Over the weekend we hit up the local skatepark in my hometown area. The same old prefab ramps, still standing like a decrepit stonehenge, the ancient ruins of teenage years. Decades of harsh New England white-outs had left the blacktop a cratered moonscape. The blazing summers suns had faded the offensive and misspelled graffiti into nearly unrecognizable spray paint smudges. Overall, the skatepark was in one piece, just as i remembered it, except for one thing…
I love visiting skateparks, at home or abroad, not for the inventive array of obstacles, but for the culture. The petri dish that is the local scene, the faces, the names and the energy of the locals. Appreciating the power of the community that they have constructed. I am always fascinated by the drastically varying subcultures with the subculture. The microcosms contained within 60 square feet of tar and chain link fence.
I was welcomed with nods and smiles from the locals, as me, my brother and my childhood friends entered the park. I inquired of a friendly, smiling local, Jimmy, about the new wooden ramps and DIY ‘crete that speckled and encrusted the park. He happily obliged and told me that he was responsible for the ramps’ construction. I thanked him for provided them.
Within moments, my crew and theirs were skating together, bumping quintessential 90s hip hop anthems, bumping fists and cheering for each other. Everybody was boppin’ and basking in the warm autumn sunlight.
While cruising around in euphoric figure 8s, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, that Jimmy the friendly local, had deserted his skateboard, had turned his back and was excitedly fiddling with something. Figuring Jimmy was frantically rolling a blunt I was bewildered to find that instead of a gutted backwoods wrap, Jimmy was tousling around a wooden ball bound by a string to a wooden dowel.
In his right hand, Jimmy clutched what appeared to be a wooden double-sided hammer, although strangley the face of each hammer head was inverted, concaved, resembling a miniature cup or bowl. Above the dual hammers was a small cone that gently tapered into a blunted tip. A white string, anchored to the base of the handle, flailed wildly in the air attached to a red ball. This red ball, the size of a beer pong ball, had a small hole that tunneled through the entire diameter of the wooden sphere.
A boy on a BMX appeared, and joined Jimmy, and expelling a wooden ball hammer from his pocket. Within moments, the two were fully engaged, shouting and giggling as they spun and casted their balls on a strings, attempting to catch it with either of their hammer cups or to spear it throughout the hole with the tips of their wooden cones.
After observing for a bit, this mutated form of cup-and-ball, I asked Jimmy what the hell was up with that thing. He told me it was called “Kendama” a game originally played by drunken Japanese sailors to pass the time on long sea voyages. Now, according to Jimmy, Kendama-mania has swept the states from coast to coast.
Jimmy elaborated, comparing the cup-ball game to skateboarding. He said that you master certain tricks and then try to do your tricks consecutively in a row, like a line.
This game reminded me much of the hacky sack or even devil sticks sessions of my youth. Flinging an object through the air and trying to catch it, stall it, and then return it to flight. It also reminded me of a string-based perpetual-volley toys like the yo-yo or paddle ball. Even the strange design of the Kendama toy shocked and intrigued me like my first eye witness accounts of fidget spinners.
I’ve seen many fads come and go, toys that were just as fickly picked up as were easily discarded- only to be rediscovered on the dusty shelves of Goodwill. What intrigued me about this new bizarre low-tech gadget was that, it did indeed, remind me of skating. Not only was Kendama a strange looking simple-machine, but to play, you simply needed time and patience. Fine-tuning your motor skills and battling the constraints of gravity were the shared struggle of both Kendama and skateboarding.
Not only was this an light-hearted, nonsensical escape from the mundane pressures of modern living, this game, clearly, had no coach, no team and no opponents. You were free to practice and create maneuvers as you so chose. Not only could you choose how to play but you could also choose to share the play with others, whoever you wanted.
I watched these two young men play for vigorous 20 minute stints, taking breaks to skate and BMX and then returning to their ball string hammers. They practiced their extreme sports in tandem with their string contraption disciple in even increments.
This not only was like skateboarding, it was an intrinsic part of Jimmy’s skateboarding experience.
Kendama was just about enough of a part of Jimmy’s sesh as other peoples’ weed-smoking, shit-talking or dead-eyed staring into their smart phone.
My hometown friends scoffed at the ball string hammer game of the locals, and remarked that they avoided coming to this very park because of the pervasive Kendama culture. I disagreed and said that I enjoyed the locals using the space however they pleased. I felt confident that these young men were outcasts, just as we skaters are, and that they should be cherished just the same.
When I found Jimmy and his BMX counterpart, brought together in Kendama bliss, now filming each other with a GoPro, I was certain that this game, like many other bizarre rituals, are in fact skateboarding. Having fun, expressing yourself and progressing a skill, by means of offbeat physical rhythm, doing what you want, where you want, solitarily or socially, that is what skateboarding means.
The world is a skatepark and you can play whatever you want in it.