Made popular in Japan, kendama competition comes to Minneapolis

The North American Kendama Open kicks into action Thursday.

Joe Spitzenberger custom paints a kendama at the Sweets Kendamas warehouse on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019.  

Image by Nur B. Adam

Joe Spitzenberger custom paints a kendama at the Sweets Kendamas warehouse on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019.  

by Norah Kleven

On Tuesday, kendama lovers gathered in preparation for the sport’s largest competition in the Western Hemisphere. 

Kendama is a Japanese skill toy which consists of a spike affixed to three cups and a ball on a string. The goal is to land the ball on the spike, in one of the cups, or even the reverse: landing the cup on or in the ball.

The seventh annual North American Kendama Open (NAKO) begins Thursday, Oct. 3. Formerly known as the Minnesota Kendama Open, the event rebranded itself before this year’s competition. The tournament is hosted by locally operated kendama retailer Sweets Kendamas and the Kendama Institute. 

A sport that originated overseas, kendama has been growing in popularity in the United States over the past ten years, said Cody Griswold, event coordinator for Sweets Kendamas. 

“It’s like a skateboard that fits in your pocket,” Griswold said. “It’s the same rush of landing a trick without the risk of injury or the crazy expense that goes with a lot of sports.” 

Sweets was founded by Matt “Sweets” Jorgenson in 2010 when he identified a lack of access to quality kendamas in the Twin Cities. 

Today, Sweets has become a leading manufacturer of kendamas. Since its conception, the company has collaborated with an impressive array of individuals and brands, including Vans, Spikeball, extreme sport athletes, artists and musicians. 

Parker Johnson, a University of Minnesota student and Sweets-sponsored kendama athlete, said he loves kendama for the people, though he admits he thought the concept was silly at his first exposure to the sport. 

Now, five years later, Johnson is set to compete for his fourth year in open division, the highest tier of competition at the NAKO. 

But kendama is more than just a game. The community surrounding the niche sport is a commonly cited reason that players love the game. 

For University student Justin Greenberg, the sport opened international doors. 

“Through my kendama Instagram [page] … I met a bunch of people from all around Europe and was able to link up with them in various parts of the city,” he said. “They would just show me their lives, and I would really get a nice, authentic, local experience.” 

With four levels of competition, the event is open to competitors of all ages. Griswold said competitors span anywhere from eight to 80 years old. Competition format varies between the professional and lower division, but the premise is the same: competitors face off to land tricks the quickest or the most times. 

The tournament will span the course of three days, starting on Thursday. Events will be held at locations across the Cities, including the Sweets headquarters in Como, the Northeast Minneapolis Delta Hotel and the Varsity Theater. 

What: North American Kendama Open

When: Thursday, Oct. 3 – Sunday, Oct. 6 

Where: Minneapolis, MN

Cost: $25 for a 3-day pass, or $10 per day at the door 

Ages: all ages