During a trip to Colorado last month, I did what any self respecting Englishman traveling through that beautiful state should do: rented a cabin in the mountains and then got as baked as possible.
One night, while fireside, I got chatting to the guy who worked at the reception desk of the cabin place I was staying at.
The hours floated by, and at some point, he pulled out a weird wooden toy and started tossing it around. It was kinda like one of those cup-and-ball games, but more complex than any I had seen before, with two extra cups and a point on the end.
Holding the stick in one hand, the kid swung and caught the ball on the end of it, before bouncing it between the two other cups and the pointed end of the stick. Though I had no frame of reference, he seemed to be insanely good at it. He'd bounce the ball on the edges of the cups, juggle with the stick, make a cats-cradle with the string, even take the ball in his hand and balance the stick on top. Each trick was almost too fast to see, yet his body looked as though it was moving in slow motion. It was as though the ball and cup were staying still in mid-air, and he was moving around them.
When I complimented him on his skills, he informed me that he was practicing kendama, a traditional game from Japan.
"You're incredible at it," I told him. "I bet they have competitions, you know, have you ever entered one?"
"Yeah… they do," he shrugged, barely looking up, "I'm actually the world champion at this."
I chuckled and told him I thought that was bollocks, and after I explained to him what bollocks meant, he challenged me to look him up online if I didn't believe him. I did. It turned out that I was in the presence of none other than Bonz Atron, 2014 kendama world champion. I had discovered a new sport and met literally one of the best people in the world at that sport in the space of a three minute conversation.
Bonz in action at the 2014 Kendama World Cup
It emerged that this friendly 21-year-old was in fact living a glamorous double life: When he wasn't the receptionist for a log-cabin complex outside Boulder, Colorado, he was a superstar in Japan, where the sport is huge. "What's life like out in Japan for you?" I asked. He grinned. "The girls man. They're crazy."
Bonz never intended on being world champion of anything. His first encounter with kendama was in August 2012, when he saw a friend playing at a house party. That first evening Bonz landed a trick called the Lighthouse, which his friend had been trying to get right for about six months. "Before I'd even touched it, I knew I would play for the rest of my life," he said. "I just knew it."
And play it he did, eight hours a day from then onward. Skipping college classes to practice, mastering every trick he could try. "I was just so into it," he said. "When I started, I had no idea that kendama was popular anywhere." That was a year before he found that a company called Kendama Co was organizing an online competition to find a new player for its team. "There was no way I thought I was good enough, but I sent my audition video in anyway." Despite having only been playing for a year, Bonz's tape won him a place on Kendama Co's team.
This is a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout Bonz Atron's career: He'd enter something thinking he didn't stand a chance of getting in, and then he'd go on to win it. His first tour with Kendama Co saw him take on his kendama hero Keith Matsumura in the Battle in Seattle, the biggest competition event in the world at the time. "I worshipped this guy on YouTube", said Bonz, "he was the one I had been idolizing as the most OG player on the planet." Bonz beat him, won the whole competition, and in 2014 found himself on a plane to Japan to compete in the first ever Kendama World Cup.
Around the campfire, Bonz showed me the secret to the game. "It's all in your knees," he explained. "You want the ball to move upwards in a straight line so you can catch it." It turns out I suck at it. It wasn't until I actually tried the thing myself that I realized just how good Bonz is. My abysmal performance only served to throw his ludicrous skills into perspective; skills which would serve him very well in Japan.
There, kendama is something of national obsession. Children play from early ages, and Japanese employers have even been known to favor job applicants who can demonstrate proficiency with the toy, due to the significant perseverance and patience needed to get good.
The Kendama World Cup is a two-day event, with the highest scorers from day one allowed to compete for the cup on day two. Each contestant must perform ten tricks. These tricks are a complex sequence of tossing, catching and stalling the ball, pulling off near impossible balances and exquisite landings. Rhythm is important too. As usual Bonz arrived on the first day of the competition expecting to lose. As usual, he came first.
With his place secured in the finals the following day, Bonz went and partied all night with the players who had failed to qualify. "I was pretty haggard on the day of the finals," he said. "But because I had the highest score of day one, it meant I went last on day two." After a power nap and a whiskey Red Bull, he was ready to go. What happened next remains a bit of a blur. "I just sort of blacked out as soon as I hopped on the stage," he said. "When I was finished with my run, everyone in the arena was chanting my name, and I seriously couldn't even remember what I had just done."
He still didn't think he had done enough to win, but he was wrong. "When they called that I had won first place, man, my stomach just dropped." Then it was on to the press tour. "Suddenly there were camera crews following us around constantly. We traveled across Japan going on all the news stations—it was crazy." The kid from the log cabin reception in Boulder is almost a celebrity in Japan. When I asked him about it, he took a long look into the fire. "My trip to Japan was the most unbelievable experience of my life," he said.
After about an hour of trying, as the fire was dying down, I finally managed to catch the ball in the cup. "When you can catch the ball on the spike, that's when you know you're getting somewhere," Bonz told me, not all that reassuringly.
After becoming the world champ in 2014, Bonz returned last year to win the inaugural freestyle competition, with fellow American Wyatt Bray taking the main title.
"I never expected any of this to happen," Bonz told me. And I believe him. So naturally talented that, rather than work his way up through the ranks for years, he just kept beating people. At this year's World Cup, he didn't get the top spot, finishing in tenth place. "I have made so many friends for life across the world, and everyone's talent is just amazing," he said.
Everyone's it would seem, but mine. That said, I did buy a kendama and, the other day, managed to land the sodding ball on the end of the goddamned stick. And it felt pretty good–maybe I'm not so bad after all. But then again I did, quite literally, learn from the best.
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