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Playing like a King

Sophomore Adam Kingman’s kendama video, entitled “spf lemon,” can be seen online and has generated more than 4,000 views. Photo by Cassie Czarnetzke

Images of film flash across the screen — of lush forests, icebergs, fishermen sporting camouflage, and playing kendama in an Alaskan river; of cliff jumping, kayaking, and underwater kendama all under Lake Tahoe’s sunshine; and of playing kendama by the markets in the metropolitan backdrop of San Francisco.

In August, UW sophomore Adam Kingman began gathering footage for his video. The short film that ran 14 minutes took seven weeks to capture and, due to Kingman’s kendama skills and cinematographic talent, has generated 4,503 views and counting. Both the video and winning a sticker-design contest earned him a position designing for a company that markets the kendama game. Originating from Japan, the kendama is a wooden, hammer-like figure with a string-connected ball, a toy spotted slung around the necks of an increasing number of UW students. In the video are striking camera shots of Kingman and other players ranging from beginner to expert levels, playing the game across three diverse locations — Alaska, Lake Tahoe, and San Francisco.

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The name “kendama” represents the different pieces: The “ken” is the wooden handle, and the “tama” is the ball.

“There are kids who make edits, but they don’t leave their kitchen,” Kingman said. “They’re just in their kitchen shot after shot after shot, and they’re really good. But it’s like, be creative, don’t just play in your kitchen all day.”

Among those who watched the short film was Jeremy Stephenson — the founder of “Kendama USA” in Atlanta, Ga. — who posted the video on his business’s homepage.

At the end of August, the company had advertised a sticker challenge. The designs of two winners would be included in a holiday “sticker pack” attached to every online order, sent to kendama players across the globe. Kingman entered designs that included a rabbit with horns — a “jackalope” — and a unicorn.

“But they didn’t pick those,” Kingman said with a smile, unable to remember which drawings were chosen because he felt they lacked remarkability. “I submitted six, and they picked the bad ones.”

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Kingman demonstrates one of the many ways the kendama can be positioned during a trick.

Kingman’s design and camera proficiency prompted Stephenson to personally contact him from China.

“So he calls me and he’s like, ‘Hey, this is Jeremy from Kendama USA. I’m in China right now calling from Skype — sorry about the weird number,’” Kingman said, “and basically he just asked me if I wanted to do design work for Kendama USA.”

Stephenson offered to send him a check in return for his collaboration with the company, but, in lieu of the cash, Kingman opted to receive loads of 20 kendamas to sell and spread across the UW campus.

“I’ll send some designs, make some posters or whatever, and then he’ll send me some kendamas,” Kingman said. “Three weeks ago, I got my first box, and I got rid of them in a week — and it’s like food money. I sell a kendama, go to Trader Joes, get some food.”

Many of the kendamas from Kingman’s first box were purchased by members of his fraternity, Theta Xi. Out of the 30 members of his house, Kingman estimates that 10 began playing since then.

“I’ll be sitting in my room late at night doing my homework, and you’ll just hear, ‘clack, clack, clack,’ and I’m like, ‘Yo, come play with me!’ and someone will run into my room and we’ll play kendama for a while,” he said. “Pretty soon it’s like five people, and we’re all playing kendama.”

Last August, Kingman had competed in his first kendama battle. Kendama battles consist of three levels: beginner, advanced, and expert. Contestants attempt to complete six or seven tricks before their competitor.

Clothing racks hauled aside, Kingman stood shaking in a San Francisco apparel store’s cleared center. Roughly fifty kendama players, gripping “damas” — colored either canary yellow, baby blue, or royal purple — fixated their attention on Kingman and his 14-year-old Oakland native opponent, Willem Smith-Clark.

“My first one up, I play Willem. And I’m so nervous, because he’s way better than me,” Kingman said. “But they are the easiest tricks. I know I can do all these tricks, and so can [he], it’s just who can do it fastest with consistency. So everyone’s shaking. It’s just so intense.”

Smith-Clark progressed to the sequence’s final trick, “airplane,” before Kingman. Adding flair to the standard move, he instead completed a tougher variation of “airplane” dubbed “downspike.”

The flourish caused Jake Weins, host of these monthly “KenGarden” battles, to deem Kingman the winner of the first round of three. After three rounds, a surprised Kingman advanced to play TJ Kolesnik.

Kolesnik — who rubs the ball of the kendama in his hair to increase its stickiness and who handed Kingman his first kendama the day Kingman moved away to college — beat the UW sophomore and later emerged as the battle’s victor.

Winning, however, was far from the main objective of the gathering. These 50 players collected to share tricks as well as meet the creators of the videos they had watched and the authors of the kendama blogs they follow. The crowd assembled to experience the kendama community, not to win the competition.

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Kingman compares playing kendama to "brainstorming" — he is always coming up with new tricks and bouncing them off of others.

“Kendama isn’t a really competitive thing,” sophomore Brendan Lee said. “It’s more about the community and having fun with each other; it’s not a sport about ego or anything. The best people are stoked when the newest people get a basic trick.”

One month after he began playing kendama, freshman Mihai Petriuc, like Kingman, recognizes the thwack of the ball and can’t resist joining the encouraging atmosphere.

“If I hear it in the house, I’ll hear the click, … and I’ll grab mine and go into the same room,” he said.

Kendama, Kingman stressed, is about community. The damas are constantly carried by players, ready to share tricks with interested onlookers.

“When you play kendama, it’s almost like brainstorming,” he said. “You just share your knowledge with each other, bounce it back and forth, come up with new ideas, new tricks. People jump in, and it feels good.”

Lee attests to the communal feel of kendama.

“There’s kind of this subculture,” he said. “I’m friends with people on Facebook that are in Europe and California that I’ve never met before, but it’s like, ‘Hey, I see you have a kendama in your picture so I’ll add you.’ It’s a pretty nice community. Everyone is pretty chill.”

And the game, both Lee and Kingman agree, is addicting. Kingman remembers a friend in his fraternity who refused for weeks to even test out the kendama. “That’s not my thing,” he told Kingman.

“So I said, ‘Here, take one. You can put it on your desk or in your backpack; it’s going to be there. Play with it if you want to, don’t play with it if you don’t.’ That was two weeks ago, and today I ask him if I could have it back and he’s like, ‘Yeah, but can I buy another one from you?’”

Kingman smiled.

“There’s something to it,” he said. “Don’t resist it; just give it a try.”

Reach reporter Devon Geary at features@dailyuw.com.

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