry, is written with 31 syllables and 5 lines, following the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable structure.
A standard deck comes with 200 cards. These cards are then separated into two sets of 100. The two sets are called Torifuda (取り札) and Yomifuda (読み札).
The Torifuda set’s cards contain the entire 5-line Waka poems and an illustration of the authors. These cards are also known as the ‘grabbing cards’.
The Yomifuda set’s cards only contain the last 2 lines of a Waka poem. These cards are the ‘reading cards’. It must be noted that the Waka poems have corresponding Yomifuda and Torifuda cards and cannot exist on only 1 card.
Now that that’s clear, it’s time to learn how to play Uta-Garuta.
The first step to playing Uta-Garuta is having a Karuta deck. Karuta’s most popular deck, which is also used competitively, is the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. This deck can be bought or made, as long as all the contents are present.
To start playing, you’ll need at least 3 players. One person needs to act as the reader or caller for the game. All participating players need to be sitting across one another with a large space between them. If there are 2 players, they need to be facing each other with a clear shared area.
When all players are in position, the Torifuda cards (i.e. the ‘grabbing cards’) need to be laid in the space that separates participants. In the case of 2 players, the Torifuda cards need to be spread in front of them with equal distance. This is to avoid giving one player a reach advantage over the other.
Once the Torifuda cards and players are ready, the person acting as the reader will need to have the Yomifuda cards in-hand. They need to be audible from wherever they’re located. Depending on the intensity of the game, they may need to stay somewhere safe. Uta-Garuta games can go from mild to blood-thirsty, especially as cards dwindle.
The reader with the Yomifuda cards needs to slowly read (or sing) the two lines written on the first Yomifuda card. Players only need to recognize the poem from the reader’s Yomifuda card and find it among the Torifuda cards in front of them. Once a player finds the correct card with the complete poem, they need to swipe it before the other player does.
The player with the most Torifuda cards by the end is the winner. It’s an educational game of lightning-fast reflexes and quick thinking.
Throughout Japanese history, Karuta was a prominent staple for leisure. In fact, it was a popular form of gambling.
In modern-day Japan, a new competitive form of Uta-Garuta has emerged, known as Kyougi Karuta (競技カルタ). It doesn’t follow the same gameplay of classic Uta-Garuta, but it does hold the same essence.
Two players are given 25 identical Torifuda cards that are laid in front of them. They can memorize, practice swiping, and remember the locations of the cards within 15 minutes. The reader will then sing each poem one by one. Competitors must be the first to recognize the poem and grab it before the other.
Every competition crowns a female and male Grand Champion. They’re given the honorary titles of Queen (クイーン) and Master (名人), respectively. Not only that, but if they win 7 times, they earn the right to call themselves an Eternal Queen (永世クイーン) or Eternal Master (永世名人).
Learning how to play Uta-Garuta can be greatly beneficial when in need of a quick game. It’s fast to learn and even faster to play. It’s even better for learning and mastering the Japanese language because of its simple poems.
If poems aren’t your thing, there is a wide variety of Karuta decks for you to choose from. Some have traditional Japanese monsters, some have regional dialects, and some even have random Shakesperean quotes!
Go ahead, buy a Karuta deck and try it out with your friends. You won’t regret it.
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