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Arts & Culture

Playing Hanafuda With The Hand You're Dealt

At her home in Honolulu, our grandmother hovered above us, inspecting our cards: illustrations of wisteria, chrysanthemum, cherry and plum blossoms and, if we were lucky, a crane perched among pine branches. My cousins and I were playing a 200-year-old Japanese card game called hanafuda, which translates to "flower cards." She taught us the game when we were young, maybe so she could have a new crop of opponents to defeat.

I hardly play anymore. Now that I live in New York, I'm about as far away as you can get from Honolulu without a passport. I miss it. I miss it when I see pathetic excuses for poke at trendy restaurants. I miss it when I FaceTime with my parents in the winter and they're sweating on the beach while I'm shivering after a walk to the bodega.

And I miss it now, in the Catskills Mountains, where I've spent the last six weeks at an artist's residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock. The landscape vastly differed from my grimy neighborhood in New York. The foothills were in full bloom, and I recognized many of the flowers from those slow afternoons playing hanafuda.


The cards, seen above, took root in the underground. In the 17th century, the Tokugawa shogunate government implemented an isolationist policy and banned Western playing cards. As a result, new gambling games began to pop up behind closed doors and in the dark corners of izakaya pubs. Hanafuda cards avoided the prohibition by featuring floral illustrations with a distinct Japanese aesthetic instead of numbers, which made it harder for officials to link the game to the Western card games.

Games like hanafuda eventually became so widespread that the government relaxed its anti-gambling laws. Businesses began to create and sell cards. That's how Nintendo, one of the biggest Japanese corporations, got its start — long before making Game Boys and Switches, the gaming company made hanafuda out of a small shop in Kyoto.

The game is a 48-card deck with a dozen suits. Each suit has its own flora that represents a month in the year. Nearly all 12 grow around Woodstock, which sits on the same latitude as the southernmost tip of Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Inspired by the flowers and hanafuda, I started studying the differences between cherry and plum blossoms (cherry petals split at the end), pestering deer with my camera flash and inserting my own body into the world of hanafuda. Some of the resulting photographs look nothing like the cards, and that's okay. When immigrants can't find ingredients from back home, they go to the local store and make familiar but entirely new dishes.

I often forget the rules of hanafuda. The game has always been a little confusing to me. But the next time I'm in Honolulu, my grandma and I will share a bowl of matcha, and she will teach me again. And then, she will beat me.


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