Kids flip for kendama

Wooden Japanese toy capturing attention of youth

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Andy Wallace, 10, practices his kendama skills Monday after school at the Boys and Girls Club of Kootenai County in Post Falls.

POST FALLS - Watch out, Xbox.

There's another game capturing the attention of local 'tweens and teens.

And, while it too takes hand-eye coordination, it doesn't require a TV and can be played on the fly or between classes.

The kendama, a Japanese wooden cup-and-ball toy, is seemingly in the hands of some youth as much as video game controllers these days.

"It's better than sitting around and watching TV," River City Middle School seventh-grader Sam Davis said while playing the game after school at the Boys and Girls Club of Kootenai County on Monday.

Davis said he's spending less time on the Xbox as a result of owning a kendama.

The ken, the main body, consists of two cups of different sizes and a spike that's used to catch a ball connected by a string.

Terran Sharbrough, a sixth-grader at River City Middle School, said he recently bought a kendama because he likes the challenge of improving his skills.

"I like playing it because there's always the next trick," he said.

It's akin to the yo-yo or the Hacky Sack, the foot bag popular in the 1980s, in that it challenges players individually or in a group setting and can take on a number of moves and tricks.

Students play "ken" - with scoring similar to basketball's "pig" - in which the opponent must duplicate a successful move from the previous player or you're saddled with a letter.

There's also "pink" - similar to "ken" - except the losing player has to give their kendama to the winner. Such game is not allowed at the Boys and Girls Club, where a kendama club is brewing, executive director Ryan Davis said.

"Once their homework is done, we section off space for it during their free time," Davis said. "More kids are bringing them to the club. As long as it's controlled and not causing issues, we're all for it."

Moves range from the "simple spike" and "cup catches" to juggle combinations with both moves to the "airplane" and "lighthouse" in which the ken is swung and ends up on the ball. Bending your knees is among the tips to improve your ability.

Most kendamas sell for between $25 and $40, but custom ones with intricate painting can run as high as $200. They're made out of different types of woods, and they come in various colors or are left natural.

Tyler Jacobson, who works at Figpickels Toy Emporium in Coeur d'Alene, said the toy has been flying off the store's shelves.

"We've had three shipments in the past two weeks and we've sold out each time in two or three days," he said. "Some kids are collecting them and have (multiple kendamas). They're also like a fashion thing because some kids put them around their neck."

Jacobson said the toy has been sold for about five years, but have only been "ridiculously popular" in the past four months.

Amy Lynn, a River City Middle School teacher who has gotten into the craze by trying some of the students' kendamas, said the toy started cropping up at school about six weeks ago.

"The students have given me many tips, and I can rather consistently catch the ball on the point," she said. "I think anything that allows kids to practice eye-hand coordination, working together and challenging each other is a good thing.

"I know the craze won't last long, but the student involvement and interaction I have seen this last month has brightened my heart."

Like with any gadget that's brought to school, some students have had to be reminded to put them away when they infringe on class time.

"I have not seen them in the classroom so far," Lynn said recently.

Some schools are taking action. Post Falls Middle School on Friday announced that kendamas will no longer be allowed in the building due to safety concerns. They can be used outside before and after school and during lunch. If they are brought to school, they must be left in the locker during classes.

"If you are playing with it in the building, it will be taken away and will not be given back until the end of the school day and further consequences will be issued as necessary," the school bulletin states.

On the positive side, entrepreneurial minds are at work, wondering if making the toy can be a part of their school's shop classes.

Students say kendamas have been more popular with boys, but a few more girls are taking to the challenge.

"It's hard, but it's fun to keep trying," said Alisa Welling, a River City seventh-grader. "Some kids started just two weeks ago and now they're so good. You can tell they've really been practicing."

Kendama has multiple origins

Origins of the game are unclear, but similar games were traced to multiple countries centuries ago that spread via international commerce, according to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia.

The French game bilboquet, where players caught a swinging ball in a cup at the end of a handle, was played as early as the 16th century in royal courts.

Although Japan's indigenous people, the Ainu, had invented their own kendama-type game, the toy mostly likely derived from a European import around 1777. Kendama reportedly was an adult's drinking game in which a player who made a mistake was forced to drink more. In 1876 Japan's Ministry of Education wrote a report mentioning kendama, saying the game had then been adopted by Japanese children.

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