There’s never been a better time to brush up on the old eye-hand coordination.

Recently our Fukuoka-based writer Masanuki Sunakoma went to his local home improvement center to buy some toilet paper, not out of any panic though. He was just running out. Naturally, upon entering the store, he found all the shelves bare.

He was all set to give up when out of the corner of his eye he spotted a rack of toys with a kendama hanging among them. He remembered those things being popular when he was in elementary school but was never good at it himself.

However, now that he was a middle-aged man, perhaps his motor skills had finally caught up and were able to handle this tricky little ball game. Masanuki quickly grabbed it off the shelf, not realizing it was an official “Ozora” kendama by Yamagata Kobo and certified by the Japan Kendama Association.

After a brief shock at the 1,815 yen (US$17) charge at the register, he became the proud owner of a mighty fine kendama. Considering the Fukuoka government was advising everyone to stay indoors as much as possible, the steep price tag would probably pay off in the long run.

For those unfamiliar with the kendama, it’s basically a cup-and-ball game on steroids. Rather than a single cup into which the ball must go, there are three different sized cups – although calling those shallow things “cups” seems way too generous, so I prefer “dishes” – and there’s a spike for good measure too.

Here’s a rundown of the functional parts of a kendama:

The most basic move that any aspiring kendama master ought to begin with is simply flicking the ball into the large dish. If you can’t do this then there really is no hope.

As for Masanuki…

“Argh! Come on!!!”

He was every bit as bad as he was in grade school. Luckily, he had a secret weapon that didn’t exist back then. Racing to his smartphone, Masanuki quickly Googled “kendama tips” and learned that the keys to successful kendama tricks are relaxing your body and letting your knees do most of the work.

Back at it…

“Haha!!! I did it!”

Having successfully broken in his big dish, Masanuki felt more confident and looked up some of the tricks printed on a piece of paper included with the kendama.

Next was another entry-level trick known as a Moshikame, which involved juggling the ball back and forth between the large and medium dishes. He remembered a lot of the other kids in school doing this and seeing who could go the longest.

Now that he got the feel of it, it didn’t take long for Masanuki to rack up five Moshikame in a row.

After that, he decided to try a much more difficult maneuver called Around Japan. This involved landing the ball in the small dish, then the large dish, and finally onto the kensaki. The kensaki part was especially hard because the hole in the ball had to be perfectly lined up with the spike to land properly.

Luckily, Masanuki was full of confidence and had nothing but time on his hands while stuck at home. A few hours of focused practice and…

Masanuki learned that the trick was to set up the hole’s position from the very beginning. Upon landing it in the small dish, the hole should be pointing at yourself.

▼ Ideal trajectory of the first throw

When transitioning to the large dish, keep the ball in more or less the same position but move the ken about 90 degrees to line up the final kento shot. Making sure not to throw it too high helps to keep it stable.

Then, on the last throw flick it a bit to get the hole pointing downward so it lands on the kensaki.

▼ Ideal trajectory of the last throw

Even knowing this, anyone should expect to put in a few hours of failure before getting it down. But once landed, Masanuki got a feeling of accomplishment that blew away the gloom and doom of self-isolating during a global pandemic, at least for a little while.

And he’s still got a whole sheet of tricks to attempt, culminating in the extremely difficult Airplane maneuver in which he must hold the ball and then toss the ken in such a way that the kensaki lands directly into the hole.

Depending on your part of the world, a kendama might be as hard to get ahold of as toilet paper, but there’s still lots of easily accessible skills just begging to be picked up during long bouts indoors, from juggling to playing the spoons. They’re all great ways to get in a little bit of self-improvement and, more importantly, stay out of trouble.

Photos ©SoraNews24
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