New Year's Games
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 was first created in the mid-Meiji period between 1880 and 1885. These days, the game cards are often decorated with pictures of comic-book heroes, baseball players, actors, and other popular celebrities.
Two other games involve spinning tops and kites. Spinning tops, or koma, are spun either by hand or with a string. The oldest koma in Japan was dug up at some ruins in the town of Minami Shiga in 2020 and is thought to be from somewhere between the late 6th century (501–600) and the early 7th century (601–700). Back then, koma weren't used for playing, but for telling fortunes. During the Edo period (1603–1867), a competitive game with koma became popular. Using a string, players spun small wooden or steel tops called bei-goma inside a ring and tried to knock their opponents' tops out of bounds.
Over the years, many different kinds of koma have been created in Japan, including tops that make noise (to-goma/unari-goma) and tops that spin extra fast (Hakata-goma).
Kites are beloved toys all over the world, but in Japan they are especially popular as a New Year's toy.
Kites came to Japan from China in the Heian period (794–1185) and were wildly popular during the Edo period (1603–1867). 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. Some kites were over 10 square meters (about 33 square feet) in size. Kite wars, in which players tried to sever their opponents' kite strings, were also popular.
One more New Year's game is hanetsuki. It is played with a shuttlecock that 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. Over the years, the paddles have been decorated with various images, including 3D pictures of women in kimono, kabuki actors, and so on. While people still like to play hanetsuki, these days many people simply enjoy collecting the paddles for their decorative value. Some are even worth as much as 100,000 yen.
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 short waka poems on them that are made up of a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure.
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 was created in the Edo period and was especially popular since life lessons and sayings are written on the cards.