Japan's traditional kendama ball-and-cup toy has been reborn as a new sport and is attracting attention around the world. Professional players demonstrate their highly sophisticated techniques on Internet video sites, and a world championship event was held last year featuring the first monetary prizes to be awarded for kendama in Japan.
A typical kendama has three cups and a spike on which the ball, which has a hole, can fit. The ball is connected to the spike with a string.
You can see a young American on YouTube twirling the toy, throwing it up in the air like a baton and catching it as the ball lands in a cup almost simultaneously. The footage looks like a music video with the man demonstrating highly advanced kendama tricks at parks and on narrow streets, amid up-tempo background music and quick image transitions.
This is Colin Sander, a 27-year-old member of the professional kendama troupe Kendama USA. He says he got interested in the toy when he saw Japanese people playing with it.
Sander's video postings have been bringing international attention to the new style of playing with kendama, called extreme kendama since about six years ago.
Kendama is said to have originated in a popular game in 16th-century France that involved having a ball land on a stick. It is believed to have been imported to Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867) via China.
The current design featuring cup-like pieces was made in 1918 by a craftsman who completed the product at a factory in Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture.
Last July, the Kendama World Cup was held in Hatsukaichi, with about 100 professional and amateur players from 11 countries and regions competing. There were also about 38,000 spectators.
Kendama competitions are scored according to difficulty levels. A player can dramatically reverse the rankings by performing a difficult element successfully.
The top two winners at the Hatsukaichi event were Americans who successfully completed dynamic, difficult tricks. A Japanese player took third.
"The players high-fived their rivals to show their respect for each other when they pulled off high-level techniques. The event had a great atmosphere," said Tamotsu Kubota, representative director of the Global Kendama Network (Gloken). The Gloken will hold this year's world cup in July.
The Tokyo-based Japan Kendama Association (JKA) has received an increasing number of inquiries from overseas about how to obtain certification under the "kyu" grading for basic skills and "dan" grading for advanced skills.
This April, a British man came to Japan to take a certification test for sixth dan - the highest level.
"The world seems much more interested [in the toy], recognising that Japan stands at the summit of kendama technique," said Gloken Executive Director Sachiko Tsutsumi. "Kendama is evolving amid a fusion of traditional techniques and new ones created by free-minded foreign performers."
To learn a dynamic technique, I visited Nobuaki Komoto, also known as "Kendaman." His high-level skills can also be seen on video sites.
After changing into a T-shirt and short pants - practice starts with the right fashion, after all - I asked the kendama master, 37, to show a model performance. Komoto obliged by performing "Tsumuji-kaze," which means whirlwind, a really difficult technique where you flip the handle into the air vertically and then have the ball land on the spike.
As a beginner, my practice started with "Tomeken," a basic technique of landing the ball onto the spike tip. I cleared this hurdle by following his instruction: "Use your whole body to [quickly] move it [the kendama] upward."
I also managed to do "hikoki" (airplane) - holding the ball with its hole facing upward, swinging the handle outward and landing the spike tip in the ball's hole - three times in a row after Komoto advised me: "Move the ball to meet the spike tip."
Thinking I was now ready, I tried again and again to do a dynamic trick of swinging the handle around by holding the string in my hand, but the ball kept hitting my body and I never succeeded.
Finally, Komoto said, "When you practice a difficult trick, just keep doing it for fun until you make it."
Under Komoto's supervision, Tokyo-based toy maker Bandai Co. has developed a new version of the traditional toy called KDX (Kendama Cross) whose cup sizes and ball's weight can be changed. The product hit store shelves last July and has sold 440,000 units.
I had thought kendama was just a low-key game, but it's transformed into a fashionable sport. Competitions featuring very difficult tricks are fierce and entertaining enough to magnetize the audience. Is it going too far to recommend it for the Olympics?