The hottest toy for kids doesn't come with a USB port or even need batteries. There are no wires, no screen, no controllers. Think of it as the anti-Xbox – just a wooden handle, a ball and a string that fit easily into a back pocket.
We're talking about the kendama, a traditional Japanese toy that's similar to the ball-and-cup game from childhood days of yore. Look around the Sacramento area. Wherever there's a concentration of elementary school-age children – be it on a playground or in a Little League dugout – you'll find kendamas of all colors in action. A head count from a recent pancake breakfast at Crocker Riverside Elementary School found at least 15 kids with kendamas. And local shops scramble to keep the toys, recommended for those 9 and older, in stock.
Kaya Guvenc, a fifth-grader at Sierra Oaks Elementary School, can't get enough of his kendama. His latest trick accomplishment is the "double orbit," in which the handle circles the airborne ball twice before catching it in a cup.
"I like that you get to challenge yourself with something that's good for you," Guvenc said. "Hand and eye coordination is awesome for you. You can do a lot of different tricks."
A kendama looks deceptively simple. The "ken" in kendama refers to the body of the toy, which is made of wood or plastic. The "ken" houses two cups – one bigger, one smaller – plus another small cup on the bottom called a "base." A ball, or "tama," is attached with a piece of string. The goal is to swing the ball into a cup, or have it land on a spike on top of the "ken" (the ball has a small hole for it).
Sounds easy, but mastering the kendama takes skill as well as plenty of practice and patience. Tricks include "Around Japan," in which the ball is flicked onto the big cup, then the little cup, and finally lands on the spike.
The toy's origins are uncertain, but the kendama resembles France's bilboquet, which dates to the 1500s. A Latin American version of this game is popularly known as the balero.
The modern kendama, with its multiple cups, debuted in Japan near the turn of the 20th century. It has enjoyed periods of popularity since then, and the Japan Kendama Association was founded in 1975 to establish rules and standardize the size of kendamas.
Oto's Marketplace, a Japanese grocer on Freeport Boulevard, has carried a $1.50 version of the kendama for years. For some, performing kendama tricks was a typical part of childhood.
"Everybody played with one," said Debbie Wong, a longtime cashier at Oto's. "We went to Chinatown in San Francisco and they were $1 and nothing fancy the way they are now. It wasn't a big deal then, but it is now. Somebody even told me it's not a big thing in Japan. I think it's a Northern California thing."
Russell Oto, general manager of Oto's, noticed the local kendama craze kicking in around the 2012 holiday season. The store now sells upward of 200 kendamas a week. Oto keeps the kendamas in a cage at the front of the store, and added a second cage recently to keep up with demand. They house entry-level kendamas that cost around $13, the popular Kendama USA Pro Model made of cherry wood that sells for $27.99, and many more. There's even a mammoth-size kendama from Japan that requires two hands to play and costs $250.
These cages have become a popular gathering place for kids when school lets out at the nearby Alice Birney Waldorf and Sutterville Elementary School. Some kids wear a kendama draped around their neck as a fashion statement.
"Parents are more willing to buy something like this," said Oto. "It's just a good traditional toy. When I pick up my kids from school they're outside playing with it. It's going back to the old school. Pretty soon the yo-yo will come back."
It's tough to pinpoint what launched this kendama fad, but YouTube has certainly fueled it. A search for "kendama" on this video-sharing website returns 104,000 results. They capture demonstrations of the "kenflip," in which the kendama's body gets flipped with one hand before the ball lands in a cup, trick battles and stylish footage of kendama masters in action.
While Sacramento has become a kendama hot spot – there's even a SacKendama club that hosts meetings around the area, usually at libraries – it looks to be a regional phenomenon for now.
"I've asked people outside the area about kendamas and they don't know what it is," said Wilson Lew, owner of Broadway Comics & Cards. "I have nieces in San Jose who are in grade school and they don't play it. It seems like a Sacramento and Elk Grove thing."
While pockets of kendama-mania have popped up around the country, including Minneapolis and Mt. Lebanon, Pa., the toy has yet to reach national appeal. This trend was new even to Richard Gottlieb, a toy industry consultant and analyst in New York City.
"With most 'bottom-up' fads, they begin on the playground and spread through social networks," said Gottlieb. "They start out very local."
Gottlieb describes the kendama as a unique situation with contemporary toys. Some nonelectronic toys and games, such as Pogs and Silly Bandz, became huge hits with kids because of their collectable nature. For Pokemon cards, the slogan is "gotta catch 'em all." But the kendama offers a tactile experience that's proved irresistible in this age of touch screens.
"I'd put the kendama in the same continuum as the yo-yo and hula hoop," Gottlieb said. "They require skill mastery and coordination. It's about how many times you can do something in a row. But in an age of virtual play, these kinds of (fads) don't happen very often."
Like martial arts, kendama players can achieve various rankings based on their skill level. The lowest ranking, oozara or "big cup," requires the player to get the ball from a vertical position to the big cup at least once in 10 tries. The dan levels are reserved for the ninjas of the kendama world, requiring such elaborate moves as "the earth spin" and "spike the lighthouse."
One of the ultimate kendama masters is Colin Sander, a filmmaker in his early 20s from Southern California who's a member of the Kendama USA pro team. He has his own signature kendama, and is known for his sensei-like command of tricks. "Double spacewalks," "flip lunars," "the jumping stick" – Sander can whip through them all.
And as long as kids want to master these tricks, the kendama craze will continue. R/C Country Hobbies on Folsom Boulevard recently had a waiting list of customers for kendamas. When these toys are in stock, the store generally sells out 150 of them within two days. Broadway Comics & Cards has also been swamped with kendama business.
"We tried getting them right after Christmas, and I thought we'd already missed the boat," said Lew. "But people keep coming in to buy it. The sales have been unbelievable."
The question remains if the kendama will remain a mainstay for kids, or go the way of the Hacky Sack, Rubik's Cube or Speed Stacks stacking cups.
"I don't know how long it's going to last," said Oto. "But right now it's crazy. More than likely if there's kids around, you'll see somebody flipping a kendama while they're walking."
See video about the kendama phenomenon and pros in action at http://kendamausa.com/video
Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.