How To Play Kendama (けん玉)

August 8th, 2012By Category: Culture

Japanese bilboquet or Kendama (けん玉) is a game that’s been around for ages…in some way, shape or form, all over the world. Some people call it bilboquet, or the Bilbo Catcher, the cup and ball game, or the ring and pin game**. Since the origins of the game are unclear, I figured it’s a good time to make up a Japan Guy story as to how kendama began, so here it goes:
**I’ve heard this called bilboquet and the cup and ball game, but not the ring and pin or Bilbo Catcher. Thanks Waterloo University : )

In the beginning, the earth was a place of harmony, and land of blue seas and green trees. God and his wife, Gaia (Mother Earth), were quite please with the land they had created, but one create seemed to never be satisfied with natural beauty around them…the human. Humans would knock over trees and run amuck, all in the name of fun. Gaia, noticing this, created a miniature version of a heavenly game that her and God would play during their courtship. They would see who could catch the Sun using the Big Dipper or The Little Dipper (Gaia would usually win). This heavenly, little cup and ball game was dropped onto each of the different continents, except for Antarctica (unless maybe polar bears enjoy kendama).

Mother earth thought this simple, yet fascinating, form of entertainment would keep us humans happy and out of trouble. In turn, perhaps we wouldn’t destroy her precious planet. It worked for a time, but we humans not only reverted back to our destructive ways, but we became increasingly destructive.

Later Gaia had to take a much more proactive approach and thus created five magic rings to summon Captain Planet (the hero who gets weak if you throw mud on his chest). Third time’s a charm, Gaia.

The End.

Oh, yeah, sorry…kendama. The Japanese bilboquet device is quite simple-looking. The game consists of a wooden hand-piece which is attached by a string to a red, wooden ball that has a hole in the center. The hand piece has four main areas: 1) the big cup, 2) the small cup, 3) the tower, and 4) the spike.

The main objective of the game is to either catch the ball on one of the cups, or if you’re bada$$ kendama player, you catch the ball on the spike

I tried playing this game at my elementary school for the first time this week, and I think it’s great! After about ten minutes of practice, I was able to catch the ball on each of the cups, and the tower. Soon after I was able to even catch the ball on the spike. Catching the ball on the spike is pretty hit or miss for me and apparently it’s the same for a lot of people. That’s why the red ball has so many scratches on it, lol.

There was one student though who was really good at kendama, he was able to do some of the trick catches as well. I wikipedia’d (is that a word?) kendama just to find out a little more info, and Wikipedia had this this list of tricks:

  1. Around the World: big cup-little cup-tower-spike
  2. Slip on Spike: crossbar to sliding spike
  3. Earth Spin: spike to flip back on spike
  4. Around Japan: big cup-little cup- spike
  5. Around Europe: spike-big cup-spike-little cup-spike-tower-spike
  6. Bird: balance ball between spike and cup
  7. Under Bird: balance ball between cup and tower
  8. Lighthouse: balance tower on ball
  9. Airplane: swing ken to land spike while holding the ball
  10. Swag: Pull up ball to stab down spike


The tricks that really sound fascinating to me are the bird, ad the lighthouse. I can’t even do the bird trick by hand-placing the ball between the spike on the cup. Throwing the ball into this delicate balance point seems like the challenge of a lifetime. The same goes for the lighthouse. I read that and I was like “So let me get this straight. You want me to hold the ball and try to get the hand-piece to balance on top of it?” Of course I couldn’t resist. After trying and trying I decided that I’m good with my basic, run-of-the-mill kendama skills.

Author of this article

Donald Ash

Donald Ash is the creator of website.  He is from Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. and is currently living and working in Ibaraki, Japan as an English teacher.  The majority of his professional work has been in the educational field, having taught both karate and middle school in the United States.

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