MANILA – One Saturday, a young man stands inside a ramen shop in Quezon City, holding a wooden toy that looks like a cross between a judge's gavel and a yo-yo, with a bright red ball at the end of a string. The remains of his meal forgotten on a corner table, his eyes focus on the object in his hand.
With a swish and a clack, he catches the ball in one of the toy's three attached cups, and then deftly flips it to transfer the ball to another cup. He works swiftly, the ball blurring into a wash of red swinging back and forth. His eyes flick to his companions, who are doing the same.
Signs on the shelf beside them holding a variety of similar toys proclaim them "kendama", a traditional Japanese wooden toy that has players from around the world, including the US, in its grip.
The young man, Eruel Ursua, is a member of Kendama Philippines, a group that caters to enthusiasts around the country. A sober-looking teenager, he comes to meetings alone, and is usually the first to arrive. While waiting for his friends, he contents himself with practicing his kendama tricks.
His friend, Stephen Danganan, is their group's leader, a wiry teenager sporting glasses, retainers, and a friendly demeanor. They seem a little shy at first, but come alive in each other’s company, and with kendamas in hand.
"Kami po ang spokesperson ng kendama sa mga kaibigan namin," Danganan said, grinning slightly. He and friends Jake Mendioro and Ysrael Rabe were among the first members of their team, KenetyK, under Kendama Philippines.
The toy first captured his interest when, some years back, his brother received a kendama from Japanese scholarship sponsors.
Because his brother ignored the toy, Danganan took the kendama, which caught his eye due to its uniqueness. He did research on how it was played, and eventually found John Geron, an accredited examiner by the Japan Kendama Association (JKA) who travels between the Philippines and Tokyo.
The meeting proved pivotal, as it put Danganan and his friends on the path to developing a fierce passion for the toy, which skateboarders and BMX bikers around the globe have adopted as their own.
Kendama player Emil Apostol shares how his friend, who works in the apparel industry, introduced him to kendama, a toy that has recently developed ties to street culture. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Kendamas have also captured the interest of yo-yo players. One player, Brittany Joson, a member of Kendama Philippines' Tripstyk team, was previously into yo-yos, but became interested in kendamas after Danganan showed her the toy.
"Sobrang accessible niya. Kung napagod ka sa computer, madali lang i-pick up parang yo-yo or Rubik's cube. Tapos puwede siya indoors or outdoors," she said.
She is not sports-oriented as her interests lie more in the arts, Joson said, but she became interested in kendama because it is easy to practice.
The kendama community in the Philippines is also very welcoming to girls, she said, compared to other sports where women are not the priority.
"Madami kaming girls, kasi siguro sa exposure din. Sa Japan, sobrang daming girls na players . . . Siguro feeling ng girls mas welcoming sa kanila ang kendama," she said.
Mendioro's mother, Judith, who accompanies her son, his two sisters, and their cousin to kendama meets, said she supports her children’s passion, as it helps them get away from console games, allows them to socialize with likeminded people, and provides them with the sort of kinetic activity they need even when they are at home.
This, Geron said in an interview over Skype, shows the many benefits of the toy. Players need to focus, and the traditional culture associated with kendamas influences players to be more respectful of it as a sport.
"When you look at the abilities of these guys (players), it's athletic, but athletic in a very precise way. It's not just muscles, it’s speed . . . All generations and sexes can play . . . Part of what I'm trying to do is to bring in the Japanese structure to give it legs, to give it a solid base, and so there can be something off of which you can build and measure yourself," he said.
"Everything now is digital. You are expected to do 10 things at once. Kendama forces you to single-task. You have to concentrate on the ball hitting this cup or spike in order to catch it. It’s not a talent that’s widely used in digital."
Japanese Ayako Malicdem, who took lessons from Geron to refresh her childhood memories of the toy, echoed this. Director of the Universal Peace Federation's Philippine Ohanashi (storytelling) Caravan, she also teaches children how to play.
"It is not just the culture, but it is also good for the mind and the body. [Kendama builds] concentration, [and is] good exercise," she said.
However, she never expected kendama to take off, because traditional games are "boring," she said.
"Here they do cool kendama tricks. What I did before, was only simple. But I saw that those young people are doing very exciting tricks. I realized it is no longer just a traditional Japanese game. It is global," she said.
John Geron shares how kendama helped him recover from an injury. ABS-CBN News
Players' passion for the game has not always met with approval, however. According to Danganan, his teacher once confiscated his kendama when he took it out during class.
"Araw-araw naglalaro ako sa school. Parati akong naglalaro, pinapagalitan na ako ng mga teacher ko. At one point, kinonfiscate nila ang kendama ko, tapos naglabas ako ng isa pa sa bag ko, pero kinonfiscate rin ang isa. Pero binalik naman after class," he said.
While a previous TV appearance in which Danganan demonstrated kendama raised the toy in the eyes of his teacher, she still does not want to use one, he said.
Despite mixed opinions on kendama, Geron believes that it has great potential for growth in the Philippines because the game has expanded into being more than a children's toy, and has become a way for kendama players to take a break from their computer screens and connect on a deeper level with their peers.
"When my guys go out there, they actually talk to other people. They're not texting, they're actually talking to other people. They meet up, they go outside. We've actually had parents thanking us that [their children are] leaving their video-game box and actually going outside meeting their friends," he said.
For Ursua, Danganan, Mendioro, Joson and their friends, it certainly shows.
"May ibang feeling 'pag may kausap ka. Nakakaengganyo 'pag may community," Joson said, her friends' laughter in the background as they challenged each other to show off their new moves.
Kendama advocate and Japan Kendama Association-accredited examiner John Geron demonstrates the basics of play. Courtesy: John Geron, goenKendama