Japanese card game gets local twist


She’s a powerhouse and most anyone who meets her feels compelled to join in.

Helen Nakano, 81, is one-third of the multi-generational team behind a card game with a local twist.

Hanafuda, or “flower cards” in Japanese, is a popular game in Japan.

Penny Hazzard, who’s been playing Hanafuda for eight years, says it “keeps my mind active.” 

Henry Tagami, 89, is a life-long player. “It’s a lot of fun. Nothing for do anyway. If I stay home, I’d be sleeping,” he said.

But look closely and you know you’re in Hawaii. The cards, which depict kalo and ulu, are known as Hanafuda Hawaii style.

Brenden Bliss is a beginner in Hanafuda and explained: “I’m not as familiar with some of the card designations from Japan, so it’s a little easier in that respect.”

Duke Alamillo is 8 years old and knows the game well. “I like the Hawaiian style better than the Japanese,” he said, “because I have a favorite flower in the Hawaiian one (ohia lehua).”

Nakano oversees the Hanafuda poai, a free two-hour gathering every Thursday at Na Kupuna Makamae Center in Kakaako.

Several years ago, she decided that instead of giving her then 5-year-old granddaughter a toy, she’d teach her Hanafuda as a way to connect. 

She wrote a book and took her teachings to schools too, and that’s when she decided to make it Hawaii style.

“That idea about local kids having a connection with local plants, and then I became a docent at the Manoa Heritage Center and I learned about endemic and indigenous plants, and I said you know what? They’re all endangered and we need to let the kids know that they need to protect all the native plants,” Nakano explained.

Her son designed the cards, which turned into one of many projects Nakano pours her heart into.

Disaster preparedness is another. Nakano is a member of the group Be Ready Manoa, and is preparing for the upcoming Urban Survival Fair at Manoa Valley District Park on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We need to think about it, have a plan, and get everybody as educated as possible,” she said.

Everything Nakano does has a purpose, including bringing generations a little closer.

“If I teach the younger generation about what precious heritage they have, then I’ll be doing my job,” she said.

That includes her granddaughter.

“Some day when she does my eulogy, she’s gonna remember Hanafuda and she’s gonna say that is what kept the connection between her and me,” Nakano said with a laugh. “I’m forward thinking.”

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