Adam McNeil was once asked to join a travelling circus.
The request is one of the many reactions the 23-year-old has had regarding his somewhat unusual pastime – kendama, the Japanese take on ball-in-a-cup.
A friend introduced McNeil to the hobby three years ago while working together at a summer camp north of Regina.
“I said, ‘Pffft, that looks dumb,’ ” McNeil laughed.
By the end of his first week, he was already learning tricks. Drawn to the game by his competitive nature and love of unique skills, it wasn’t long before McNeil started studying between his kendama breaks.
The game is believed to have originated in 16th century France when King Henry II played with a simplified version. The toy’s modern form, usually made of wood, consists of a ball connected by string to a ken and crosspiece.
According to Ethan Jones, a student at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport and fellow kendama enthusiast, McNeil is seldom seen without a kendama around his neck.
“My first experience with [Adam] was just seeing him walk around the halls, flipping the kendama around,” said Jones.
“It’s just an extension of his body.”
Though he didn’t join the circus, McNeil will travel to Minneapolis this October to compete in the North America Kendama Open, the continent’s largest kendama competition. It will be his second time competing at the international level, one of hundreds of players who will gather to share tips and compare tricks.
“I didn’t go with any expectations to win or even to do well,” he said. “I didn’t even really practise that much. I really just wanted to go take in the event [and] experience the community of kendama in person.”
Keeping expectations realistic after last year’s first-round elimination, the player says he hopes to win one round in the upcoming competition.
“It’s really hard to be coordinated and balanced when you’re up on a stage nervous and sweating,” he said.
McNeil currently owns around 15 playable kendamas but has owned about 30. He is known for loaning and even gifting toys from his own collection as a way of garnering interest in the hobby.
The toy also has a more practical purpose for McNeil, who works as a representative for Briercrest College.
“A lot of my work is with kids and it’s a lot less abrasive for you to show them a skill or teach them something that is interesting to them before talking to them about what they’re going to do after they graduate high school,” said McNeil.