Have you heard of kendama? I hadn't, but a friend insisted that this Japanese toy was being enthusiastically played in competitions around the city. I have to admit, after doing a little Googling, I was really skeptical about her claim, but over the weekend I went to two unrelated events where people were really into the game. Maybe my friend was right, but I needed to know more about kendama before I was going to admit that to her.


Kendama is a traditional Japanese toy, made up of a mallet and a wooden ball attached to a string. It's reminiscent of thee olde cup-and-ball game you might've gotten as a party favor or stocking stuffer when you were a kiddie. But aside from a physical resemblance, a kendama is much more complicated than its Western cousin. Playing it involves a whole set of tricks that take extraordinary coordination and focus. Oh, and bending your knees! It's also crazy addictive. I didn't realize any of this until I entered the Kengarden on Sunday afternoon.


The Kengarden is a community that was started by San Franciscan Jake Wiens, kendama enthusiast extraordinare. That's him in the orange shirt above. He was introduced to the game about two years ago by friend and pro Matt Rice (the dude in the glasses in the second photo; he's actually a sponsored professional!). Jake became so hooked that he got all his other friends into the game and started backyard kendama battles. He would give the participating host's yard a makeover, planting succulents, ferns, flowers, and other shrubbery, to make the space look pretty for the competition and as a thanks for volunteering the space. You can't see the green handiwork in these photos, but you can check out part of the fire pit Jake & co. made as a centerpiece in the photo below.


On Sunday, a battle took place at the Mission Kengarden on Church Street. About 40 people showed up to compete in, or watch, battles for beginning, intermediate, and advanced kendama players. 

People from around the world send Jake videos of their tricks and e-mails about wanting to come to a Kengarden event, but he's also noticed that the SF kendama community has grown. He said that although a lot of the people who were at Mission Kendarden were friends, he didn't know about 40 percent of the attendees. 

Another reason to come to a Kengarden competition? To get a kendama, which you can't find at San Francisco stores. Jake gets the toys sent to him, and he loves spreading the gospel by giving them out to newbies.

Here's a tense moment from the advanced battle:

For more info and the date of the next Kendama Battle, check out the Kengarden tumblr and Facebook page.

All images and video by Sarah Han