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Kendama craze hits youth, schools of Sonoma County

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They call themselves the Dama Squad.

The group of boys at Cardinal Newman High School meet up during their free time to play a string-and-ball game that looks like something their great-grandparents might have enjoyed in the days before TV.

Their ranks include a member of Cardinal Newman’s student government and a few athletes. Mostly sophomores, they aren’t a showy bunch, preferring to convene behind a classroom — a place they call the Dama Spot — on the northeast Santa Rosa campus.

There, during a morning break last week, one by one the boys brought out their kendamas, odd-looking devices that consist of little more than a wooden handle, two cups and a spike. The game, which is exploding in popularity across Sonoma County, appears to have supplanted Hacky Sack as the latest test of skill and agility around which a growing number of youth are passing their time.

The early adopters in this crowd, including pre-teens, older kids and young adults, will gladly show off an array of nifty tricks while challenging one another to head-to-head competitions similar to games of “horse” in basketball.

They also have one request: Don’t call their kendamas toys.

“Some people make fun of us, but then the next week you’ll see them with one,” said Bennett Kohut, a 15-year-old Cardinal Newman sophomore.

Kendamas are so popular that their use has been restricted on some Sonoma County campuses and during after-school programs. One Sonoma County baseball club is selling kendamas imprinted with its logo to finance a trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer. A Napa County library is hosting a kendama workshop in early December because of interest in the pastime among its young library patrons.

Local stores are having difficulty keeping the items in stock. They sell for about $20.

“It’s the type of toy we like to promote,” said John Goehring, who owns The Toyworks in Santa Rosa.

Kendamas, which have origins in Japan, are the antithesis of sophisticated technology. The simple handheld implement is called the “Ken.” The “Dama” is the wooden ball attached to the stick via a string.

Proper use of the toy results in a surprising amount of physical exertion, as it’s best to bend the knees to get the ball airborne. Landing the ball on one of the cups or slotting onto the spike requires considerable hand-eye coordination. Other tricks involve holding the ball and landing the stick on it.

This, in other words, is not an older generation’s cup and ball game. Numerous videos of people playing with kendamas appear online, some featuring synchronized routines and tricks that are on a level some would categorize as performance art.

Spotting a business opportunity, companies have sprung up offering their own version of the toys.

Thomas “Teej” Bacud, 23, is part-owner, along with his cousin and two friends, of Open World Kendama, a Fairfield company that offers higher-end versions of the devices, mostly through direct sales at company- hosted events.

Napa County Library managers reached out to the company to host a workshop at the American Canyon branch on Dec. 5 because of the “huge interest” the library’s teen patrons have in learning about and playing with kendamas, according to Renee Forte, a library associate.

Bacud said kendama is more than a Japanese skill toy. He said the communal aspect of the game sparks friendships and fosters understanding among different cultures. He also referenced the meditative aspects of playing with the device.

“The more you play with it, the more you get drawn into building this connection, this emotional bond to your kendama,” Bacud said.

Standing in his parents’ garage in Rincon Valley, 12-year-old Jonny Walls made a connection between the Chinese religious tenets he’s been learning about in history class, and the kendamas he and his buddies play with. The boys all have video game machines and apps on their smartphones to keep them occupied.

But Walls said kendamas “rest your mind.”

Walls is a member of the Redwood Baseball Club, which is selling kendamas to raise money for this summer’s trip to Cooperstown, site of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The toys have become ubiquitous at baseball tournaments, where players use them to while away the time when they aren’t on the field.

Stephanie Walls, Jonny’s mother, called the trend “fantastic,” saying she’d much rather have her son playing with a kendama than being on his phone or in front of the TV.

“I have no problem with it,” she said.

On campuses where toys of any kind are considered distractions, administrators limit the use of kendamas to before or after school. Other administrators take a more lenient approach and let students bring them out between classes.

That includes at Cardinal Newman, where teachers and administrators welcome kendamas as an alternative to cellphones and other technology.

“It’s not just devices all the time,” said Graham Rutherford, the school’s principal.

“It’s definitely fun to do,” said Carlin Hornbostel, the treasurer of Cardinal Newman’s sophomore class and a member of the Dama Squad. “If you get bored with the stuff you have, you have something else to do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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