‘Karuta’ card store still going strong 90 years on

by Satoshi Toi

Kyodo

Nobuo Okuno, 82, has been selling traditional “karuta” playing cards at a store that has been operating in Tokyo’s Kanda-Jimbocho district for more than 90 years.

“Playing karuta, you have to use your eyes, ears and brain, so you can enhance concentration,” Okuno said. “It also helps you to make friends, as two or more people are needed to play.”

In a basic karuta game, someone reads out the text on a “yomifuda” (reading card) and players identify and grab a “torifuda” (picture card) that usually has a corresponding image and kana character — the first syllable of the text read out — in one corner.

“Karuta used to be a children’s game, but many adult customers have been coming to my store recently looking to buy karuta. Apparently, they want to recall memories from their childhood,” he said.

Okuno explained that one major and popular kind of karuta is “Edo Iroha Karuta,” featuring such famous proverbs as “Hana yori dango,” which equates in English to “Bread is better than the songs of birds.”

“Hyakunin isshu,” a collection of 100 “waka” poems, each written by a different author, also has many fans among young and old alike, he said.

Okuno Karuta Store, established in 1921, deals in more than 30 kinds of unique karuta not found anywhere else.

Okuno, who took over the store from his father, said the one he is most proud of is a reprinted edition of a karuta set that was used by children in the early part of the Showa Era, about 80 years ago.

The establishment, surrounded by secondhand bookstores and publishers, also has many karuta sets with which players can learn about Japanese history or kanji characters.

Recently, sets featuring famous tourist destinations or local specialties in various regions of Japan have become very popular, according to Okuno.

He said there used to be more karuta shops in Tokyo when he was in his late teens and started helping his father out with the store.

However, they started disappearing around three decades ago when children started turning to video games over card games.