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3:53 pm
Fri June 21, 2013

The Kendama: Can A Wooden Toy Be A Viral Sensation?

Originally published on Fri June 21, 2013 6:11 pm

At a time when young people of all ages are focused on electronics and apps, the popularity of the kendama — a traditional Japanese toy made out of wood — seems like an anomaly. It hasn't caught on all over the U.S. yet, but it's a big craze on the West Coast and sales are growing. Kendama sellers say Sacramento is a particular hot spot. That's where 9-year-old Logan Tosta has honed his skills. (That's him in the video above.)

Logan says it took him about a day to learn how to do his first trick, landing the wooden ball in one of the cups. It was a month before he could get the ball on the spike consistently. Now, he can do tricks with names like Airplane, Jumping Stick and UFO, flipping the stick to catch the ball in different ways.

Kendamas seem to be the buzz these days at elementary schools all around Sacramento. My kindergartener knew all about them when I brought it up. He said his friends have them. Now he does, too.

But kendamas aren't that easy to find. They're usually at comic book stores, Japanese grocery stores, or online. And they aren't cheap. The one I bought cost about $17.

Vendors are reporting an uptick in the Midwest now, especially in Minnesota and Illinois. Seems like it might be possible for kendamas to go viral, even with no batteries, no screen, no buttons ... just a wooden ball attached to a wooden stick with a string.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The kendama is a simple toy - a painted wooden ball attached to a wooden stick by a piece of string. Kendamas are traditional in Japan and while they're not popular all over the U.S., there is a kendama craze on the West Coast. As part of our series about media for kids, Ben Adler of Capital Public Radio sent this story from Sacramento, a city that kendama vendors call a hotspot.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: Instead of me telling you what a kendama is, let's turn to an expert.

LOGAN TOSTA: It has a ball with a string.

ADLER: That's 9-year-old Logan Tosta who lives in a Sacramento suburb.

TOSTA: And there is a stick that has three cups and a spike.

ADLER: Each cup is a different size on a different side of the stick.

TOSTA: One is called big cup, one is small cup and one is base cup. And the spike is just called spike.

ADLER: You hold the stick's handle, swing the ball in the air and try to catch it any way you can.

TOSTA: And the ball has a hole in it so that the ball can catch it on the spike.

ADLER: That's way harder than landing it in one of the cups. Logan Tosta says it took him about a day to learn his first trick, a month to learn how to do spike. Now, he can do tricks with names like Airplane, Jumping Stick and UFO, flipping the stick to catch the ball in different ways. What's your record for number of consecutives?

TOSTA: Two hundred of these, back and forth just like this.

ADLER: From big cup to base cup.

TOSTA: Yes. Two hundred.

ADLER: Kendama seems to be the buzz these days at elementary schools all around Sacramento. My kindergartener knew all about them. He said his friends have them. Now he does, too. But kendamas aren't that easy to find. They're usually at comic book stores or online. And they aren't cheap. The one I bought cost about $17, which is why, a few weeks back, Tosta was invited by his family friend to visit a school where she teaches second grade.

Francis Swanson's(ph) school is in a low-income neighborhood of Sacramento. Her students have all heard of kendamas, but they don't have them.

FRANCIS SWANSON: So this is Logan.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Hi, Logan.

SWANSON: And Logan is here to show you some tricks with the kendama because he's actually won contests before.

ADLER: The kids were riveted.

Then came the big surprise. He raised money from family and friends to give kendamas to every kid in the class.

SWANSON: That is awesome. Oh, my gosh. What do you guys say?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Thank you.

ADLER: And with that, the student's swarm over to grab their new favorite toy. No batteries, no screen, no apps - just a wooden ball attached to a wooden stick with a string. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.