Sasebo Koma: The Beautiful Folk Art of Spinning Tops

Tops, or koma, are round and made of wood and pierced through the middle with a rod that’s used as the axis for rotating. These tops, which spin by being spun either by hand or with a string, came to Japan in the eighth century from China, by way of the Korean Peninsula (that is where the name “Koma” derived from). At first they were a game for the court people and the nobility, but then during the Edo period (1603-1867) the tops became widespread and gradually became a game for children as well.

Competitive games with tops have become very popular. Using a string, players spin small wooden or steel tops called bei-goma, inside a ring, like a bucket covered with a towel, and try to knock their opponents’ tops out of bounds. The Sasebo Koma is also called “Kenka Koma (Fighting Tops),” used in a lively game called “Ikinaga Shomon Shokurabe.” This phrase was shouted by children as they competed while playing with tops.

Over the years many kinds of tops have been created in Japan, including tops that make noise and tops that spin extra fast. They are used as toys, in traditional games, holiday games, and even in some modern-day international competitions! The Sasebo Koma is well known throughout the country for its beautiful shape and design. Many places in Japan display the Sasebo tops. There is a life size replica of a top in the train station, street posts whose tops are shaped like the koma, and pictures of the tops in the sidewalks along the streets.

Among the many big, small and family-run businesses all around Sasebo, we had the pleasure of coming across this one. It is run by a very pleasant, older Japanese couple. It is called, “Sasebo Tops.” The husband makes the tops and the wife paints them.

Sasebo Tops
Sasebo Tops

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Top of the shop.
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Entrance into Sasebo Tops.
The wife showed us around their shop which is run out of part of their home. She showed us the different tops (speaks broken English but enough to talk and give information). There were tops with animals painted on them and she explained to us that they represented the zodiac signs and we got to find ours.

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View of the inside from the entrance.
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They had tops of all kinds!
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Our “touristy” shot of us in the shop.
As we were looking around the shop, the lady asked us if we wanted to try spinning the tops. We said “of course!” So the lady showed us how to spin! You wrap the string, clockwise, around the rod on the bottom of the koma (which you hold facing facing up first).Then, you face the rod downward, so your hand is placed over the top of the koma, your thumb facing downwards. You then throw the koma outwards, not raising your arm higher than your shoulder and pull your arm back quickly as you pull the string. The top should then spin 🙂

photo 1
One type of top that we bought!
photo 3
Another type of top that we got- this one has a dragon painted on it! (The sign to the left of the dragon says the name of the shop- Sasebo Tops). It came with a nice little stand too!

AND after we had made our purchases, she came out of the shop and told us to practice. Then she gave us the practice tops that we had played with! We had such an awesome time!

photo 2
The tops that she let us play/practice with, and eventually keep when we left.
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Us with our practice tops at the end of our visit.

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I visited the same or very similar shop with my son more than 18 years ago and still have my top on display as well as one pristinely in the original box. Your article brought back a wonderful family memory.

  2. Lisa,
    Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story! I’m glad that you were able to experience something like this, they absolutely make a wonderful memory to enjoy for a really long time!

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