Don’t know what the Japanese wooden toy Kendama is? Don’t feel too bad about it. Kendama retailer Steve Sartin, 36, said he didn’t have any idea what the wooden toy with a string and a ball on it was called when he started seeing teens walking around with the device about a year ago.
The whole concept is to fling the ball up into the air and land it on one of the two cups attached to the wooden toy or a spike on the top. Sometimes, users use the ball to balance the wooden device. Hundreds of tricks of varying difficulties have been developed to test out a player.
Although the toy has been around for generations, particularly in Asia, it’s picked up steam in America in recent years. Sartin now operates a full-blown Kendama store at the SouthShore Mall, where he’s sold hundreds of the toys
And now, industry leaders and professionals will join teens and their parents at the SouthShore Mall in Aberdeen on Saturday for the first Kendama tournament in the region.
Sartin has helped organize Dama-Con, which will start at 2 p.m. Saturday and brings some of the best players from all over the country to the mall, who will all sign autographs, along with manufacturers of the toy. Anyone is welcome to compete at the tournament, which has categories ranging from Beginner to Pro.
Among the local players will be Bryce Nguyen, 10, of Aberdeen. Ngyuen said he got his first Kendama for Christmas of 2010 — and he immediately gave up playing video games and devoting his free time to the device.
Nguyen is now sponsored by Sartin’s retail store, Jester’s Playhouse, and will compete professionally during the tournament on Saturday. Players compete by basically one-upping each other through the various difficult tricks that can be done on a Kendama.
“There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination,” Nguyen said, noting he has eight of the wooden toys that he rotates to do different tricks.
“He’s 10 years old but I don’t know many people in college that could beat him,” Sartin said.
Sartin said he had a kiosk at the SouthShore Mall selling Kendama before the holidays and he could not keep up with the demand. He’s sold more than 1,000 of the devices since opening. A few weeks back he moved into a retail space in the mall and has basically developed a haven for Kendama players, attracting teens and adults alike, setting up black lights, area rugs and music to give them a place to hang out and play.
Sartin said he’ll eventually expand into other kinds of games, with the caveat that the games be interactive. He wants to set up a target range for users to rent and shoot air guns, an area for radio controlled cars and helicopters, juggling toys, Yo-Yos, magic tricks and has plans to construct an elaborate “Bey Blade” arena — which is another game popular among youth where spinning tops battle each other.
But Kendama has been the bread and butter for his business.
“For a long time, I was the only one that carried Kendamas on the Harbor,” he said.
The devices range from $20 to $45 in his store and come in a variety of colors and models — from a European variety to an authentic Japanese import. The devices vary from the different weights of the balls, to the size of the cups and the condition of the wood. He also customizes Kendamas with special paint jobs and has a special model with a lazer-engraved Jester on it he’ll be selling at Dama-Con.
Sartin said he offered a sponsorship to five teens or youth, who all had to take video of their tricks and submit it to him on Facebook. For many, they edited the video themselves, added music and created the equivalent of a Kendama music video.
Keenan Southall, 12, of Cosmopolis, said that playing Kendama “can be quite addictive.” The challenge, Southall said, is trying to move through all of the various tricks and get better than your friends.
Southall says he got an XBox for Christmas but because he’s been so concentrated on Kendama, he’s only played it once.
“Video games aren’t as fun as this,” Southall said.
“I don’t know why anyone would play a video game when you can play Kendama,” agreed Nguyen.
For parents who have been trying to get their kids to put down their video game controllers and go outside, Sartin thinks those words should warm their hearts.