What’s kendama, you ask? It’s a Japanese skill game using a wooden toy, similar to the cup and ball toy familiar to most Americans. The ken has three cups and a spike. Attached to the ken by a string is a ball with a hole in the middle. The player tries to catch the ball in the cups or on the spike or—in more advanced play—even balance the ken on the ball. It is the sort of thing that is both easy to learn and difficult to master.
Minnetonka High School junior Jacob Trebil has become a master of kendama. In the 2016 world championship, held in Hatsukaichi, Japan, Jacob finished ninth in the world overall and third in the freestyle competition. That was his first world competition, and he plans to return this year to see if he can better his standing.
Jacob first learned to play kendama about five years ago when he was in middle school. Kendama was a big fad at school, and all his friends played for a few months. For most of his classmates, the fad faded out, but Jacob never stopped playing.
“I just got into it, and after everybody else had stopped, I was still doing it,” he says. “It’s great to just put your headphones on and play kendama and zone out.”
But zoning out to music while he played wasn’t all Jacob was doing. He began to design kendamas, and when he was 14, he bought a lathe and started to make them by hand. He wanted to start a business selling them, but soon found making them one at a time was too labor-intensive. He found a manufacturer who could produce them for him, and now sells them online at cobrakendama.com and at Spirit of the Lake Yoga in Excelsior, as well as the Annandale Swap Meet in the summer.
“My business is growing,” he says. “And kendama in America is growing, too.”
His future plans include business school and continuing to develop his business. His short-term plans include a trade show in Las Vegas this month—where he’ll meet with toy manufacturers and try to make contacts to sell his kendamas nationwide—and another trip to the Kendama World Championship in Japan in July.
“I want to keep playing kendama and running my business on the side while I go to school,” he says.
If you’re interested in seeing what kendama playing looks like, go to YouTube (search for “Jacob Trebil Kendama”) and see Jacob in action. His company, Cobra Kendama, also has a YouTube channel to which you can subscribe. There are thousands of kendama videos on YouTube, and that’s one of the things Jacob likes about the game. “A cool thing about kendama is it’s a big community,” he says. “You meet somebody who plays kendama, and it’s like you have this immediate connection.”
Learn more at the website here, and find Jacob’s kendamas locally at Spirit of the Lake Yoga, 244 Water St., Excelsior.