Everything has its beginning so here’s a good place to start on your path to kendama. Since this is the JKA website we’ll be addressing JKA certified kendama though many of the points apply to other brands of kendama as well. So how do you go about choosing your first kendama? Here are a few pointers picked up from masters and beginners alike.
Your physical size and age can make a difference. So can your athleticism more specifically hand-eye coordination. We’ve seen little kids that could handle a regular kendama with ease and sporty adults that really had to work at it but we’ve seen the inverse as well. While the length of the string can be shortened the weight and size of the ken and tama can’t be changed easily. If you are younger or have smaller hands consider starting with a “junior” size kendama that runs about 30% smaller than a standard kendama first. As you practice and become better you can always step up to a full size kendama. If you are unsure which size to get feel free to shoot us an email for recommendations. It’s kind of like buying a pair of shoes; find one that fits you and your playing style and you’ll be happier in the long run.
Before you start playing understand that you will drop and generally knock around your new kendama. It will get dents and scratches and on occasion even chip the paint. Don’t worry about that at all. It’s part of the break-in process and in most cases will actually make your kendama play better. With this in mind you would probably be best served by getting a more basic model rather than a higher priced limited edition for your first kendama. The limited edition models look great but you might worry about damaging them. We’ve had players who bought one of those for their first kendama only to come back and get a more basic model because they thought theirs was too pretty to play. You can also add a little individuality by simply changing the string color. You’d be surprised how that one small change can add a personal touch to your kendama.
Standard woods for JKA kendama are Beech, Birch, and Cherry wood though there are other woods like Maple, Keyaki, and Enjyu available. The woods themselves run the gamut from light to dark in color and some can be denser or harder than others. Some players have preferences on which woods they think are best but it’s a personal choice. Because of design regulations and uniformity of JKA kendama the main difference in how the various kendama play will be the paint, or lack thereof, on the tama. Different paint or no paint will take different amounts of time to break-in and once broken-in will play slightly differently. (Although a number of JKA kendama come with glossy or semi-glossy paint there are some models that will have a “sticky” paint; ones that feel a bit tacky when playing. Some of those too will require breaking in.) Understand that in most cases your first experiences will make you feel like the tama is very slippery. That’s just part of the process. As the tama gets broken-in and your skill increases it will become easier to play. So now you’ve gotten your first kendama, on to the next steps.
Well you have a new kendama, now what? If you’ve already gone through on the first part, then you are ready for the next stage. Here are some tips for kendama preparation prior to playing (all are optional). We are still specifically addressing beginners and as you progress some preferences may change. (example: the length of string or having a pointy or flat spike)
Before we get too far into it let’s cover some terminology so we are working with the same vocabulary. (English and Japanese names/descriptions will be used interchangeably throughout the site.)
Below are descriptions of the parts of a kendama and the main grips of a kendama (how to hold). They include romanized Japanese and English translations and English common use terms when available. Example: Japanese – English translation (common use)
- Waza – technique or trick
- Mochikata – how to hold or holding method
- Kyu – JKA basic skill level tests. There are 10 testable levels and 11 tricks
- Junshodan – Intermediate skill level test consisting of 1 level and 9 tricks
- Dan – Advanced skill level with 6 testable levels and 20 tricks
Now let’s get into the tweaking/hacking section. If you start playing with your new kendama right away you will notice that the tip of the ken starts to get beaten down. It’s the nature of the beast especially when trying new spike tricks. We’ve seen kendama worn completely flat by all the use. Once that happens you might want to reshape the
tip and if you have to do that often your kensaki will get shorter making some tricks harder.
So the first order of business is to superglue the tip to make it stronger and more resistant to impacts. Glue the tip prior to any treatment like beeswax or oil to make it more effective. Because the tip is now harder it also means that missed spikes will often leave more of an impression on the tama which is generally not a big deal. Try two coats of a non-gel type of super glue because it soaks into the wood better. Preferences vary here but usually we run it down to cover the entire cone of the tip just short of going over the shoulder of the point (red triangle). Just make sure you don’t leave any rough spots. If you do find rough spots just sand them down until they’re smooth. After you’ve used it for a while you will probably notice that the very tip starts to crack and turn white. Hit it with another drop of glue and you’re good to go.
If you are right-handed then you will be already set for play since most kendama come setup for right-handers. If however you are a lefty then you might want to change the string location on the kendama to facilitate play for a left-hander.
If you find the bead end jumping out of the tama during tricks try this, tie a double knot about 2-3cm above the tama. Just remember to take into account the string length lost because of the knot.
Though there is no particular restriction on string length the JKA suggests string lengths from 38cm-40cm for optimum playability. (They also advise that 35cm might be better for some children.) A way to quickly check your string length is the “two finger” method. Place the tama on the ken and place two fingers in the loop that hangs below the chuzara (base cup). Many kendama come with string long enough to put 3-4 fingers below the chuzara so you may have to shorten it to fit your preference.
We’ve had a number of people ask how to “break-in” a kendama. Basically just playing will break it in although lots and lots of Moshikame and spike practice will accelerate it somewhat.
Some players like to customize their kendama for fun or to make them more identifiable in a crowd. There are colored strings available that are easy to change to add a little bling.
Sometimes players will want to paint or draw on their kendama to make them unique. Understand however that doing so will void the JKA certification. This isn’t really a problem but just be aware that once you apply artwork or paint that particular kendama will not be eligible to use for testing or competing.
A note on continuing maintenance, try to avoid crushing the saradō down on the ken. Keep it just snug enough to play. Crushing it will eventually lead to a sloppy saradō and you’ll have to put a spacer of some kind between the saradō and the ken just to keep it together.
So now your kendama is ready to play. What’s next?
You’ve probably seen videos of guys doing these amazing tricks or maybe your buddies were where you first saw kendama in action. Well none of them started doing tricks like that right away. They needed some basic instruction (from an instructor, friend, video, etc.) before they started on the long road to kendama superstar. Here we will detail the some of the basics upon which pretty much all your future tricks will be based.
Most people tend to pick up the kendama like a hammer then try to swing the ball into one of the cups. Yes, it can be done but it’s not the easiest way to start. For the very first trick, Ōzara – catching the ball in the big cup, we’ve had the most success teaching people to hold sara grip, bending the knees, lowering the arm, then pushing up with the knees while pulling the ball straight up to catch in the big cup; no tama swing.
There are a couple of reasons for this:
- Sara grip tends to be easier to hold the big cup level so you can concentrate on the ball and
- Pulling the ball straight up to catch is less complicated than swinging; fewer brain calculations.
- It sets you up for Moshikame later on. The sara grip is similar to holding the ken like a pencil then adding support with your middle and ring fingers in the Kozara. (see photo above)
One of the other useful techniques, for the first few waza in particular, is pulling the ball up more or less between your body and the ken. With all the action close to your body you’ll have an easier time than trying to stretch out to catch the ball as it moves away from you. The whole movement is vertical and linear, no arcs. Another really important part, particularly when you are just starting out, is using your knees and arm as shock absorbers. By following the ball in flight with your body and arm you are virtually slowing the motion of the ball and giving yourself more time to make the catch. Keeping the ball in roughly the same visual frame over the course of the trick rather than letting it pass going up then again on the way down is what makes it seem like it’s going slower. Yeah at first you may feel a little goofy but the payoff is worth it, not to mention it puts a little exercise in your gaming; bend those knees, work those quads.
A few other things to think about while you’re jammin’ your kendama:
- If you get stuck trying a specific trick, switch it up and try a different one to give you a break. You may surprise yourself when you go back and try the first trick.
- A reminder, except for the tricks where you’re actually supposed to swing the tama or ken, like hikoki and furiken, you would be better served keeping the movements mostly vertical particularly for the Kyu level tricks.
- For spike catches, rather than cup landings, keep an eye on where bright lights are. If the ball moves up into an area with a strong backlight you’ll probably lose track of the hole. Don’t believe us, try furiken facing a brightly lit window then try it facing away from the window.
- Safety, it shouldn’t need to be said but we’ll say it anyway, high velocity, swinging bits of wood can be dangerous. Take care that you are clear of any breakable items and, while it may work as a defense against vampires, stabbing someone accidentally with your spike is most assuredly not a good idea. Getting beaned with the ball isn’t so much fun either. Be careful out there.
Check out our Learn section to see more on how to do the specific tricks.