No Video, No Screen, No Buttons … Is the Kendama Craze Here to Stay?

Is your town in the middle of a kendama craze? If not, it’s probably headed your way. For the uninitiated, a kendama looks a lot like the wooden ball and cup (attached with string) that you played with as a child. The object of that game was to try to flip the ball into the cup.

A kendama is different because it has three cups and a point. You can catch the ball in any of the cups or on the point. Of course, that’s just the beginning.

Kendama enthusiasts learn quickly that there are dozens of elaborate tricks that require skill and practice. If you’re curious, take a look on YouTube; you’ll find many “how to” videos that will leave you amazed.

A brief history

No one is certain where kendama was invented, though it’s thought to have its roots in France, where it was called bilboquet. The name combined the words bil or “ball” with boquet, which means “small tree.”

Kendama appears to have traveled to Japan in the early 17th century. Originally, it was a game played exclusively by adults. But over the years, it’s become a popular sport for children. In fact, it’s so popular in Japan that kendamas are sold at most candy stores.

The craze hits the U.S.

From California to Maine, pockets of kendama enthusiasts are taking over schoolyards. According to the Sacramento Bee, there are schools where everyone has a kendama.

In January of this year, what was supposed to be a small kendama competition on the island of Oahu stunned its organizers when nearly 2,000 children turned up to participate. Two earlier competitions, one in Seattle and the other in Georgia, registered several hundred players. And deep in the heart of Pennsylvania, Mt. Lebanon High School caught the wave and created its own competition.

Competition rules

At first glance, kendama seems like a solitary game, but it’s actually been a competitive sport in Japan for years. When players meet, they face each other with a kendama in hand. The first is expected to perform a trick.

These are choreographed maneuvers with names like nightingale, lighthouse, airplane, and spike. Each skill involves a special technique. The nightingale, for instance, requires you to balance the ball between the spike and the small cup.

Once your opponent completes the trick, it’s your turn to try. If you master it, then the round continues. When someone fails at a trick, he or she is eliminated. In Japan, an annual award is presented by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology to the best elementary school kendama player.

The future for kendama

No one is sure where this craze is headed, but for now there’s no stopping it! Parents approve, because it gets their kids engaged and active with something besides a computer screen. With practice, kendama players develop better dexterity, hand-eye coordination, and balance.

But for most players, it’s just fun. If you’re a parent and looking for other mom-approved games, head over to Lululolli’s for suggestions.

Anna Johansson

Anna is a freelance writer and researcher from the Olympia, WA area who loves to obsess about weird topics and then write about them. When she isn't writing, she is outside on her bike and comtemplating her eventual trip to graduate school.

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