The other day, I was trawling through YouTube looking for shamisen music videos when I came across an utterly unique video called “Tokyo Kendama Project vol.2 Utakata.”

It featured the traditional Okinawan sansen three-stringed instrument played by the mysterious Gosamaru and composed by Tomoaki Ogre, the beautiful dancing of Kumi Arikawa, and a pair of strangely hypnotic gentlemen spinning some… things through the air. I’d heard of kendama before, as I imagine most people with even a fleeting knowledge of Japan have, but I’d never seen the toy wielded with such incredible finesse.

Fascinated, I had to know more!

  • So, just what the heck is kendama

A kendama is a large ball on a string attached to a larger body called the ken, which is usually wooden. The ken has a spike on one end, flanked by two cups. The cups are of different sizes, with the larger cup called the ozara and the smaller cup called the kozara. Finally, there’s another cup on the bottom of the ken called the chuuzara.

Alright, so that’s that toy…but what do you do with it?

Probably most of you have played a cup-and-ball game at some point in your life, or at least seen one in a toy store. The basics are similar: get the ball into a cup. Simple, right?

Not at all!

▼A kendama master showing just how not simple it is!

  • Playing kendama

Though the very basic tricks of kendama aren’t necessarily complicated, they do involve a lot of skill. Just popping the ball into a cup isn’t necessarily difficult to do, but it’s also not exactly easy by any means.

The Japan Kendama Association has a series of rankings for kendama enthusiasts as a way for measuring their progress. The lowest level involves letting the ball dangle from the ken and then snapping it upwards to catch it in the large cup. Do that once and you can pass the first level! Congratulations!

Obviously, as you move up, the tricks become more complicated, such as the “Around the Block,” where a kendama player pops the ball from the big cup to the small cup to the cup at the base of the ken. Kind of hard to visualize, so here’s a video!

▼The first trick demonstrated here is “Around the Block.”

Of course, rising through the ranks of kendama all by yourself would probably get old after a while. Which is why it’s good that there are regular competitions!

  • Kendama…tournaments?

As with almost anything humans do, it eventually becomes necessary to find out who’s the best! And kendama is no different. The Japan Kendama Association offers regular tournaments with age groups from elementary students all the way to adults. The tournaments feature two players facing off at a time. After drawing a trick name from a box, one player will perform the trick as the other watches. Then, they switch. The first person to fail a trick gets knocked out, while the other moves up the ladder.

▼Semifinalist bout from the 2012 National Japan Kendama Championship.

Imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to sit and watch your opponent do a trick, waiting for them to mess up! I’d probably have a heart attack.

However, tournaments aren’t confined to Japan!

  • Kendama goes international

While kendama seems to have originally arisen out of an imported European game, contemporary kendama is certainly a very Japanese pastime and has been for centuries. All that is starting to change, though, as the game garners more and more international attention.

In fact, kendama groups have sprung up all around the world—though primarily in North America and Europe. Curious to see what the kendama scene was like outside of Japan, I contacted some overseas associations.

The head of the British Kendama Association and two-time British Kendama Champion who goes by the name, The Void, was kind enough to answer some questions.

First, I wanted to know how he discovered this game. To be honest, I had no idea how far it had stretched outside of Japan, so I was surprised to learn that a British Kendama Association even existed.

Via an email interview, The Void explained, “I had two introductions. The first was a workshop run by a juggler who spoke Japanese, teaching us the basic 10 moves or so. About 18 months later I discovered a bunch of videos of Japanese players doing amazing tricks. It was the variety of tricks and possibilities displayed by these experts that really got me hooked.”

▼Tricks necessary for the 2012 British Kendama Open

Fair enough! But what did people think when they first saw kendama? I imagine the average British person doesn’t often come across this Japanese game.

“It can vary from complete indifference, to a heckle about ‘cup-and-ball,’ to curiosity and interest. Things immediately change when people actually have a go and realise that it’s a bit trickier than they first thought and that there are a lot of moves that they can learn,” he wrote.

I was also surprised to learn from The Void that kendama seems to be experiencing a bit of a growth spurt in the western world, particularly in the US and Denmark. Obviously, Britain and other European countries have growing groups as well. There’s even a European Kendama Open Championship!

▼The first Tokyo Kendama Project video

  • Getting started with kendama

So, let’s say you’re interested in learning to play this game. How do you get started?

First, you obviously need to get a kendama! If you live in the US, you might want to check out Kendama USA, a website with official tournament kendama, videos of pro players, and a brief introduction to the game. In Europe, you obviously want to check out the British Kendama Association‘s website, where you can get kendamas and find a wealth of information on the game. There’s also a forum if you’re looking for a community to interact with. In Japan, you should probably take a look at the Japan Kendama Association, which is in charge of the basic skill categories and tournaments of kendama.

▼A speed demonstration of ten kendama tricks. For motivation!

I asked The Void what beginners could expect from kendama.

He wrote back, “Expect addiction! The simplest Big Cup catch will be a little harder than you first think, but stick with it, and you’ll get it… and discover that you are smiling.” He also gave me some advice for playing the game. “The best advice for 99 percent of kendama tricks can be summed up in 2 simple phrases: 1) Always make your catches downwards! 2) Use your knees!”

Another great thing about kendama is that it’s pretty good exercise. Though you wouldn’t think it from watching, the constant up and down of catching and tossing the ball really gets your heart pumping! Though I was also assured that you “don’t need to be an athlete to get good at kendama.”

▼Basic skill levels of kendama set by the Japan Kendama Associationskill levels

  • Let’s do this!

Now that you’ve seen all the videos and read a little bit about the game, are you ready to get started? If so, check out some of the websites below to get your own kendama!

Kendama associations and online stores: Japan Kendama Association, International Kendama Association, British Kendama Association, Kendama USA