‘Kendama Cowboy’ Swinging Cup and Ball Game to New Highs

The Yomiuri Shimbun
“Kendama Cowboy” John Geron performs tricks using two kendama.

Samurai fascinated John Geron and provided the inspiration for him to come to Japan in the early 1990s. The American then fell in love with kendama, and he’s hard at work promoting the cup and ball game.

Kendama consists of a hammer-shaped handle connected to a ball by a string. It has three cups and a spike on which the ball, which has a hole through it, can fit.

A native of Texas, Geron, now living in Tokyo, calls himself “Kendama Cowboy” and runs a kendama store. He is enthusiastic about learning more about kendama and spreading the game around the world.

Geron studied the Japanese language when he was a graduate student in international business in the United States. He moved to Japan in 1993 and has worked various jobs such as a model, narrator and photographer. He also runs a model agency with his partner.

His interest in kendama deepened 11 years ago. He and his partner opened a ramen shop overseas and put kendama on display in the restaurant. The decoration became a topic of conversation among the staff and customers.

Geron then began studying kendama in earnest. He feels that kendama “has many similarities to Bushido, the way of the samurai, which emphasizes the training of the mind, technique and body.” He taught himself kendama techniques by watching online videos.

He joined the Japan Kendama Association in Tokyo in 2016. He became the first non-Japanese to qualify as a 2-kyu level instructor, which allows him to judge tournaments and certify dan levels. He advanced to the 2-dan level in 2018, and also helped revamp the association’s website.

Last July, Geron opened “MESH.tokyo,” a kendama store in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. The shop sells Japanese kendama in addition to kendama made in the United States and other countries, including colorful kendama in blue and pink.

The store holds open-air kendama classes out front approximately twice a month. About 10 people gathered on April 1 to compete in the number of times they could do the “tomeken” and “todai” tricks. Tomeken is the basic trick of landing the ball onto the spike. Todai, which means “lighthouse,” entails holding the ball and flipping the handle onto the ball so that the handle stands upright.

“I started playing kendama to have fun with my child,” said Makoto Hikida, a 43-year-old company employee from Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, who participated in the class. “I want to be able to do a series of tricks myself.”

“The appeal of kendama is that it is easy and fun for anyone to learn, and through practice and competition with peers, it not only helps develop concentration and perseverance, but also helps build individual character,” Geron said.

Kendama has been attracting worldwide attention in recent years as a game to play on the street, and Geron hopes it will eventually become an Olympic sport.