Stacy Lee
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Overall, our sources of entertainment have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. Food being a great source of comfort coupled with binge-watching movies and TV shows on Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, YouTube TV, Viki and others has become evident in our expanding waistlines. 

For those with kids (and adults), there might have been “some” gaming — Animal Crossing, Roblox, Minecraft and PUBG? 

With Christmas and New Year’s Day quickly approaching, it might be fun to look at some non-blue-light entertainment to be enjoyed with family or friends at home or outdoors — particularly Japanese toys. Some are traditional, some are contemporary, but many would make great gifts or stocking stuffers. 


When you mix clam shells, classical Japanese poetry, and Portuguese cards, what do you get? The answer is one of Japan’s oldest and most traditional Oshogatsu games, karuta, or Japanese cards. 

Uta-garuta are “poem cards.” For this type of karuta, 200 cards are divided into two sets, with each containing 100 waka, or “Japanese poems.” One set of cards is for reading, while the other is for players to grab. (Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/

Karuta evolved from two sources. Its first influence came from a game played with clamshells during the Heian Period (794-1185) called kaiawase, a shell matching game. For this game, artists painted the inside of clam or oyster shells with poetry and matching scenes that reflected the poem. Participants laid out the shells face down. Players would race to match the most shells with the matching poem and scene.

The second influence for karuta came from 15th century Portuguese sailors to Japan. Besides the matchlock firearm, these sailors introduced Japanese samurai to European playing cards known as carta. The name eventually became “karuta” in Japanese. By the Edo Period (1600-1867), karuta became a firmly established game combining the fun of Heian kaiawase with the portable paper used to manufacture Portuguese carta. 

The Japanese enjoy many types of karuta. However, the two most common games are Uta-garuta and Iroha-karuta. Uta-garuta are “poem cards.” For this type of karuta, 200 cards are divided into two sets, with each containing 100 waka, or “Japanese poems.” One set of cards is for reading, while the other is for players to grab. 

Hyakunin Isshu, the most well-known uta-garuta, are the traditional cards that have been played in Japan since the Edo Period. An excellent game for those who love literature, the standard Hyakunin Isshu set consists of cards that feature 100 classical Japanese poems written by 100 poets from the 7th through 13th century. This game is a perennial favorite pastime for many during Japan’s Oshogatsu (New Year’s holiday). There have been international karuta competitions held since 2012.

Girls playing karuta, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library’s Digital Library)

Iroha-karuta, on the other hand, is a type of karuta game that is enjoyed more by children. Since this card game is not based on classical poetry, but rather the 48 hiragana (a Japanese lettering system) “syllables.” It is played in many schools in Japan.

With a smaller number of cards than uta-garuta, 96, this set of cards is divided into two sets of 48. Iroha Karuta features proverbs rather than poetry. “Iroha” refers to the specific kana ordering based on a particular Japanese poem that uses each kana once. A fun way for children to learn hiragana and proverbs, this game would make a unique gift for those studying Japanese. 

Beigoma and Beyblade

While beigoma may not be included in many children’s letters to Santa today, Beyblade might. Beyblade is the hugely popular line of spinning top toys invented by Takao Aoki and manufactured by the toy company Takara Tomy. American company Hasbro also licenses the toy. 

Beyblade is a spinning top that first debuted in 1999 in Japan. It even has an animated series that was created to go along with the trendy toy. Popular throughout many countries globally, Beyblade owes its creation to a more traditional Japanese top, the beigoma top. Probably entering Japan through China, koma, wooden tops date back to the Kamakura Period (1185-1333).

These tops further evolved during the later Edo Period, and Edo artisans constructed beigoma tops by filling spiral whelk seashells with sand or clay and then sealed the shell using wax. Later the beigoma top was made from cast iron. 

Beigoma remained popular in Japan through the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, beigoma makers etched the names of baseball and sumo wrestlers on the toy. 

Edo artisans constructed beigoma tops by filling spiral whelk seashells with sand or clay and then sealed the shell using wax. Later the beigoma top was made from cast iron.

When steel was at a premium during World War II, manufacturers created beigoma from porcelain or glass. Traditional beigoma is a mere 1.18” diameter and is decorated with hiragana or kanji at the top. The game using beigoma is played by a minimum of two players, each trying to either knock the other player’s top off the playing surface or make their top spin the longest. 

Beigoma is often played on a canvas sheet stretched over a bucket. Players wind a cord, which is about 24” long, around their beigoma and then launch them onto the playing surface. Many beigoma enthusiasts alter their tops by adding wax to or filing down specific areas to be more competitive. 

Are you thinking of getting a beigoma as a stocking stuffer? Santa may have put his elves to work as there is only one beigoma factory left in Japan, Nissan Chuzousho, Ltd, located in Kawaguchi City in Saitama Prefecture. 


“Go fly a kite” doesn’t have the negative connotation today as it did in the past. It’s one of the healthier activities one can engage in during the pandemic. For this reason, sales of kites have spiked in Japan since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Tako, or kites, have been around in Japan for quite a while, entering Japan from China during Japan’s Nara period in the 8th century. At the time, kites, which Buddhist monks probably brought, may have been used in religious festivals. Later, during the Heian Period, aristocrats in the capital of Heian-kyö (present-day Kyöto) occupied their leisure time by writing poetry or playing the kaiawase game and flying kites. 

Some flew kites to appease the gods or pray for good harvests and good health. Later, kites enjoyed their height of popularity amongst the people of Edo (present-day Tökyö) during the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, the Tokugawa Shogunate began the policy of seclusion. Closing Japan off from the rest of the world allowed the country to enjoy a time of peace for some 200 years.

Samurai, who did not have to battle, and townspeople now enjoyed many leisurely activities like flying kites. Kites became so prevalent amongst the townspeople that a Tokugawa shogun of the Edo Period banned kite flying as it occupied too much time. Another reason for prohibiting kite flying was related to kite battles. During kite battles, participants’ kites fell on the traveling samurai or daimyo — not a good thing at the time, given that samurai had the right to kill anyone at any time. Due to the disturbances caused by kites, the shogun only permitted kite flying during the Oshogatsu holidays, which is perhaps why kite flying is associated with the Oshogatsu as well as Boys Day in May.

Traditionally constructed from washi (Japanese paper) and bamboo, there are various kites throughout Japan. They differ in shape, size, construction and color. Kites had many shapes, such as hexagons or rectangles, and were painted with various illustrations. These attractive and colorful illustrations are influenced by Edo-era ukiyoe prints and feature kabuki characters and samurai subjects. Others feature Daruma, the seven gods of good luck, sumö wrestlers or animals such as the crane or carp which symbolize virtues such as longevity, strength and courage. 

Tako, or “kite” in Japanese, were flown to appease the gods or pray for good harvests and good health. They later became popular amongst the people of Edo (present-day Tökyö) during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Far from being just an average toy for children, kites focus on many annual festivals in Japan. The most popular is the Hamamatsu and Shirone Kite Festivals. The Hamamatsu Festival is a three-day event in May with roots in the 16th century at Hamamatsu Castle. The tradition of kite fights takes place at this festival and includes kite battles. Battle kites have strings that are lined with powdered glass. Participants battle to sever each other’s kite strings to bring their opponent’s kites. Shirone’s festival battle features giant kites or ödako that are huge at 23 feet by 16.5 feet and need 40-50 people to fly. While it would be pretty impossible for Santa to fit one of these on his sleigh, perhaps a more traditional kite would make a fun gift to play with during the new year.


A tiny plate of plastic sashimi, a haniwa figure eraser, plastic poop characters, a plastic garbage can, a cat with an octopus on its head, a plastic dried stingray, or, wait for it … underwear for drink bottles? What about real underwear? These are not exactly what one would consider “Christmassy” toys … but, they are trendy in Japan recently. 

These miniature plastic toys are what one lucky (or unlucky) person can obtain from a gashapon machine in Japan. Gashapon or gachapon refers to the toy-capsule vending machines and the toys that pop out of them. These machines are not like the large drink and food dispensing machines found on nearly every corner of Japan; these are more like the small gumball/toy machines in the U.S. Rather than 75 cents or a dollar for American capsule toys, however, think more like 100-500 yen or more. The name “Gashapon” is derived from two Japanese onomatopoeic words, “gasha,” the sound created by cranking the dial of the vending machine, while “pon” is the sound of the toy capsule falling. Collecting the capsule toys is not just for children. As a recent article in the New York Times points out, many adults, especially women, purchase gashapon toys ( 

Gashapon shop in Akihabara, Tökyö, Japan.

There are even mature-themed gashapon toys that are strictly for adults. Although many toys are licensed characters from manga, anime or video games, the toys can be virtually anything — animals, historical figures, everyday items like air conditioners, kitchenware, food items, models of offices or stores and more. And some of these miniature plastic toys are limited edition collectors’ items that can be found on online auction sites for hundreds of dollars. 

Like with many other aspects of Japanese culture, gashapon machines have followed the adopt, adapt, adept pattern, which refers to the Japanese adopting something from another culture, adapting it to their own culture and then becoming adept at it and making it their own. 

Kanji is one example, as is Buddhism and baseball. With gashapon it is the American capsule vending machine brought to Japan in the 1960s. Ryuzo Shigeta, known as the “Grandfather of Gashapon,” put toys in plastic capsules and set up the first machine outside his shop in Tökyö. Today, gashapon can be found just about anywhere in Japan at airports, train stations, and stores, including the world’s largest gashapon store and Bandai Namco’s Gashapon Department store in Tökyö’s Ikebukuro, which houses 3,000 gashapon machines. Small enough to fit in a Christmas stocking, these miniature toys would make unique stocking stuffers.

Unfortunately, with the shuttering of Shirokiya’s Japan Village Walk, gashapon machines that thrilled many children here locally are no longer available. Santa may need some help from Amazon, which has a couple of facsimiles of gachapon machines and toys.


Around World War II, azuki beans weren’t just for shave ice and filling mochi. The beans formed the filling for bean bags used in the game of otedama, a traditional Japanese bean bag game. The bean bags are called ojami and in the past were sewn with scraps of cloth, even silk from kimono, and filled with pebbles, beans, buckwheat husk, walnut shells, rice or even azuki beans. During World War II, when food grew scarce, mothers emptied the contents of these bean bags to feed their children. The bean bags come in different shapes, such as fish, fruit, pillows or balls. 

Combining the skills of western jacks and juggling, the game of otedama uses either five, seven or nine bean bags. There are two primary forms of otedama. Nagedama resembles juggling, while Yosedama is more like a game of western jacks. The basic game involves a player sitting on the ground with the bean bags in front of them. One bag is tossed in the air using one hand, and with the same hand, the player picks up another bag and then catches the first one. Play continues until all five bags are picked up. As the rounds advance, the requirements to continue to get progressively more difficult and can even include tossing all five bags up in the air and then catching them on the back of the hand. Various ways of play and names existed depending on Japan’s region, and children often sang particular songs while playing.

The game of otedama is a traditional Japanese bean bag game. The bean bags are called ojami and were sewn with scraps of cloth and filled with pebbles, beans, buckwheat husk, walnut shells, rice or azuki beans.

As for otedama’s history, it is speculated that the first bean bag game was invented by the Lydians around the 5th century BC. From there, it spread to Greece and eventually to India and China by means of the Silk Road. When it entered Japan during the Nara Period (710-814), participants used pebbles or crystals to play it. Japan’s famed Prince Shotoku, regent in the Asuka Period (538-710), owned a game’s predecessor called “Ishina Otedama.” His collection of crystals is called Ishinatoridama and can be found today at the Tökyö Metropolitan Museum.” The artifact includes 16 crystal balls, amber and beans. During these early stages, the game was known by names such as “Ishinago” or “Ishinango” and was played using pebbles. Children during the Kamakura Period played the game, known then as Hifu. During the Edo Period, people began to use bean bags filled with small pebbles. Eventually, they replaced pebbles with beans. The game continued to be played up to the post-World War II period because, even though toys were scarce, bean bags were easy to create, and thus children continued to play otedama. The game is not as popular now as it was in the past; however, the tradition is sometimes still passed down from mothers and grandmothers to their daughters. September 20 is Otedama Day in Japan and is particularly popular in Niihama City in Ehime Prefecture. In 1992, a large otedama tournament was held for the first time. With the availability of instructional videos on YouTube, ojami can be easily made for a child’s Christmas stocking. 

Today most popular toys in Japan involve or are linked to technology, manga and anime. Nintendo Switch or toys associated with the hugely popular anime, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” are some of the most sought-after items. The list of cool Japanese toys not covered here is endless. There are more traditional ones like daruma otoshi or the well-known kendama. There are fun, contemporary ones such as the creative Poppin Cookin sets, Tamagotchi or Gundam model kits. However, while these may undoubtedly be more edgy, exciting and fast-moving, it’s sometimes nice to take a break with simplicity. Not requiring a battery or a charger, these toys and games allow one to practice agility, dexterity, perseverance, and a way to connect with the past.

Unique and steeped in tradition, many Japanese toys offer a welcome break from screen time. Do Japan’s pandemic restrictions prevent even Santa from entering the country?

Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Söseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tökyö to a traditional onsen inn in Kanazawa and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.


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