Japanese cup-and-ball game has grown popular in South Hills

Kendama is catching

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Cup and ball was a favored game in America and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Recently a Japanese form of the game called kendama has been drawing younger players away from video games, computers and television locally with its hand-eye coordination routines.

Made up of a wooden handle (ken) and ball (tama) connected by a string, kendama allows players to juggle the ball into one of three cups on the handle, spear the ball with a spike at the end of the grip or balance the ball next to the spike with creative maneuvers.

In Mt. Lebanon, David Bahm, owner of Learning Express Toys in the Galleria shopping mall, first heard about kendama two years ago from a teenager who wanted to purchase one. Unable to find a domestic source for the toy, he did nothing more until November 2011 when he exchanged information with the owner of the Alpharetta, Ga., Learning Express franchise about hot-selling items.

"I learned that the kendama was one of the store's biggest sellers and that Kendama USA could supply my own store with the item," said Mr. Bahm, 45, of Mt. Lebanon. "I also found out that the company sponsors a national team and that two of its team members were from Mt. Lebanon." Both have since graduated from high school and one has left the area.

Once Mr. Bahm had acquired the toy for his store, it began selling briskly to middle and high schoolers, who aren't his major customers. Learning Express toys usually are purchased by parents of infants and preteens. Eventually younger players, sometimes no older than 7, joined the kendama bandwagon.

In January, Mr. Bahm organized a kendama club that meets at his store at 4 p.m. each Thursday. Players come and go, and there is no charge to participate. Usually about a dozen players show up each week.

"I want my store to be a fun place to visit and a hub of activity and organized events such as 'play dates' on weekends and holidays," he said.

To his knowledge, there are no other kendama clubs in the Pittsburgh area. Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair seem to be the region's kendama hot spots, but interest in the game is picking up in surrounding areas as well.

In January, Mt. Lebanon High School staged a Kendama Battle, during which participants showed off different styles of maneuvers and tricks. A book published by the Japan Kendama Association lists 101 tricks to perform with the toy; there are reportedly tens of thousands of trick variations. Videos of players doing kendama maneuvers can be viewed online at youtube.com and at kendamaUSA.com.

One elementary student in the Learning Express kendama club attended the first ever DamaFest organized by Kendama USA and held in Atlanta in November.

"I learned about the Dama Fest online and entered in the beginner's category," said Stephen Donahey, 11, of Mt. Lebanon. "I had just purchased my first kendama last summer, so I wasn't very good at the time and didn't win an award. However, I am planning on attending this year's Dama Fest and hope to do better."

Mr. Bahm has also tried his hand at the toy but said he isn't very skilled.

"Kendama takes a lot of time to learn and that's something I just don't have a lot of," he said. "A lot of the younger players practice for hours on end and have gotten quite adept at it."

Phil Skonomovic, 15, of Mt. Lebanon has been playing kendama for only a year but has grown so skilled that Mr. Bahm asked him to teach the game to the younger players at his store.

"I started playing last May when I first saw my friend playing with the toy," he said. "Early on, I played a lot during the day and with my friends. Now I practice about an hour a day."

At the moment, kendama, which sells between $25 and $35 depending on model and paint color, remains a very popular commodity, but Mr. Bahm sees new toys on the horizon.

"With the recent film opening of 'The Avengers' and the new Batman movie scheduled to come out this summer, I expect the superheroes figures to become hot-selling items," he said.


Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanlivinig@post-gazette.com.


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