By Michelle SchmidtAs the school bell rings, they come pouring out of backpacks and coat pockets, into the hands of kids heading home from school.
Without question, kendamas are hot. But unlike most things that fall in that category, they don’t require batteries or a lifetime of upgrades.
The simple wooden toy is shaped like a hammer with wooden ball attached by a string (learn the parts with our guide below). You play with the kendama by learning tricks, various ways of getting the ball to balance and interact with the different cups and points on the handle.
The kendama isn’t anything new, not by a long shot. You could argue the basic game has appeared in some form in most cultures for hundreds of years. But the kendama, in its current popular style, was patented in Japan in 1919, according to kendama.org, and has been a cultural staple there since.
The toy could be found at gift and hobby shops in the area for some time. But hardly anyone paid it any attention until around a year and half ago. Suddenly, everyone had to have one, and by now it seems everyone must. But they don’t. Sales at these shops have held strong. Outdoors stores have begun carrying them, and they’ll soon be available even at Clarkston’s Walmart. Kendamas range in price from $10 to $25.
So, is it hard to learn kendama tricks?
“Yeah, when you first get it, it is,” said Matthew Dill, an 11-year-old at McSorley Elementary School in Lewiston.
Dill, the son of Hollie Highly of Lewiston, received his kendama about a month ago for his birthday. The tricks that were tough those first few days no longer are. He says this with kendama in hand, the ball clack-clack-clacking against the handle as he swings and catches it on various points. He rattles off the names of tricks — birdies and banks and one that involves swinging it upside-down so quickly the ball doesn’t have time to drop off. He learns the tricks at recess from fellow aficionados.
Plenty of kids have a kendama of their own and play regularly at recess and before and after school. With consequences for toys that appear at school outside those times, they aren’t generally a distraction; some local schools are so kendama-friendly they hold competitions outside class time.
Kendamas are an individual toy, but can easily be played socially. Dill describes one such game at McSorley called “KEN” — it is like HORSE or PIG in basketball, he explains, in which one competitor performs a trick and if the next person in line can’t follow suit, they get a letter. After getting K-E-N, they’re out.
The toy can be played sitting at home on the couch for hours — well, perhaps not sitting. One of the keys to kendama success is using the knees — bending them at the appropriate degree and time — to assist in the catch and balance of the ball or handle.
But hourslong sessions aren’t necessarily the norm. Says Dill, kendamas are ideal for killing time — like when you’re waiting for the bell to ring or for the bus to arrive.
“Caleb says I’m addicted,” he says, nodding toward a nearby friend.
He says it’s only because Caleb wants a turn; he doesn’t yet have a kendama of his own. But clearly the game has an addictive quality, like all repetitive skill-building games that provide a sense of reward (or accolades) at the perfect execution of a new trick (see our guide to tricks below). Their compact, quick-access design only makes the addiction easier.
Kids might have increased the game’s popularity, but they’re not the only ones who are enjoying it. People of all ages have caught onto the kendama craze — there are even U.S. pro teams that compete.
As if kids need more to inspire them to spend time on their kendamas.
Anatomy of a kendama
Center cup at the base of the ken (chuuzara)
Small cup (kozara)
Big cup (oozara)
Popular Kendama Tricks
Kendama tricks are easy … once you’ve mastered them. Grab your kendama and see if you can replicate these sequential catches.
Big Cup/Small Cup: Hold the kendama so the spike points away from you and the ball hangs down from it. Pull the ball up and move the kendama underneath to catch the ball in the big (or small) cup. (This is a beginner trick.)
Spike: Hold the kendama so the spike points away from you and the ball hangs down from it. Pull the ball up and move the kendama up and underneath to catch the ball on the spike. (Another beginner trick.)
Frying pan: Hold the kendama so spike is pointing away from you and ball is hanging down. Pull up the ball so it lands balanced between the cups and spike.
Bird: Hold the kendama so the spike is tilted away from you at a 45-degree angle, with your thumb in the big cup. With the ball hanging down, pull it up so it is balanced between the spike and big cup. The hole of the ball “grabs” onto the big cup.
Around Japan: With the ball hanging down, perform the following tricks in this sequence — big cup, small cup and spike.
Airplane: Hold the ball with the hole facing down and handle swinging below it — the opposite of the standard hold. Pull up on the ball to swing the handle into the air. Rotate the hole upward and land the spike into the hole in the ball.
Ken Flip: Catch the ball on a cup, then flip the kendama in the air and catch the handle while landing the ball on any cup or spike.
Schmidt can be contacted at email@example.com or at (208) 305-4578.