Do you know the game memory? At least that’s what it’s called in Austria: you have pairs of cards with the same image, they are placed face down on a table and each player may only turn two cards – if they are the same, he may keep them.
The kai awase or shell matching game is an ancient Japanese game that is very similar. It is based on the fact that sea shells consist of two halves which show the same pattern on both halves that fit together perfectly.
Starting from there, playing kai awase is simple: You place the shell halves in front of you and search for the two that belong together. You can check that by simply putting the halves together and see if they fit. If they do, you win, if they don’t, it’s somebody else’s turn.
So far, so boring. What is interesting about this game is that the insides of the shells are painted. They usually show a typical Japanese scene taken from a well-known story, or images of hanami, temples etc. The images in one shell are never identical, but show to images that go together in some way. For example, there is a couple at hanami: one shell shows the woman, the other the man under blooming cherry trees. Those miniatures are lovely – and you may only look at them if the shells you picked are matching ones. This is your reward for winning the kai awase.
Kai awase dates back to the Heian court of 1000 years ago. Since this was a game for court ladies, I wonder if the miniatures on the inside of the shells played any additional role. I could imagine for example, that once you found a matching shell, you had to tell the story that goes with the images – or maybe make up a new one. Of course, there are no original shells around any longer (or at least I doubt it very much), but even today you can buy kai awase sets in Kyoto, as a high-class (and high-priced), but very beautiful souvenir.