Kendama: Wood toys with infinite possibilities


Vanessa Pineda ,

My 11-year-old brother David is fiercely playing with his Kendama as we’re walking through Valley Fair Mall in San Jose. Another young boy approaches him and says, “Wanna play?” and David says “Yes.” The two begin to perform tricks, seeing who can land the most and claim victory.

The Kendama is a wooden toy which has a handle known as the “ken” connected by a string, to a ball known as the “tama.” The goal is to learn and land new tricks. As a beginner start with bending your knees and then popping the ball up onto one of the cups. Once you have mastered the basics, you can move onto more complex tricks. There is a base cup, a big cup, a small cup, and a spike.

Kendama is not only a toy, but is an old Japanese game. Franchises like Target, Walmart, and the national sporting goods chain Big 5 sell them. Kendamas have become popular not only in the Bay Area, but also in places like Hawaii, Minnesota, and Illinois, according to news reports.

Fremont native Jacob Padilla was introduced to Kendamas at a rock climbing gym called City Beach, where he works as a manager. One of the athletes he coaches on his competitive rock climbing team showed him a Kendama at a climbing competition and brought him one as a gift the following week. Earlier this year, Padilla established a company named Hella Kendama in Fremont.

“Upon noticing the momentum that Kendama was gaining, I wanted to be apart of the growth,” Padilla said. “I had a sudden desire to somehow give back to the local community by helping stimulate the mental and physical functionality of our youth. Every Kendama sold is one less video game being played.”

Hella Kendama creates custom Kendamas. They hand-brush the glaze and gloss rather than sponge brushing or airbrushing. This technique leaves a unique brush stroke finish on the tama, ensuring no tama is identical to another, Padilla said.

Ben Herald, 19, has been playing Kendama for two and a half years. He was among the 30 or 40 people who attended a meet-up jam session in San Jose on July 24. The session was open to all different levels, from beginners to advanced players.

“There is always more to improve on,” Herald said. “There’s an infinite number of tricks and combinations of tricks. Always more to do, you’re never finished. And it’s a good feeling learning a new thing.”

The use of Kendama is not always viewed in a positive manner. At Gardner Academy in San Jose, Kendamas were banned during school hours, after a student was accidently hit with the tama, or the ball.

“My brother got one for Christmas after we saw Kendamas in a longboarding video,” 13-year-old Ethan Hurtzberg said at the July 24 meet-up. “We started playing with it, then after I got it [one] for Christmas.” Hurtzberg is in 8th grade and says that Kendamas are popular at his middle school in San Jose.

The Kendama trend appeals to a wide range of people including several members of Team Loopkicks, a tricking team — freestyle tumbling and extreme martial arts — whom attended the July event because they also play Kendama. The trend also lends itself to personalization: a group known as Brthrssstrs — “Brothers and Sisters” spelled with no vowels — does hand-painted Kendamas.

Angelina Nguyen paints Kendamas for Brthrssstrs. Nguyen can paint a Kendama in one day. She says custom Kendamas range in price from $30-$75. “They are really pretty, and you feel a rush when you land a trick,” Nguyen, 25, said. “It feels nice.”

Gavin Nguyen, 12, has quickly developed his skill in the short five months that he has played. Anyone who wants to try and play this wooden craze, Nguyen suggests some tips, bend your knees and watch Youtube videos. “If I didn’t play Kendama I wouldn’t have met Ethan Phan [a friend] with this piece of wood,” said Gavin.