Various tricks require that the kendama be held in different ways. The major grips are as follows:
- Sara grip: In the sara grip, your fingertips grasp the ken under the sara-do with the thumb and index finger, and placing the middle finger and ring finger in either the big cup or small cup. The handle below the slip stop touches the webbing between your index finger and thumb. This grip is used for catching the ball in the big or small cups or in doing the moshikame (see below).
- Ken grip: In the Ken grip, the kendama is held point up with the thumb on one side of the ken and the remaining fingers gripping the other side. Some people stabilize the ken by placing their pinky on the same side as their thumb, just below the slip stop.
- Ball grip (or tama grip): In the ball grip, you grip the ball with your thumb and index finger, hole side up, with your remaining fingers cupping the ball below. Some people curl their pinky away from the ball. Some grip with their fingers as far around the ball as they can, and some grip with their fingers and thumb diametrically opposite each other. The thumb and forefinger can be above the “equator” of the ball and gripping tightly, or below the equator and gripping lightly. The latter adds more control and sensitivity for some tricks, but shouldn’t be used around glass windows, computer displays, and other breakable objects, as the ball sometimes flies away in the heat of excitement.
- Rosoku grip: For the rosoku trick (see below), the ken is held by the point between thumb and fingers, cup end up.
There are other grip variations and even ways of holding the kendama by the string, used in more exotic or advanced tricks.
Tricks for Kyu Level Ranking
In Japan, kendama rankings are similar to those awarded in the martial arts world. The lower level goes from 10- to 1-kyu, and the higher level goes from 10- to 1-dan. Each level requires the satisfactory completion of all the tricks (技 waza) designated for that level, and each kendama athlete must start at the bottom and be ranked level by level.
The tricks in order from lowest level to highest level for each kyu ranking are as follows. For each level you need to successfully perform the trick at least once in ten tries. In addition, you need to perform the trick for the level below the level attempted twice in ten tries, and the trick below that three times in ten tries. For levels 6 through 1, an additional trick, the moshikame (もしかめ) must also be performed.
10-kyu: Oozara (Big Cup, 大皿)
The lowest ranking level requires that you simply be able to jerk the ball vertically from a dead hang into the big cup once in 10 tries.
9-kyu: Kozara (Small Cup, 小皿)
Kozara is the same as oozara, but the ball needs to be caught in the small cup. This needs to be done once and oozara needs to be done twice, each in 10 tries, for a 9-kyu ranking.
8-kyu: Chuzara (Middle Cup, 中皿)
For 8-kyu the ball must be caught in the middle cup on the end of the ken. (Again, once in 10 tries, with the small cup done twice in 10 tries and the big cup three times.)
7-kyu: Rosoku (The Candle, ろうそく)
The candle trick is the same as the chuzara, except that the grip is different; You hold the ken by the point. This makes it a bit harder to catch and balance the ball.
6-kyu: Tomeken (Spike Catch, とめけん)
The spike catch (or pull up/in) involves jerking the ball up from a dead hang and catching the ball by inserting the ken spike into the ball’s hole. In addition to this trick (and performing the two lower tricks, as usual), to receive the 6-kyu rank and up you need to do the moshikame, which requires you to toss the ball between the big cup and the centre cup, 4 cycles in one attempt for 6-kyu.
5-kyu: Hikoki (The Airplane, 飛行機)
The airplane requires you to grip the ball and jerk the ken up, flipping it and impaling the ball with the ken’s spike. This need not start from a dead hang. Ten moshikamecycles must also be completed.
4-kyu: Furiken (Swinging Spike Catch, ふりけん)
The furiken is similar to the tomeken of 6-kyu, but it’s made more difficult by swinging the ball up, rather than starting from a dead hang. Twenty moshikamecycles are required.
3-kyu: Nihon Isshu (Trip around Japan, 日本一周)
The Trip around Japan starts with a small cup catch, then you toss the ball to the big cup, and finally you spike the ball. Thirty moshikame cycles are required.
2-kyu: Nihon Isshu (Trip around the World, 世界一周)
The Trip around Japan inserts a toss to the centre cup after the large cup and before the spike. Forty moshikame cycles are required.
1-kyu: Toudai (The Lighthouse, 灯台)
The Lighthouse seems at first impossibly difficult, a trick more suited to the dan levels than the kyu levels: You grip the ball and jerk the ken from a dead hang and balance the ken right side up on the ball, centre cup touching the ball, keeping it balanced and completely stationary on the ball for at least three seconds, without sliding it around and rebalancing.
Tricks for Pre-Dan Level Ranking
Above the kyu level and below the dan level there is the pre-dan level. To be certified for this strange no-man’s land you need to perform several of the tricks necessary for the dan level.
In addition, you need to perform 100 cycles of moshikame, but if you have previously performed this in any certified JKA competition, you don’t need to perform it during pre-dan certification.
Tricks for Dan Level Ranking
There are 6 dan levels, with the highest being 6 (unlike the kyu levels where the lower numbers are higher in rank). The dan levels require the following tricks:
Ken Isshu (Trip around the Prefecture, 県一周)
Ken-saki Suberi (The Point and Spike, けん先すべり)
Chikyu Mawashi (The Earth Spin, 地球回し)
Sakaotoshi (Spike the Lighthouse, さか落し)
Ura Furiken (Backside Swinging Spike Catch, うらふりけん)
Uchu Isshu (Trip around the Universe, 宇宙一周)
Uguisu (The Nightengale, うぐいす)
Tsurushi Tomeken (The Coat Hook Spike Catch, つるしとめけん)