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SunRise Kendama had a ball at Toy Fair

At Toy Fair last week, Sunrise Kendama founder David Marchant was explaining to a skeptical journalist that playing the kendama game, at least in its simplest form, can be learned in 10 minutes.

David Marchant at Toy Fair.
Jim Bessman

“You can learn it yourself, but it’s so much better with two people--and a blast with three!” maintained Marchant, who also does corporate kendama teach-ins.

“It’s a great icebreaker,” he said. “In a big group I can get them going in 10 minutes.”

Kendama play, he added, is “challenging and rewarding,” probably because it does in fact take 10 minutes at least to figure out hot how to swing the ball at the end of the string into either the big or small cup at either end of the handle’s crosspiece or the cup at the end of the handle, or harder yet, onto the spike at the other end of the handle, or hardest, hold the ball and swing the handle and catch it by sticking the spike into the hole in the ball, or landing the handle cup on to it.

“It’s kind of a private victory,” said Marchant, demonstrating proper technique to the journalist: “Relax your wrist, bring the ball straight up with your knees, and let the ball come to the cup instead of trying to find the ball. It’s incredibly elegant.”

“Isn’t that sweet?” he asked, having easily floated the ball into the small cup of his demonstration kendama.

“Kendama,” noted Marchant, is a classic Japanese skill game combining the Japanese words for “sword” (ken) and “ball” (tama).

“Seven years ago inline skater Colin Sander was central in bringing kendama into a new skill area,” said Marchant. "He brought an extreme sport element to it in terms of level of difficulty and motor skills.”

He contrasted this new era of kendama play with its traditional Japanese children’s toy nature.

“Basically, it’s for three- to seven-year-olds there. They laugh when they see an adult playing—until they see you do tricks.”

Based in Amersterdam, Marchant came to kendama from juggling, having designed and manufactured quality juggling equipment since 1984.

“I invented the four-panel juggling ball in 1982,” he says, “and for $25 I’d teach you to juggle in 10 minutes or give you your money back. I used to be a banker, and I guess I ran away to the circus!”

With kendama, Marchant discovered a ball with “elegance and balance, and complexity: a banana dipped in chocolate sauce. Exotic. A whole new animal.”

And while Japanese kendama play was “classic and structured--like judo,” he noted, “in the West, people look at YouTube videos and start with [dazzling tricks]—without a foundation.”

Marchant was introduced to kendama by the professional British juggler known as The Void. After visiting a major kendama factory in Ozora, Japan, in 2009, he came back with a suitcase full of them.

“They have only five colors, and I wanted a gold one, so I decided to make one on my own,” said Marchant. “I thought it would be easy, but the most difficult thing to do is make a good kendama! There are no straight lines, and the wood pieces have to fit together perfectly. It took three years to make one.”

In addition to the five traditional solid kendama colors, SunRise now colors its kendama balls in metallics, stripes and fluorescents. Marchant was especially excited at Toy Fair about his new Kendama ArtBox model, which comes with an unpainted wood kendama and three do-it-yourself art pens.

“You can get one painted for you for $50, or you can tag your own!” he said. As for materials, he noted that walnut makes for a great kendama, while beech wood is “wonderful.”

“Every wood has its own distinctive sound when the ball settles into the cup or spike,” he added.

Meanwhile, kendama, which also is available now with acrylic balls, is spreading locally in Atlanta, Minnesota and the West Coast, Marchant noted, and lately, Hawaii, where “thousands are going crazy” for the craze.

And sure enough, within 10 minutes the journalist had landed the kendama ball into the big cup on the crosspiece. He agreed with Marchant that kendama play was “challenging and rewarding, and kind of a private victory.”

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