Kendama : a game without limits
Lots of people do not know what a kendama is, but the ones who do, are often extremely dedicated for it. The kendama is a unique and expressive toy. It was born in Japan as a drinking game that dates back to the Aztecs, the Inuits, and the French nobility of the 1600s. Today this aesthetic wooden toy plays an important role in urban lifestyle. During the last decade it became amazingly trendy in certain parts of the world. KROM is one of the leading flagships today – they do not only offer high quality kendamas but have already made a strong community striving to spread this exclusive style of living. We had an in-depth chat with one of the founders Philip and private kendama tuition together with the smallest players who gathered in the basement-placed headquarters in the inner city of Copenhagen.
What do you call yourselves when others ask about your profession?
As it sounds so funny, sometimes I’d say “I make wooden toys”! Actually that is true and I really am proud of that. But when it comes to serious matters, I would call myself a professional kendama player and entrepreneur/company owner.
Together with your partner Thorkild you are the first ones who brought to Denmark a toy that people had never heard about before! Tell us how you discovered kendamas?
It was completely by accident. We went to Roskilde music festival, where we met one of our old friends. He had with him a couple of kendamas from his brother who was a professional skater. He showed us this toy and gave us the spare one. Basically it was just a strange coincidence – that’s how our small group of friends started playing it. At that time it was completely new to Denmark, only few people knew what it is. Back around 2007- 2009 we were doing it as a hobby, learning very simple tricks and trying to understand how its physics work.
So how did this passion for a game turn into a business?
In 2010 Philip traveled to Nepal, India and Japan as a backpacker. Before that we made a bet with Thorkild that if no one had registered a domain with a name kendama.dk before the trip, we had to do just that and bring back any kendamas that we could afford… So we ended up buying 100 kendamas. We just really wanted to spread the love for this game, while our parents thought we are completely crazy.
How popular were kendamas at that time in other parts of the world?
It used to be a huge thing in Japan for a really long time, they even have a certificate system as there is for Karate. In 1975 Japanese standardized the game and the shape of the toy, named the tricks and started competitions. As it used to be a kids’ game and training tool that develops hand-eye coordination and perseverance, old Japanese people laughed at us a bit – ‘These guys in their mid 20s and still playing a game from their childhood… What is that about?’ What happened in the past decade was that freestyle Kendama became widespread in certain areas in Switzerland, France, Denmark and the west coast of USA. Each of these countries built their own Kendama communities. What unite us all, is the passion for the game and that we try to figure out ways to share this new experience.
Was it difficult to introduce this game to a foreign culture?
The fact that we have always had a non-business attitude towards this project kept us going. It was all about happiness; it was a hobby-company from the beginning but it took us by surprise. When we started importing kendamas and selling thousands of course there was a business perspective. Since 2012 things really moved a lot. There was a huge demand for kendamas. And it was a big boom for us, who started off by selling kendamas only hand to hand to our friends, or at schools… Trendy sneakers and game stores started selling our kendamas because it became an important accessory for a street character. Our business was growing out of our hands because kids went completely crazy for kendamas.
It seems that everything went without any struggles. Was it so smooth all the time?
Well, it became so popular even without us knowing. We even went on Danish news and national newspapers, they wanted to interview us. They saw it as an amazing story about two young guys who started selling millions krones worth wooden toys that people never knew about. For us it wasn’t a huge thing – we still were so into kendamas and focusing on developing a quality product. Our business was basically running itself because of outside factors. We decided to develop it more as a business – Philip dropped out his studies at university whereas Thorkild moved to Copenhagen, but the demand just suddenly stopped… What really happened was that all corporate toys shops started selling cheap kendamas. As it became a really ‘cool’ thing to be seen holding on the streets, toys stores started transforming it into a demand & supply game which degraded the tradition from a unique sport to just an ordinary toy… We had thousands kendamas in stock, we never paid salary to ourselves and our production was still running. Being passionable kids in the huge business world we didn’t know how to deal with this mess.
So how did these ‘kids’ solve their company crisis?
What we did was pretty extreme – we knew that we have a good product and a strong team of players. So we took the last money from our company account and bought tickets to USA where biggest kendamas competition at that time took place, with a product that we wanted to promote… Three big vikings from Denmark with new tricks and new kendamas that no one had ever seen before, went there and took that event by storm. It is a legendary story of how our players won a freestyle competition with ridiculous tricks. It was a magical event and again, it was a leap of faith but it gave us an opening in the USA market. We started doing international distribution, and in 2013 we even started selling kendamas back to Japan, where the roots of kendamas originally laid!
Do different brands produce Kendamas the same way?
The fundamental design always stays same. The difference between brands is in balls’ design and of course choice of wood. During the first two years we were just importing high-quality kendamas from different brands and reselling them to private customers, but we hadn’t a margin to do it in shops. It was such a big inquiry, because people wanted kendamas but didn’t know how to get them. So we decided to start our own brand, KROM.
What is so special about KROM products?
Thorkild is the main designer and product developer. We collaborate with other artists, when they hand paint the balls, we specialize in innovative Kendamas using exotic woods and creative lamination techniques. Designs that we came up with have distinctive different feel in hand. Most of the brands are doing ‘easy to understand’ designs while Thorkild is making it crazy and funky. We are trying to push the limits for kendamas’ design. Not just making a game or toy, we want to make something ‘real’ and perfect. Kendama that we are producing is the result of materializing how we would love to see this unique toy in hands of other people.
You met this wooden toy years ago and you’re still so passion-driven about it. What exactly does Kendama mean to you?
We have already been playing with kendamas for 7 years and our passion probably comes our curiosity towards the bottomless depth of this game. The path to inventing new tricks and styles is endless. The game itself is strangely simple and endlessly complicated at the same time. You can never be finished with Kendama, because there is always something new about it. And especially when we also work with selling, our heads are full of kendamas related matters: how to make, how to sell and how to promote it.
Could we say that up till now Kendama has not only been a game but also a reason to bring people together?
We do have a shop, we also have a Kendama dojo/workshop, where we are inviting people to register for a season and practise every week. We already have 12 years old kids on an advanced level. We simply have so much knowledge related to the Kendama game that want to offer. We also hosted ‘European Kendama Open 2014’ here in Copenhagen. It was the most multinational european kendama competition to date. It was an amazing experience! It is possible that after some time we might move away from this scene for a bit, so we want to make sure there will be someone to receive the torch. We made a name for KROM, we made a name for Danish Kendama family, which is so strong, taking into account that Denmark is such a tiny country… We will keep this community active!
Currently you are exporting to 24 countries. It is quite impressive for a team of two who were never business minded, but how about your future plans?
Now it’s becoming more and more like a business. We are not kids anymore and we want to scale it up, a lot. But still, the idea of our company is based on passion, even our staff are not here because of the money, but because of this game. At the moment you can see one of our team members is playing with the kids at the shop, this is a way for him to practise. We also take him to Japan or USA few times per year, most of the people cannot do it by themselves as private kendama players, while we want to give him all the opportunities and same experiences that we went through. It sounds and feels incredibly amazing when you are able to travel all over the world only because you play kendama, doesn’t it?
Have you ever regretted building KROM?
We never regretted starting it, we only regret stupid decisions we made along the line. On the other hand, it was a huge learning experience. We are always honest about being young guys without business background, we just love this game and really wish others to get a taste of it!