Spinning tops are one of the oldest recognizable toys found on archaeological sites. They originated independently in cultures all over the world – doubtless due to a basic human fascination with things that spin and teeter and balance. (Good old physics!)
Japanese spinning tops (“koma” or “goma”) are considered some of the very best in the world. New designs come out each year displaying a very high degree of craftsmanship and multiple-action spinning sophistication. They’re usually made of native wood and painted by hand. They can take the shape of animals, fruits, and even gambling games. Some modern tops are cinched with metal bands.
Here are four sets of my Japanese multiple-action spinning tops I have cherished for decades. Their colors have faded over time, but their quirky, unpredictable behavior still engaged and delighted the sophisticated grown-ups who played with them while I tried to film them.
A. “Sandan koma” A palm-spun triple-decker of tops (above, left). Not so hard to start the largest top revolving. More challenging to spin the middle one in the indentation of the big one. Downright next to impossible to get the small one balanced on the whole gyrating stack. (I managed this once for five seconds!)
B. “Tobi-koma” Flying top. (right) My favorite! This is a string-pulled top comprising five coin-sized tops nested inside a cup. When launched, the smaller tops come shooting out of the cup. Lots of fun guessing which color will spin the longest. Never the same! Skilled players even get the cup itself to spin upside-down!
C. “Okkake-goma” Chasing top. (left) This string-pulled top is spun in its tray. Two disks dropped against the spinning top get launched to leap each other in the track or knock the other out of the way.
Professional top spinners in Japan also do shows in which they perform clever tricks like spinning a top on the edge of a sword!
Eyes closed I can still see and feel and hear my first sparking, humming spinning tin top. Can you remember yours?