Japan has many traditional toys and games that have kept children amused since the middle ages. Although modern life is hectic, and kids don't have as much time to play as they did in bygone days, some of these old-fashioned toys and games are as popular as ever. Nowadays, many of them make their appearance mainly around the New Year holidays.
One example is a game called menko, which involves throwing circular or rectangular playing cards on the ground.
You try to flip your opponent's card over by throwing your card on top of it. Menko has been around since the 1700s. The game cards are often decorated with pictures of comic-book heroes, baseball players, actors, and other popular celebrities. Menko is popular mostly among boys.
Japanese boys also like playing with tops and kites. Tops, or koma, spun either by hand or with a string, came to Japan about a thousand years ago from China. During the Edo period (1603-1868), a competitive game with tops became popular.
Using a string, players spun small wooden or steel tops called bei-goma inside a ring, usually a bucket covered with a towel, and tried to knock their opponents' tops out of bounds.
Over the years, many different kinds of tops have been created in Japan, including tops that make noise and tops that spin extra fast.
Another traditional Japanese toy, the kite, or tako, is loved particularly by boys throughout the country and have a special place in their hearts.
Kites came to Japan from China in the Heian period (794-1185), and were wildly popular during the Edo period. They come in a variety of shapes, including square and hexagonal, and are often decorated with traditional pictures and patterns. One kind of kite popular among merchant families in the old days was known as a yakkodako. These kites were made to resemble human figures with their arms outstretched in comical poses. Merchants had the kites made in the likeness of their servants. Kite-flying was a major pastime in bygone days. Communities launched enormous kites, sometimes over a hundred square meters (about 1,090 square feet) in size. Kite wars, in which players tried to sever their opponents' kite strings, were also popular.
Japanese girls have their own favorite traditional toys and games. One popular game that has been around for a long time is hanetsuki, which resembles badminton but uses no net.
The shuttlecock is made from a seed with feathers attached, and the paddle, called a hagoita, is rectangular and made of wood. Hanetsuki dates back over 500 years. The paddles are decorated with various images, sometimes executed in relief: girls in kimonos, Kabuki actors, and so on. While kids still like to play hanetsuki, many people simply enjoy collecting the paddles for their decorative value.
Japanese children also enjoy playing cards known as karuta. Karuta are rectangular like Western playing cards, but instead of numbers and figures, they have pictures, words, and even poems on them. There are several dozen cards in each set of karuta.
In one popular children's version of the game, known as iroha karuta, the person designated as the "reader" has one set of cards with sayings written on them, while the other players gather around a spread-out set of cards with the first letter or few words of the saying and a picture on them. When the reader starts reading a saying, the players try to find the matching card from those spead out in front of them. Whoever finds the card first wins the round and collects the card. The player with the most cards at the end wins. Iroha karuta has been around since the Edo period, and the messages on the cards are popular sayings that often come up in everyday life.
Photos: These colorful, traditional toys are a sign of the New Year's season in Japan.