Kendama craze hits youth, schools of Sonoma County
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.