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WHAT'S COOL IN JAPAN
A Wooden Japanese Toy Goes Digital
A computerized version of a simple wooden toy that's been popular with kids for centuries hit the stores in July, and it's become an instant hit among Japanese schoolchildren.
You've probably seen the traditional type. It's called kendama in Japanese, but it also has an English name--cup and ball--and it's played in countries around the world. Kendama consists of a stick with a ball attached on a piece of string. The stick is about 15 centimeters (6 inches) long and is held in one end. The other end is pointed, with two cups--large and small--on either side. You play by tossing the ball in the air and catching it in one of the two cups. You can also catch it on the spike, since the ball has a hole where the spike can go in.
Kendama was actually invented in Europe and reached Japan by way of China during the Edo period (1603-1868). It became a big fad among Japanese kids during the Meiji period (1868-1912).
And it's become a hit all over again today with the aid of computer technology. The new version, known as digital kendama, or "digi-ken" for short, went on sale in July. Digi-ken has the same ball and cups as regular kendama but with the added fun of music and flashing lights.
You can set it to three different modes: regular, rhythm, and combination. In regular mode, lights flash and music plays when you catch the ball in a cup or spike. In rhythm mode, you flip the ball between the two cups to the beat of rap music, catching the ball in the cup where the light is flashing. In combination mode, lights flash in turn on the big cup, small cup, and spike; you try to catch the ball where the light is flashing. And by pressing a button, you can set the game to different levels of difficulty.
Digi-ken made a splash when it was used in the Japanese version of the Broadway musical Big that played here in August 1998. The musical is based on the 1988 comedy movie starring Tom Hanks that takes place at a toy company.
The Digi-ken boom really took off among Japanese elementary- and middle-school kids, though, after several magazines reported that teen idol Takuya Kimura, a member of the singing group SMAP, was crazy about the new toy.
Photos (from top): The updated, electronic digi-ken (©TAKARA CO., LTD. 1998, supported by Fuji Television); a traditional kendama; practicing the different spike-catchy (Kay Yokota).