The basic idea of any karuta game is to be able to quickly determine which card out of an array of cards is required and then to grab the card before it is grabbed by an opponent. There are various types of cards which can be used to play karuta. It is also possible to play this game using two standard decks of playing cards.
There are two kinds of cards used in karuta. One kind is yomifuda (読札) or "reading cards", and the other is torifuda (取り札) or "grabbing cards." As they were denoted, the words in the yomifuda are read and players will have to find its associated torifuda before anybody else does.
The two types of karuta cards that are most often seen are the "uta-garuta" and "iroha-garuta".
In "uta-garuta", players try to find the last two lines of a tanka given the first three lines. It is often possible to identify a poem by its first one or two syllables. The poems for this game are taken from the Hyakunin Isshu and are traditionally played on New Year's Day.
Anyone who can read hiragana can play "iroha-garuta" (いろはがるた). In this type, a typical torifuda features a drawing with a kana at one corner of the card. Its corresponding yomifuda features a proverb connected to the picture with the first syllable being the kana displayed on the torifuda.
Karuta is often played by children at elementary school and junior high-school level during class, as an educational exercise. Although several kinds of Karuta games are described below, in reality any kind of information that can be represented in card form can be used - including shapes, colours, words in English, small pictures and the like.
Obake karuta is a Japanese card game. The game was created in the Edo period and remained popular through the 1910s or 1920s. Each playing card in the deck features a character from the hiragana syllabary and a creature from Japanese mythology; in fact, obake karuta means ghost cards or monster cards. Success requires knowledge of Japanese mythology and folklore as players attempt to collect cards that match clues read by a referee. The player who accumulates the most cards by the end of the game wins.
Obake karuta is an early example of the common Japanese fascination with classifying monsters and creating new ones. The game is one of the earliest attempts by Japanese companies to categorize legendary creatures, label them, define them, and subsequently market them. As such, it is a precursor to the Godzilla films of the 1950s and later. Even more closely, obake karuta resembles the Pokémon Trading Card Game, which also involves collecting cards that represent fabulous creatures. In fact, many Pokémon were designed specifically after creatures from Japanese mythology.