Kendama, a simple wooden toy played like a yo-yo, is gaining fans

Simple wooden toy, Kendama (above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Simple wooden toy, Kendama (above). -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Sound technician Janella Ang picked up the game a year ago and has won two all-female competitions here so far. -- PHOTO: JANELLA ANG
Sound technician Janella Ang picked up the game a year ago and has won two all-female competitions here so far. -- PHOTO: JANELLA ANG
Mr Muhammad Khairul Jailani (far left), who manages the Kendama Singapore Facebook page, shows off kendama moves with other enthusiasts (from second left) Muhammad Razi Kasmin, Marco Wong, Preston Lim, Jerico Aban and Muhammad Hanif. -- ST PHOTO: DES
Mr Muhammad Khairul Jailani (far left), who manages the Kendama Singapore Facebook page, shows off kendama moves with other enthusiasts (from second left) Muhammad Razi Kasmin, Marco Wong, Preston Lim, Jerico Aban and Muhammad Hanif. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

A simple wooden toy called kendama that is played like a yo-yo is gaining fans here

You might have seen this simple wooden toy floating around. It consists of a ball connected by a piece of string to a stick. The stick has two cups and a spike.

The objective is to get the ball to rest on one of the cups.

Or if you are really good, to impale the ball on the spike. Or if you’re really, really good, you can “jam” with it, performing a series of swings, flicks and kicks like yo-yo professionals who compete for titles.

This toy, called the kendama, is one of the hottest things to hit town. Priced between $13 and more than $200, they are selling by the hundreds every week.

It has inspired interest groups such as KendamaSG and Kendama Singapore to spring up, organising workshops, jam sessions and competitions. Schools are also bringing it in for special exercise sessions.

What is the appeal of this ball and two cups?

Enthusiasts say it is fun for beginners and experts, and gets increasingly addictive as players want to attempt more intricate and technically demanding skills.

“The constant urge to hone one’s skills makes players unable to put it down”, says Mr Alvin Chong, 26, founder of the Kendama Singapore Facebook page.

In 2010, the real estate agent bought 25 kendamas from Japan in the hope of selling them to spread interest here.

Now that it has caught on, kendamas are selling like hot cakes at toy shops. They are sold out at all eight of the Toys ’R’ Us outlets and one retailer reported a 20-fold jump in monthly sales.

Mr Hans Wong-Jensen, business development manager at toy shop Spinworkx, says it brought in about 50 kendamas a month two years ago. Now, it imports close to 1,000 of the toys each month.

Local companies have also started to make kendamas to cash in on the craze.

Ms Loretta Sze, herself a fan of the game, opened KendamaFox in January. She says she sells 300 kendamas weekly, compared to 20 when she first started. They cost between $20 and $37 each.

Toy Outpost, a box shop chain which has 18 outlets across the island, says that in July last year, it had only one or two kendama merchants. It rents out display boxes to independent merchants to sell the wares.

Assistant operations manager Alvin Quek says: “Now we have about seven to eight kendama sellers at each outlet.”

Kendamas can sell for as cheap as $13 to more than $200. For example, Spinworkx sells the Mugen Musou which can cost up to $240.

The price depends on the quality of the wood and paint. The best ones are made of beech or cherrywood.

Serious players put in many hours honing their skills.

Singapore kendama champion Marco Wong, 16, practises for two to three hours every day. This can go up to nine hours during the holidays and when he “jams” with fellow enthusiasts.

The Hai Sing Catholic School student bought his first kendama with his own pocket money last August. It cost $50.

Since then, he has won five kendama competitions held by local interest groups including KendamaSG and SFBKendama.

Marco, who owns 20 kendamas, says: “It is the satisfaction after pulling off a trick that you've been practising for weeks that really makes the toy addictive.”

Sound technician Janella Ang, 21, who has won two all-female kendama competitions here, says she enjoys the sense of community among kendama fans. “I like the feeling when you play the kendama and everyone is cheering you on, rooting for you to land that trick,” she adds.

She picked up the game from her friends in Republic Polytechnic a year ago. Now she owns 12 kendamas and practises regularly.

Schools are also on to the ball-and-cup game. So far, two schools have invited Kendama Singapore to give demonstrations to secondary school students.

Ms Tammie Ho, head of department for physical education and co-curricular activities at Chung Cheng High School, says: “Parents always lament that students spend too much time on electronic gadgets such as mobile phones and television. Kendama can help us to find joy in a simple and healthy game.”

mzlim@sph.com.sg