Prior to March 2020, I spent many weekends traveling to nearby events so I could expose more people to kendama. I'd set up a booth to teach and sell kendamas over the course of these events, sometimes only lasting 8 hours of a single day, others lasting an entire weekend. I would often get asked by newcomers,
"What is the hardest trick?"
It's a question that always stumped me and has probably caused way longer discussions than what they expected. I've never been able to give a quick answer. Occasionally, in the beginning when asked, I would just name the hardest trick I knew about at the time; Borders Balance as an example. Looking back, I was so shortsighted. Even now, I'm feeling even further away from knowing the answer to this question. Kendama, creatively, is very much still in its infancy. You can look at the momentous amount of new tricks being conceived over the past ten years as proof that there is so much still to be done. With that said, it's difficult to pin the medal of "Hardest Trick" on just one trick.
Kendama really flourished once it fell into international hands. Some OG players, like the Dama Nerds, mark each year as another "Year of Sander". This is a reference to Colin Sander's first kendama video that was uploaded February 21, 2007, and is widely considered the keystone moment marking the beginning of the Modern Kendama Era. With that in mind, we're in the 13th Year of Sander, with a holiday coming soon!
Over time, as kendama has developed and gained international interest, the answer to our ultimate question has shifted. For a time, Lunar Lander (more commonly known just as Lunar now) was considered the hardest trick; very few people could land it, most seeing it as a pipe dream. With more experience and time spent, top level players started landing the "Hardest Trick" consistently, but then sweeping the rug out from under us by shattering the barriers of difficulty altogether, adding flips to it. Soon after, another trick was dubbed the hardest, then a different one following that, the bar being set higher and higher as more tricks were realized.
Sure, Borders Balance is a hard trick by anyone's measure; it's extremely technical and requires the player's entire attention. Personally, I'm quite bad at them and can only perform the basic version of the trick. Now consider adding a flip to the trick and how much harder it becomes. Think two flips. Three? Sounds impossible, but a better word is improbable. The craziest part is that a Border Balance Flip has already been done and 5 times over, with Motty recently posting the very first Quintuple Border Balance Flip just a few weeks ago.
JKA Kendamas, pictured by Alex Smith (Late 2016)
For most of the early years, the standard of play were JKA (Japan Kendama Association) Certified kendamas; this included Mugens, Shin Fujis, Ozoras, and TK-16's. With so many people gaining interest, innovation on the shape and designs of a kendama began. New brands started popping up, adding their own changes here and there to make a better playing kendama.
All the kendamas available at the time sported "glossy" clear coats that protected the colored paint below. This shiny, often described as "icy" outer layer is notorious for its slippery nature; any kind of balance trick like Lighthouse or Lunar is quite a challenge, even for players with years under their belt. One of the very first changes made that drastically changed the game was sticky paint. With artists like Mr. Sourmash changing the kendama world with a sticky outer layer of paint applied to the tama, the possibilities for growth opened like the flood-gates. Where lunar was once the hardest trick, quadruple lunar flip took its place. Sticky paint became so popular, it became the standard; most kendamas you can buy today come with sticky paint!
Roots Painted Ozora next to a Sol 1 Up for comparison, pictured by Chad Covington.
Soon, cups got larger, making catches and balancing easier than ever. The beveled edge of the tama hole started being drilled wider, allowing for easier spikes and fast hand ideas. As the limit of a kendama shape is reached, we have found ways to modify the dimensions and proportions of it. Even the height isn't off limits, with most kendamas today looking down upon their 16 centimeter JKA ancestors. These innovations have undoubtedly pushed the upper limits of kendama to the highest levels we've imagined yet.
You may also arrive at a different answer if you asked different players; not everyone has the same definition of a "trick". Some consider an entire combination of tricks to be a single trick, like Around Tunbridge, as an example, whereas others specify that one trick is a single concept, like Tightrope. Both are insanely difficult, but are completely different in the WAY they are difficult. One is a test of consistency, the other, a test of precision and balance. Both viable contenders in their own ways!
My opinion is that there's not just one "Hardest" trick, but MANY tricks that are the hardest we know of! A lot of different ideas come to mind, especially with Krom's "Trick of the Year" contest just wrapping up last week. Every player has their own perspective on difficulty. What's hard for me is easy for others, and what's easy for me might be challenging for you. Difficulty is subjective, based on each individual's experiences, mindset, and style. With more minds applied to kendama, the more it grows and evolves, allowing even more difficult tricks to be discovered.
Cody Booth is a kendama player of 5 years from Huntington, WV who helps with multiple organizations pushing kendama forward. Cody's Instagram.