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Types and makes of hanafuda cards currently available

The best-quality hanafuda ( 花札 ) cards (and the most expensive) are Japanese and made of pasteboard (board made by laminating together thinner sheets of paper with glue) and are considerably thicker than standard Western playing cards; they will crack, rather than bend, if flexed to any degree. To protect the edges of the cards and prevent them delaminating with use, they are backed with plain-coloured paper (either black or brick-red). This paper is wrapped around the edges of the card and overlaps the front face by a couple of millimetres thus both sealing the edges and providing a border to the design on the front. The cards are supplied in a plastic box which acts as a storage container. There are usually one or two spare cards included in case of loss or damage (in modern times, these are either blanks, a manufacturer's title card or date card, or (in the case of Angel's popular "Genroku" or "Chidori" packs) a special extra March ribbon card with the text "sample card".) Sometimes these spares contain figures from Japanese legends, such as the super-human "man-child" Kintarō. A few games intrinsically use one of these extra cards.
This pasteboard style of cards, which are the most traditional and are favoured due to the distinctive "slapping" noise they make during enthusiastic play, have little protection against dirt or wear, since they are only paper (and without the plastic coating that you tend to get on Western playing cards). Hence, I would not recommend them for heavy amounts of play or that involving younger children, especially as the price outside Japan (giving the shipping involved) can be quite steep.
This style of hanafuda are made these days largely by just three Japanese companies: Nintendo, Angel, and Ohishi-Tengudo. [Though there are a couple of other companies whose current participation in the hanafuda marketplace seems to be marginal or uncertain. For example, new "Manten" ( 満点 , meaning "Perfect Score") decks from Tamura Shōgundō pop up here and there.] Each make the cards under a number of different sub-brands, representing slightly different qualities of construction.
Click on the pictures below as you read for a closer look.

Japanese pasteboard style - the big three:

Nintendo's current hanafuda packs
Nintendo ( 任天堂 ) currently make their hanafuda cards under three sub-brands/qualities, as shown in the pictures above (in earlier times there were more – a catalogue of 1983 shows six, for example). Their premium type (the first two packs) is called "Daitōryō" ( 大統領 , meaning "President") and carries a likeness of Napoleon on the box. As with most (if not all) of the traditional Japanese hanafuda, these cards are available with either black ( 黒 , "kuro") or brick-red ( 赤 , "aka") backs and borders – which you prefer is simply up to you, though the black versions are usually a bit easier to find outside Japan. [At one time, hanafuda were usually sold in double boxes, containing both a black deck and a red deck, but this is no longer the case.]
Going down the range, the next quality is called "Tengu" or "Marufuku Tengu" ( 天狗 or 丸福天狗 ). Tengu is a half-man, half-beast supernatural being found in Japanese folklore, and his bright-red face is featured on a box of these cards (third picture). Be sure not to confuse this deck with those made by Ohishi-Tengudo (see below), who use a very similar design (but this time of a tengu mask without a beard) as a company logo.
Nintendo's entry-level hanafuda offering is seen in the last two decks. This is known as "Miyako no Hana" ( 都の花 ) which means "City Flowers" or "Capital Flowers". For some reason, Nintendo also market this in alternative packaging (the greenish label), this time calling it "Chiyozakura" ( 千代桜 ) meaning "Thousand-year Cherry Blossom". This latter variant is mostly seen in convenience stores in Japan and an online buyer will probably not come across it.
Having outlined these three sub-brands/qualities of deck ("Daitōryō", "Tengu", and "Miyako no Hana"), it must be fairly said that the differences between the three are slight – even the manufacturers admit you would probably need a side-by-side comparison to differentiate them! The benefits as you ascend the range are said to be better-quality paper and a better dirt-repulsing finish on the front side.

Japanese pasteboard style - the big three:

Angel's current hanafuda packs
The premium deck from Angel ( エンゼル ) is called "Genroku" ( 元禄 , the era between 1688 and 1704). The portrait on the box is presumably Emperor Higashiyama, who ruled during this time. This deck is shown in the first picture.
Their long-standing alternative deck (second picture) is "Chidori" ( 千鳥 , which either means "A Thousand Birds" or "Plover" depending on your translation). Somebody, somewhere, seems to think the white triangular animals (are they birds or maybe angelfish?) on the box look like dog's teeth, hence the alternate designation "Houndstooth".
The last deck seems to be a relative newcomer (or is it old stock?), and quite where it fits into Angel's range, I don't know (an enquiry about this to Angel produced no fruit). However, the packaging indicates the cards at least have the sealed, overlapped edges. A post on Reddit's hanafuda forum says this deck is the same quality as "Chidori".

Japanese pasteboard style - the big three:

Ohishi-Tengudo's Oishi-Tengudo's current hanafuda packs
Ohishi-Tengudo ( 大石天狗堂 ) (not to be confused with Matsui Tengudō, a different card manufacturer who closed in 2010) do four sub-brands/qualities. The best is "Kintengu" ( 金天狗 , "Gold Tengu"). Then follows "Gintengu" ( 銀天狗 , "Silver Tengu"). After that, it's "Lincoln" ( リンカーン ), with a picture of the US president on the front. Last, is "Shiki" or "Four Seasons" ( 四季 , which is possibly now discontinued as it is no longer for sale on the company's website). Unlike the others here, the "Shiki" cards are simply guillotined without being bound at the edges, similar to the cheaper decks mentioned in the next section.
Ohishi-Tengudo's decks often seen to have a slight convex bow to them (see the picture above). This is something to do with their manufacturing process and is legitimate.
Please be aware that the two tengu-mask offerings here are easily confused with the Ninetendo pack with similar packaging detailed in the Nintendo section above. Also note that, if the deck you are looking at sports the tengu mask, as here, but the deck is in a wooden box (rather than plastic) and seems expensive, you are probably looking at one of Ohishi-Tengudo's collectors' editions of a defunct hanafuda design.
Please also be aware when searching that the romanized version of the company's name varies a bit: the official version is given here, but it often ends up as "Ooishi Tengudo" or "Ōishi Tengudō" or "Oishi Tengudo" (without the first "h" and as deemed to be "correct" by Wikipedia).

Cheaper Japanese sets

Current cheaper hanafuda packs
These are the cheaper Japanese sets of hanafuda. They may be of use where players are young children or when frequent use may need a deck to be replaced repeatedly. The cards here are not bound pasteboard like their more expensive counterparts but are usually simply cut/guillotined card (see the stack in first picture). The backs and borders are a printed black. The storage boxes are thin card rather than plastic.
Above, you can see what currently seem to be the three commonest makes of this style of cards. First is a pack made by Motobayashi (aka Motto100yen). The second deck is made by Nippon Pearl Processing.
The last (on the right) is sold through the 100-yen chain store, Daiso. (100-yen stores are vaguely the equivalent of five-and-dime or dollar stores in the USA, or pound shops in the UK.) Daiso have offered other decks in recent times: the one on the left in this smaller image had/has cards in the cut/guillotined style, as per the other makes in this section; the deck on the right had/has cards made in the Korean fashion (plastic with red borders) but with pictorial adjustments to bring them closer to the standard Japanese pattern.
Note that the "Shiki" offering in the Ohishi-Tengudo section effectively belongs here since it is simply guillotined card.

Korean style

Example current Korean hanafuda hwatu pack
A Korean deck ( 화투 ) is the most inexpensive hanafuda you can buy and, ironically, by far the sturdiest. These decks are made completely of plastic and so are wipe-cleanable (and probably completely washable, though I haven't tried!) They usually have red (occasionally blue) backs and borders, with the back also being textured and anti-slip, as shown in the second picture. The typical storage box (often rather brittle) is as shown in the first picture. The only really significant pictorial difference from Japanese hanafuda is that the brights/lights have a useful distinguing symbol on the front ( 光 ). (The main page, near the bottom, lists a few other differences of the Korean design.) The cards go under the romanized Korean names: Hwatu, Hwa-tu or Hwatoo, or, in Korean characters, 화투 . It is also worth searching for "Gostop".
The example deck shown here is branded Sunrise, though many, many other makes are available (another is shown on the main page). Packs usually come with six jokers and a couple of the regular cards have the maker's name or logo included (these are all shown above).

Where to buy

Other than in Japan, Korea or Hawaii, you are unlikely to find a hanafuda deck in a regular shop/store on the street. People outside those countries will almost certainly have to turn to the Internet. But please do shop around for the best prices online before you buy. Before you start looking, it might be useful to price up what you want (including shipping) on the Japanese Amazon (amazon.co.jp) and then use this price as a baseline guide when searching elsewhere. The principal ports of call for international buyers are probably the following, in the order given:
  1. Your local Ebay. As with all the sources in this list, watch out for inflated shipping charges (a common way of sellers bumping up prices, sometimes to a ludicrous degree).
  2. Your own country's Amazon.
  3. The US amazon.com will deliver internationally most of the items they stock. You can also get Hawaiian-themed decks here.
  4. You can also order your cards from their home country of Japan. Several well-established Japanese shopping sites (notably amazon.co.jp and zenplus.jp) offer shopping in English.
  5. If you are brave, another huge Japanese online presence is rakuten.co.jp, but you will have to navigate their site in Japanese to use that. Hanafuda in Japanese characters is 花札 (you can copy-paste that, or any of the other Japanese designations, from here).
  6. A final site worth mentioning is the Chinese mega-site aliexpress.com (which has an English interface). They sell the Korean-style plastic packs very cheaply, but delivery can be very slow if you pick the cheapest shipping option. There are also very good new-customer discounts.
As I said, on all these sites, please be careful of the prices you are being asked. As a very rough guide, at the time of writing (late 2021), for one of the pasteboard Japanese packs (Nintendo, Angel etc.), I would be looking at a price (including shipping) of somewhere around £20-£22 (pay over £30 and you are definitely paying too much). For one of the Korean plastic decks, I would expect to pay something around £10-£12 (having said that, I have just seen a "sale" price of £4.50, including shipping). These prices are for the UK – other countries may/will vary.
Aside from hiked prices, there are a few other "gotchas" for prospective hanafuda buyers:
  1. Kabufuda versus hanafuda. In Japan, a different deck of similarly sized cards called kabufuda is often sold in almost identical packaging to hanafuda. (You can recognise the cards themselves by the graphics, which look like thick black sergeant's stripes.) It is extremely easy to accidentally order a set of kabufuda by mistake. Kabufuda don't pop up on shopping sites outside of Japan too often, but you will see them on the Japanese Amazon, for example. Kabufuda in Japanese is 株札 – note the different first character from hanafuda ( 花札 ). Check both the description and packshot picture for the correct text. You have been warned!
  2. Black ( 黒 , "kuro") versus red ( 赤 , "aka"). Make sure you get the colour you want. Again, the boxes and packaging of both colours are similar. The cheaper (i.e. non-pasteboard) Japanese decks will only be available in black; Korean decks likely only in red.
  3. Unless you want one, make sure you are not ordering a novelty deck (e.g. Super Mario Hanafuda or Hello Kitty Hanafuda etc.) in lieu of a traditional deck. The novelty decks are actually more difficult to use for play as the extra elements to the graphics can make matching confusing.
  4. You might find occasional references to "insect" or "bug" hanafuda packs. These are packs lacking two suits (i.e. eight cards) and are used for playing a game called mushi (aka "honeymoon hanafuda"). A beginner will probably not want one of these.
  5. In Korean decks, the only things really different and collectible between the various brands are the jokers. If you want a particular set of jokers, check with the seller that you will receive the exact brand of deck pictured (there is a fondness for using generic photos).
  6. As usual with buying anything from abroad, to prevent a nasty surprise, be aware of whatever import taxes, duties or handling fees may be applicable.


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Original text portions of this site copyright © Steve Phillips 2020-23. All rights reserved.

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