The natural beauty of Nintendo’s traditional playing cards

Pictured is a stack of old Nintendo Hanafuda cards.

Hanafuda cards depict flowers and foliage throughout the year. Manufactured by Nintendo, this deck may have been made between 1900 and 1930.
photo: Markus Richert

at the end of the 19th century Nintendo started developing a different type of game: card games. The company continues to make cards, and whether they’re cards from the past or cards from today, the decks showcase the beauty of Japan.

Hanafuda is a flower-covered deck of cards depicting the flowers and leaves of different seasons. For example, the 12 suits include plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, peonies, chrysanthemums and maple leaves, among others, each reflecting the seasons throughout the year.

Pictured is a close-up of the Hanafuda deck manufactured by Nintendo.

In Japan, floral and leafy designs are also found on lacquerware, pottery, kimono, and tattooing.
photo: Markus Richert

Nature is one of the main motifs in Japanese art, kimono textiles and tattoo. Given how flowers are emblazoned on Japanese money, it only makes sense that one of the country’s most famous decks of cards would be covered in the country’s natural beauty.

“I bought this particular deck from an online auction a few years ago for a ridiculously low amount,” said Osaka-based hanafuda collector and connoisseur Marcus Richert. “I’m not sure I even paid 1,000 yen (under $10) for it.”

Pictured is a close-up of the deck's packaging.

On the Nintendo deck packaging, the kanji 初櫻 (hatsu-zakura) means “the first cherry blossom of the year”.
photo: Markus Richert

Japan has no shortage of hanafuda collectors and old handcrafted ones Nintendo decks like this are rare. Still, Richert says that the few times he’s come across such cards, he’s been lucky enough to snag them at bargain prices. Richert does not know the exact date of the deck, but believes it may have been made between 1900 and 1930.

What is special about this set of Nintendo cards is that this deck was printed by hand. The technique called kappa zuri, uses a round brush by stenciling. The black outlines, Richert adds, were most likely printed on woodcut or executed with copperplate.

Pictured is a close-up of three Hanafuda cards manufactured by Nintendo.

Notice how Nintendo (任天堂) is written right-to-left, in the pre-WWII style.
photo: Markus Richert

The practice of hand-stenciling cards, also common in Europe, began to die out in Japan in the mid-1940s when the last craftsmen retired. Nintendo continued to use hand-made steps in the manufacture of its Hanafuda cards into the early 1970s, Richert says, even when they were machine-printed. “The final step of sticking the backing paper onto the cards was really hard to automate.”

Pictured are Hanafuda cards on a table.

Hanafuda’s connotations used to be different.
photo: Markus Richert

Hanafuda is now played at home during the Japanese New Year holiday, but over a century ago the game was a mainstay in illegal gambling dens. As Rebecca Salter notes in a Japanese art magazine andon“The relationship between cards and gambling and official attempts at suppression, if not prohibition, is a theme that runs through the history of cards in Japan.”

Pictured are two decks of Nintendo's Tengu cards.

Nintendo’s modern machine-made Tengu set of Hanafuda cards.
image: Nintendo

The cards became so closely associated with betting that players touched their noses to find a deck or cave because the Japanese word for flower (花 or hana) is a homophone for nose (鼻 or hana), which might explain why the long-nosed Yokai Tengu can be found on Hanafuda decks.

Pictured is Mario's Hanafuda deck.

Although this is a Mario set, Nintendo has incorporated traditional designs.
image: Nintendo

Today Nintendo go on Hanafuda cards that even give them a dedicated Mario spin. But Nintendo isn’t the only hanafuda maker in the country — it’s not even the only one in Kyoto. Oishi Tengudo, which was founded in 1800, still makes its hanafuda the old-fashioned way: by hand. And while Oishi Tengudo never made the leap into video games, it’s perhaps Nintendo’s oldest rival, making beautiful cards of its own.

Shown is the Shiki set.

Here is a closeup of the Shiki set.
photo: Markus Richert

Richert has teamed up with Oishi Tengudo to create a set of beautifully handcrafted Hanafuda cards called shiki. You can learn more about it on the project kickstarter. The natural beauty of Nintendo’s traditional playing cards

Curtis Crabtree

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