The Henka of Bujinkan and Banjos


Greetings ninjas,

I might as well get this out in the open early in this blogging series. I’m a banjo player.

I know what many of you are hearing when I say that.

The Dueling Banjos song from the movie Deliverance.

I know it’s hard for many of you to block that out of your head. It’s like saying “whatever you do, don’t picture a pink elephant right now in your mind.” It’s impossible not to.

Moving on…

What does Dueling Banjos and the art of ninjutsu have in common?

Henka. Stick with me here. It’s not about a battle or even a duel.

I picked up a banjo over 40 years ago. I was obsessed with learning at a young age. I learned the basics- key songs that everyone played, scales, fancy “licks”, and all the foundational elements that most banjo players learn.

And then I started to play with other people, which evolved to joining bands, recording, performing at festivals, and teaching- typical evolution for an obsessed musician which also included having to learn to sidestep the brunt of all the banjo jokes.

One thing would often happen after “jamming” with people. Someone would ask me after a song ended, “How did you play that part you just did in that jam?”

I would often answer, “I have no idea. I just played it.” I was in the proverbial “zone”.

When I get in the center of an improv-jamming moment, there’s things at work…

Sinking in the “zone.”

Being present in the moment.


Awareness of myself relative to others around me (band members I play with).

Taking a basic concept and dancing with it.

And above all, playing and having fun.

Sensei Roemke began his training in ninjutsu about the time I picked up a banjo.

The first time I watched him demonstrate the concept of henka, I immediately thought of one thing…

“He’s jamming!”

And I heard Dueling Banjos in my head. Just kidding. My sincere apologies for bringing that up again for those of you who successfully removed that earworm from your head.

Henka is a Japanese term meaning a variation of a technique. There is a LOT that can be expounded upon this concept.

For a perspective on this concept, Sensei Roemke uses a technique called omote gyaku, or “outside wrist twist” in the video below. He teaches the “basics” and then shows examples of henka for this technique.

But if you watch closely you may catch a few things that happen in the video below.

He does a different variation every time.

And, he’s laughing and smiling.

And when finished, he says, “What did I do? I don’t even know. It was a blur.”

When I work on learning a new technique on the banjo, I’ll take a specific piece of a song and slow it down to analyze it part by part until I learn it. My daughter and I do this a lot with Sensei Roemke’s ninjutsu videos. When he shifts into henka mode in the video below, I highly recommend putting your video player in slow speed format. It’s fun to watch it this way to catch all of the little subtle things he’s doing

Check it out.

I’ll leave you with what Sensei Roemke has to say about Henka.

“My perspective on the concept of using “variations” of a certain skill in your life or as a student in the Bujinkan is that you will never know what is going to happen, and thus you have to be in the present moment. If you stay totally present and don’t think too much about what is about to unfold or happen, then something beautiful will emerge from the moment you are in.”

That idea can apply to so many aspects of life, even banjo playing.

Hope you enjoyed this one. This video is an excerpt from our weekly live online adult Ninja Training TV Live online class where you can request skills and get feedback from Sensei Roemke.

Here's to health and happy henka hunting!

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

Greetings ninjas,

When I walk through the forest and look at the trees I think...

Fire-making supplies...


Syrup (I live in the northeast and just finished boiling some sugar maple sap!) and...

Rokushaku bos.

Today let's talk about one of the oldest self defense tools, a big stick, otherwise known as a rokushaku bo, or full length staff. We have a couple training videos for you today that teach some of our favorite rokushaku bo skills.

My first encounter with this training tool occurred at 4000' elevation on the southwestern slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa in the wet forests of Hawaii. We were working on methods for catching one of the rarest birds on the planet, the Hawaiian Crow, or 'Alala. There were only about a dozen birds left in the wild at the time. But that’s another story.

We were hosting two guests from India, who were there to teach us some ancient bird catching techniques. Our visitors were an elder father and his son. The father was in his 80's and didn’t speak English. His son was our translator. 

The father had been taught traditional ways to live-catch birds for food when he was a boy. At the time of their visit with us, they were employed by the government of India to live-catch endangered birds.
At the end of a day of teaching skills to our field crew, the son asked, "Would you like to see my father demonstrate some martial arts skills?" 

I had been exploring local martial arts teachers on the island at the time and eagerly jumped up and said, "Yes!"

"Good. Go get my father a long piece of straight wood about this long," the son said holding his hand up to his head indicating full body length.

I ran off to a nearby patch of forest and cut a section of non-native bamboo and brought it back for his father.

Up to this point, the elder had moved slowly as we hiked about the forest. He spoke little, only occasionally talking to describe a technique. When I handed him the full length staff he suddenly became alive. He started spinning the staff at high speed to the front, sides, and back of his body. Then he spun it overhead. Then he started laughing while running up and down the meadow while spinning the wood. He looked like a human propeller.

Oh man. I really wanted to learn how to do that! 

Only problem was that they left five minutes later, boarded a plane that day and flew home. I never saw them again.

Fast forward several years when I happened to meet a guy named Mark Roemke at a friend's house. 

Before long I venture through the doors of Pathways Dojo. 

On my first day training, Sensei Roemke pulled a rokushaku bo off the wall and began teaching us spins!
I'll let Sensei Roemke take it from here to say a few things about this ancient training tool...

"The rokushaku bo is one of my favorite weapons because when you start to spin it, no matter which direction you turn or go, you are in the center. The center of the rokushaku bo is one of the safest places to be. Once you understand the matrix of how to turn it, you will forever be in the middle.

The rokushaku bo has many other uses. You can use it to bound off a tree to reach the first lower branch in order to climb the tree. You can use it to carry pots of heavy drinking water or supplies. And you can use it to defend against wild animals such as an encounter with a mountain lion."

We've been gathering wood from the forests and making our own rokushaku bos for years with adults and youth in our Ninjas in Nature Program. We even use them to make survival debris shelters.

We noticed too that kids are magnetized by rokushaku bos. Have you ever noticed that kids are always wanting to carry a big "hiking stick" when walking through the forest? It usually takes less than five minutes for an empty handed kid to pick up a big stick on a hike through the forest.

Even Gandalf carries one.

So here's a couple videos by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke. The first teaches techniques for spinning a rokushaku bo.

Rokushaku Bo Spinning

The second video is an excerpt from our youth Ancient Ninja Training Tools Series

Rolls with Rokushaku Bo

Ninjas walk softly and carry big sticks. I highly recommend both!

In gratitude,
Kenneth and the Pathways Dojo Ninja Training Team

P.S. Here's the secret way to get a Dai Shihan to come train in your home with you and your family.

Blog Maps and How to Teach Ninjutsu to Squirrels

Greetings Ninjas,

I know, a lot of you probably stay up late at night wondering...Is it truly possible to teach squirrels ninjutsu?

Actually, the more I watch squirrels, the more amazed I am at their acrobatic abilities. They truly are the tree climbing ninjas of the animal world.

But before we get distracted by squirrels, first let’s talk about maps.

If you are just joining us, we recently decided to kick off our Pathways Blog with an origin story.If you didn’t catch the Pathways origin story as told by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke, it’s worth a listen. You can find the start of this tale HERE.

But where do we take the blog from here?

“A review of 25 top designer holiday tabis to wear?”









Probably been done.

“Sensei’s top 5 matte drinks that excite him for class?”

Might cause a run on supplies and then what would Sensei do?

“Sensei’s top 3 surfing spots in Santa Cruz?”

Sorry. I’m sworn to secrecy.

Instead, like the previous origin story, let’s step into the wayback machine...

Once upon a time, I was a backcountry ranger in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Most people haven’t heard of this set of mountains even though they are one of the biggest ranges in the United States. To find them, follow the rocky mountains north, and when you get to Alaska, take a left. That’s the Brooks Range.

The thing about the park where I worked was this- it was vast. 8.5 million acres-vast. And, it was the least visited national park at the time I worked there. In other words, we rarely saw other humans. Plus it had practically no roads or trails. If you looked at a topographic map, most of the mountains showed no name.

We’d go to the headquarter office on Monday mornings and look at the giant topographic map on the wall. I’d point to a random spot on the map and ask,

“Has anyone been there?”

“Nope” was the standard answer.

So we’d go on patrol and see what we could find. No trails, roads, or train tracks. Just vast wilderness, oh and lots of grizzly bears.

And we’d grab our topographic (a.k.a. topo) maps. Without them, we would be more or less lost. Not necessarily a bad thing as the landscape there is unbelievably beautiful. But, if we wanted to find our way out of the wilderness, we had to find the rendezvous point where the bush plane would pick us up.

Sometimes it was easy. Other times, even with the best topo map, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place or “lost”. Once it almost cost me dearly. More on that in a future entry.

But what does this have to do with Pathways Dojo, ninjutsu, and what we teach?

One thing I’ve learned while studying under Sensei Roemke is how vast the Bujinkan (and the art of ninjutsu) is. Add to this set of skills, the other “pathways” of study at Pathways Dojo, which are healing arts and nature. Each of these additional arts are likewise encyclopedic in the breadth of knowledge they contain.

So how do we cover this “wilderness” of information in a single blog. It’s huge. 

To help organize where we are going with this blog, we decided to start with a map. We decided the blog would have 3 pathways.

Each blog that we share will fit into one of these themes: Nature (a.k.a. our Ninjas in Nature) training, Healing Arts (tai chi, qi gong, yoga etc.), and Ninjutsu (including Bujinkan specific topics by Sensei Roemke).

Within each of these paths, we will have additional pathways that branch off, based on specific subjects. For example, in the nature blogs we have stories and techniques based on topics such as shelter, fire, water, food, etc.

For the Ninjutsu Blog Paths we have subjects such as katana, rokushaku bo, instructor techniques, stories of training in Japan, and more.

For the healing paths, we will delve into tai chi, chi gong, yoga, TCM, and more.

You get the idea.

Oh, and we have hundreds of videos recorded that we intend to share with you on all of these topics.

We thought it important to give you this map of where we plan to go, so that you can pick and choose the informational pathway that you want to follow as we build our blog content.

And, like the good ole days when I’d walk to the big map in the headquarters and ask, “What’s over here?,” we would love to hear from you in the comments by asking us…What’s over there? If there is a particular topic that you would like us to cover in any of the three main pathways (Ninjutsu, Healing, or Nature), please let us know.

Ok, I know. I promised squirrels. So here you go.

Some of you may not know that one of Sensei Roemke’s hidden talents is mentoring youth. Below is an excerpt from our Kid Ninja Curriculum (for ages 4-6) where Sensei demonstrates the art of teaching ninjutsu to two young squirrel students.

Searching for squirrels off the trail (with a map),

P.S. Here’s our secret ninja portal if you (or your family of squirrels) would like to train with us in your home.