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Going kendama crazy — West Hawaii youth show off skills in tricky, popular game

Updated: 
July 6, 2014 - 7:54am

It’s a game, an addiction and the latest craze among Hawaii’s youth.

Kendama: It’s the funny looking ball and tether attached to a stick with different cups and a spike where the player is supposed to catch the ball. The traditional Japanese toy has increasingly become the focus of countless hours of concentration and practice. And Saturday, it was a source of competition and celebration as some 100 children and parents gathered at Kona Commons Shopping Center to see who was the best — and to watch a team of real pros.

“It is a certain type of flow. Music helps me a lot. When I got music, I can’t stop; I go crazy,” said Taylor Warnecke, 14, who stood in front of Hawaii Island Creations and practiced moves like the “scooping goldfish,” the “big cup juggle” and “around Europe.”

Warnecke was preparing to offer up an increasingly difficult series of tricks in the advanced category at the exhibition and competition put on by Matt “Sweets” Jorgenson and the Sweets Pro Kendama Team. HIC hosted the event and Jorgensen’s team, which has been traveling the island to promote the game and Jorgenson’s own line of the toy. The Big Island Kendama Tour was in Waimea on Friday and Hilo the day before.

“My friend brought it to school one day and it just exploded from there,” explained Warnecke, who has been practicing with the toy for about a year. “We were hooked. I put in a lot more hours than I should have already.”

Clutching a microphone, Jorgenson orchestrated and judged players, who took the stage, blocked out the stares and the noise and focused completely on the kendama.

“You gotta be on your A game. You gotta be focusing,” Jorgenson barked.

“It’s not easy nailing these tricks. Especially when you get up on stage and get the shakes, it’s tough,” he said.

For a beginner, trying to land the ball in the cup or on the end of the spike can be frustrating. Once that is mastered, the tricks only get harder, with the ball looping orbits, ricocheting, endlessly missing it’s mark by a hair’s breadth.

But victory, where it’s had, is sweet.

A few pointers can make a big difference, and even keiki who don’t have someone to show them can learn a lot from YouTube videos, Jorgenson said in an interview after the event.

“Every trick has one special thing you need to know that makes it,” said Jorgenson, who started Sweets Kendamas in Minnesota four and half years ago.

“When I started out, no one played,” he said. “Kids now can learn in two months what took me a year.”

With the conclusion of the Big Island tour, Jorgenson’s next stop is the World Kendama Championship in Japan.

Lopaka Acia, 12, of Waikoloa showed up to compete in the beginner’s category. His mother, Rachel Acia, thinks the toy is good for keiki, especially compared to video games.

“We’ve watched him practice and practice for months,” she said. “It develops good eye-to-hand coordination. It’s a good outlet that teaches a skill.”