How To Play Hanafuda (Koi Koi)

by Krystina Quintana

Hanafuda cards are a large part of Japanese culture, originating in the Heian era. You may have seen these cards featured in Japanese films and may be creatively sported as earrings. But what do the cards mean and how are you supposed to play it? Continue reading as we dive into this centuries-old traditional Japanese card game.

What is Hanafuda?

Many Japanese hanafuda cards laid against a white background

Hanafuda are foreign playing cards that can be used for various games, like Koi Koi. These Japanese playing cards were created to help citizens get around gambling bans in the 17th century. Hanfuda cards are inspired by mono-awase, a game for the rich to compare objects. 

After mono-awase, kai-awase became popular. This version of the game used gilded shells instead of random objects. These gambling games eventually became Hanfuda cards, which feature images of kai-awase and hana-awase (flower comparison). 

Because of its association with gambling, Japan banned the Hanafuda deck and all card decks (including Western playing cards) in the late 1700s. It took about 100 years for Japan to lift this ban on the flower card game (and other decks). Once the Hanafuda card stopped being associated with illegal gambling, it started turning into a family-friendly game.

What are the Hanafuda Cards?

These beautiful flower cards are split into suits, like the Western-style playing card. However, these Japanese playing cards only have twelve suits that represent each month of the year. Each suit has four cards, with 2-3 cards being "junk" cards, aka kasu. These junk cards are only worth one point each. 

The remaining cards are split into tan, red ribbon or purple ribbon cards, and tane, aka the animal card. Both card types have higher point values than kasu. There is one last type of card – the Hikarifuda. These special cards are worth more points in Japanese card games.

The below sections focus on how to play Hanafuda, specifically, how to play the koi koi card game (the most popular Hanfuda game). 

What is the objective of the game?

To put it simply, the objective of Hanafuda is to gain the most points at the end of 6-12 rounds. When playing koi koi, each player must match cards from a specific category in a specific order. This game is intended for two players. It's a game of wit, strategy, and risk-taking.

How to deal the cards?

The first step in learning how to play Hanafuda is deciding who the “parent” is in the game. The parent will lead each round. Start by taking a card from the draw pile. Whoever has the earliest month will lead the game as the dealer.

Once that's decided, the dealer will place eight playing cards face down in front of each player. Then, four cards are placed face up in front of each player. The remaining card section is set off to the side face down. Now, you're ready for gameplay.

How to play the game?

Hanafuda has five steps that repeat through each of the rounds.

1. Hand Matching

The dealer starts by taking a card from their “hand” and placing it face up to see if there are any matches. When a match occurs, the card will be placed on top. If no match happens, the card is left in play.

2. Deck Matching

Next, the dealer will draw from the pile and see if there are any matches. If yes, they’ll place the card on top. If not, the card is left in play.

3. Capturing

The dealer will take any matches off the board at this point in the game. 

4. Checking for Yaku

Then, the dealer checks for yaku (matching sets). If there are no matching sets, the other player starts with step one.

5. Saying Koi Koi or Shobu

If one of the players has yaku, they can call koi koi to keep the game going. Or, they can call shobu, which ends the round.

Game Rules

When learning how to play Hanafuda, you’ll need to understand the game rules. Below are a few rules that should be followed when counting points.

  1. If the opponent of the player who said koi koi has higher points, they win, and the person who called koi koi receives no points for the round.
  2. You can use additional animal, ribbon, or plain cards to upgrade your yaku, as long as they belong to the correct month.
  3. When playing a yaku with bright cards, you only win points from the highest yaku. 


Each combination of cards yields a different number of points. Once one player decides the round is over, they call Game. They’ll get a score for the number of yaku they have. The other player does not score any points, even if they have yaku.

If there is an instance where players run out of cards, the round is automatically over. Whoever has the highest number of points wins the round. If there is a tie, the dealer wins.

One other option can happen during gameplay – neither player has any matches. When this happens, the dealer automatically wins and scores six points.

The Yaku Combinations

There are 14 card combinations (known as yaku combinations) that can be played during the Hanafuda game to earn a point (or multiple points). These yaku combinations are easy to memorize after you play the game a few times. Most combinations include matching similar cards. For example, you can earn 10 points if you match ten junk cards. Using the ribbon card, you can also gain points in this matching card game with three of a kind.

There's also a wild card, the sake cup, which can add 10 or 1 point to a player’s hand, depending on preference.

Make your Hanafuda games more official by enjoying some of the best Japanese snacks from Bokksu between rounds. If you're unsure what to order, try the Mystery Bundle or Japanese Subscription Box. These boxes include delicious sweet and savory snacks that help you learn more about the Japanese lifestyle as you munch on them. 

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Author Bio

Krystina Quintana is a 29-year-old copywriter living outside of Chicago, IL. Her passion for Asian culture began at a young age as she learned to create Asian-inspired recipes like homemade sushi with her family. This interest in Asian culture continues today with time spent in the kitchen and copywriting pursuits. Krystina has worked with customers ranging from small businesses to food Youtubers with 70,000+ subscribers. With a passion for food and travel, she seeks to help businesses bring traffic to their page by writing blog posts that are engaging, informative, and fun to read.