A new game may be starting to spread throughout Saskatchewan if Adam McNeil has anything to say about it.
The Japanese interpretation of the ball-in-a-cup toy is something McNeil, 23, has been practising for almost four years. Kendama, which is believed to have originated in 16th century France, is a toy consisting of a wooden ball connected by a string to two wooden pieces called the ken and the crosspiece.
The game is played with the object of maneuvering the toy to allow for the ball to land on various parts of the wooden body.
But while he enjoys furthering his own skills, McNeil’s greatest passion is sharing the game.
“To have a presence where people can come and learn, come and compete a little bit and just grow in their skill, and also just create a welcoming community,” McNeil said.
McNeil travelled to Minneapolis last year to compete for the second time at the North America Kendama Open (NAKO), formerly called the Minnesota Kendama Open, where he placed 13 out of 99 competitors in the Amateur Open category.
“On the competition side, it was a lot of fun because I got to improve, and I think everyone feels better when they improve,” McNeil said.
But competing wasn’t the highlight of the event for McNeil.
Realizing they were short on judges about a week before the event, NAKO coordinators put out a call on social media. McNeil offered to help out as long as it didn’t conflict with his ability to compete.
It didn’t, and McNeil judged games at the amateur, intermediate and beginner levels through the weekend.
“That was the most fun, was getting to be a part of other people’s experiences,” said McNeil, who received comments and messages after the event thanking him for the encouragement he offered while judging.
“You look back and you’re like, ‘I definitely want to go back now to be a part of people’s good experiences again.’”
After an opportunity arose to partner with Sol Kendamas, a company passionate about selling kendamas and growing the game’s community, McNeil decided to put together a gathering for players of all skill levels.
The event, informally known as the Caronport Kendama Club (or “ken club”) also allowed McNeil to provide quality kendamas for those interested in the hobby without requiring beginners to break the bank on their first toy.
“Mostly what it was for me was to be able to get people in Canada access to kendamas for cheaper,” said McNeil.
Kendamas can retail online for anywhere from $30 to $100 U.S. with additional shipping and conversion costs.
“Once you actually start seeing people learn something new, you get to see this cool excitement in their eyes and see them grow in confidence,” said McNeil.
“It’s an interesting conversion. The minute they land it on the big cup, the first trick that most people learn, it’s like this revelation of a moment where they’re like, ‘I can do anything!’”
The progression of learning each trick becomes heightened as kendama beginners start to experience the active kendama community on social media.
“They see there’s this network of hundreds of thousands of people who play this game who are from totally different economic places, totally different world places, totally different social places, coming together to bond over this weird little toy,” McNeil said.
Elsewhere in the province, Shawn Bissonnette, a fellow kendama enthusiast and friend of McNeil, is also spreading the game.
“I always like weird things,” Bissonnette said. “It’s just something you kind of fall in love with.”
Bissonnette started his own club in Estevan, called ‘Dama at the Mall.
“We would just go to the mall and play kendama … We would plan to play kendama for an hour or two but we’d be there for five hours, it just didn’t stop,” said Bissonnette.
Both Bissonnette and McNeil hope to see more people across the province become involved in the game.
“It’s a confidence thing, it’s a skill-development thing and it’s a friendship thing,” said McNeil.