Toys traditionally for children are finding popularity with adults as well, with the opening of a specialty shop last year and 2020 Tokyo Olympic-themed goods now in the works.
Opened in December last year, Su Lab in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, is both a cafe and a specialty shop for the "kendama" toy. The walls are lined with around 70 to 80 different varieties of kendama, varying in material and color. Before buying one, customers can try them out. While relaxing at the cafe (one drink costs 500 yen for adults, 350 yen for children), one can spend hours playing with the toys.
The shop's owner, Takahiro Ikegami, 33, says he got into kendama after becoming an adult. He is a certified fourth-dan player with the Japan Kendama Association.
"With a little practice, even a beginner can do familiar tricks like 'moshikame,' flipping the ball between the big- and medium-sized cups, and 'tomeken,' catching the ball from underneath with the pointed part, so there is a sense of accomplishment," he says. "Meanwhile, there are said to be over 30,000 kendama tricks, so even for experts there is no end to it," he adds.
The shop's customers range from toddlers to people in their 80s. Ikegami says that the reasons people give for buying kendama include, "I want to play with it with my grandchildren," and "I want to play with it as an indoor exercise." Playing with a kendama involves lots of knee movements similar to squat exercises, and if one does it seriously they can break a sweat even in winter.
"It gives you better ability to concentrate," says Ikegami.
In recent years, kendama have been taken up in other countries like a sport and have gained popularity among young people. There are many foreigners who come to Japan to visit Su Lab.
"Kendama are a great communication tool that allows playing together even if you're of different ages or you don't speak the same language," Ikegami says.
Another children's toy gaining traction with adults is "otedama," bean bag-like toys that used to be used as indoor play for girls. There are around 1,000 members of the national association "Nihon no Otedama no Kai" (Otedama Association of Japan), which is headquartered in Niihama, Ehime Prefecture, and holds events around the country to spread the toy's appeal.
At "Tokyo Otedama no Kai" (Tokyo otedama association) in Setagaya Ward, around 40 members aged between their 30s and 80s hone their skills and once a month volunteer at homes for the elderly and play with the residents, or teach classes at local elementary schools.
Chairwoman Tamako Koizumi, 73, was born in Kawanishi, Yamagata Prefecture. "People there can't play outside in winter because of the snow, so when we were kids in winter we always played with otedama. We copied the older students so we were all good at it," she says.
She adds, "It is a gentle toy because even if you drop it, it doesn't roll away. Elderly people and children can play it again and again, and you can play it alone or with others. It feels good in the hand, and it also helps prevent dementia."
Currently, Tokyo Otedama no Kai is focusing its energy on creating otedama. They have thought up their own design for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, dyed into five separate colors, filled with pellets and sewed into a cylindrical-shape. They also came up with a design for yoyo-style otedama that have rubber bands attached, so that elderly people and people in wheelchairs can play with them without dropping them. The group plans to sell its otedama in sets of five as Japanese souvenirs.
"I hope that elderly people, children and people with disabilities will all gather, enjoy otedama, and we can show the appeal of otedama to the world," says Koizumi.