The unmistakable sound of more than 100 kendama toys all clicking and clacking at once reverberated through the halls of Prince Kuhio Plaza on Thursday morning.
Keiki stood in small circles of all ages, facing each other as they bore looks of supreme concentration. Their eyes tracked brightly colored balls soaring through the air at the ends of their tethers and then returning to ricochet away or land neatly atop the various spikes and cups carved into the wooden, cross-shaped handles the children held in their hands.
The latest craze to storm Hawaii, the traditional Japanese toy is a fixture at omiyage and toy shops on Hawaii Island, and organized competitions abound. While the obsession over the deceptively simple toy has yet to take root on the mainland as it has here, it was a young Minnesotan and his company that helped to repopularize kendama.
Matt “Sweets” Jorgenson, in promotion of his company, Sweets Kendamas, travels the world with other pros, sharing their techniques and skills with children and adults alike. His company sells U.S.-made kendamas bearing his own customized paint jobs that lend a modern, stylish look to the toy. And on Thursday, he and his team were on hand to judge a competition for area keiki, share some tips and tricks, and foster the growing interest in kendama.
“The kendama culture is just really unique, really special. Everybody wants to share with everybody else,” he said before the contest in front of the Hawaii Island Creations shop, which sells his line of kendamas.
Jorgenson says that he was first introduced to the toy while watching snowboarders playing the game in a video online in 2010. Unable to find a kendama near his home, the then-21-year-old found the toy through a Tokyo Ebay account, and he quickly made the purchase.
“Once I played with it, I thought it was the funnest thing in the world,” he said.
After about a year of practice, Jorgenson says he started to realize he had an unusual talent for kendama. But, he said, there’s always room for improvement.
“You can never be perfect,” he said. “But you can always keep getting better. Learn new tricks. New things. That’s why it’s so fun.”
The kids gathered in the court area of Kuhio Plaza showed an almost limitless amount of patience as they spun their kendamas up into the air, perfecting tricks like the Spike, the Orbit, the Moshikame, the Airplane and more.
“Watch this,” said 13-year-old Nathan Augustine as he flipped the wooden handle of his kendama into the air, showing off his latest trick to his friend Andrelyn Marie DeLaCruz, 14.
Dayton DeLuz, the owner of the HIC shop in the mall, said he got together with Jorgenson to organize the event because kids on the Big Island “don’t usually get to see the top talent.”
He said he’s watched the popularity of the toys grow and grow, not only among kids but among their parents, as well, because in many cases it takes the keiki’s attention away from video games.
“It’s a skill game that captures their attention,” he said. “It’s a lot like a video game in ways. But it’s also like a yo-yo. It’s a challenge.”
The Big Island Kendama Tour 2014 will continue today at the HIC shop in Waimea from 10-11 a.m. in the Parker Ranch Center, followed by a July 5 stop at the HIC in Kona from 11 am.-3 p.m. at Kona Commons. For more information, call (808) 266-7201 or email email@example.com.
More info about Sweets Kendamas is available at sweetskendamas.com.
Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune- herald.com.