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Footwork Swift Like a Falcon

I remember staring down at my hand as the reality of the situation sank in. Literally.

A hawk’s talon was sinking into the center of my palm. I had eight additional puncture wounds on my hand that were bleeding.

I gripped the back talon, the most powerful of all the toes called the halux, with my finger and tried to slowly pull the small dagger out of my hand. This only caused the hawk to resist and tighten its grip. The searing pain was intense. After a brief struggle I was able to  wrench its grip loose. In a flurry of wings it whirled and retreated to the back corner of the modified dog kennel and jumped on its perch. I slammed the door quickly behind it.

A few minutes prior I was assisting with putting a radio transmitter on another hawk at a table in the forest. We were a team of biologists working with the endangered Hawaiian Hawk, or ‘Io as it was known. We were also studying and trying to save a critically endangered bird called the Hawaiian Crow or ‘Alala. The problem was that recently the endangered hawks had started to eat the critically endangered crows. One component of trying to solve this problem was to assess the situation first, which involved learning about where the hawks lived, moved, nested, and other natural history. Thus our reason for catching hawks that day.

My friend Peter who was a master falconer at the time with the Peregrine Fund was finishing the stitches on the harness of a hawk.

“Ken, can you go get the next hawk out of the kennel and bring it here?” he asked.

Being new to working with this bird of prey, I was more than eager. “Sure!” I said.

I looked at Peter and noticed that he was bare handed as he finished working with the current hawk, which had a falconer’s hood on its head to calm it down.

Hmmm. Well if Peter doesn’t need leather gloves, I guess I don’t either.

Big mistake.

When I arrived at the kennel, I slowly opened the door and eased my bare hand in towards the bird that was sitting on its perch to grab it.

In an instant, there was a blur of feathers and lunging feet. Within a couple of seconds it had lashed me with its talons multiple times, one of which sunk into the center of my palm.

After I removed the halux, I stared at my bleeding hand that day and thought of two things:

#1 The swiftness of its feet, and…

#2 The power of the talons from a bird of that size.

I returned sheepishly to Peter and asked, “How did you get the bird out of the cage bare handed?”

Peter laughed and said, “What, are you crazy? I wear leather gloves for that. I take them off after I get the hood on the bird.”

I still have a faint red dot in the center of my palm that reminds me of that day.

But what does this story have to do with a ninja blog?

Two things.

One- there is a history of ninjas or shinobi as master falconers.

Many ninja clans or families were falconers that were closely embedded with emperors, daimyo lords and shoguns. Falcon masters were known as Takasho or Takajo who had intimate knowledge of inner workings of people of power.

They also often had the ability to move freely outside of their homeland, something few people were able to do. These abilities allowed them to develop relationships with spies and shinobi. The Takasho could roam the territories, take in information, and report back to their superiors.

There is a recent book that details this that I highly recommend by Sean Askew titled Hidden Lineage: The Ninja of the Toda Clan. This is one of my favorite books on the history of shinobi.

The second ninja connection is the video we have for you today.

Today we have a video by Sensei Roemke that incorporates this feeling and action. It is called Shun Soku, or “footwork swift like a falcon” from Gyokko Ryu.

This is another video from our Ninja Training TV Live classes that Dai Shihan Mark Roemke teaches each week. In the previous blog he teaches another skill about henka from a recent NTTV Live class.

Get your katana ready for this one!

Shun Soku

When I practice this move I like to imagine myself as that hawk in the kennel that day with lightning swift feet, taking on a giant 20 times my size, feathers on my back, fresh mouse in my belly.

Ok, maybe not the mouse.

(Here's a blast from the past- a pic of me releasing an 'Io into the Hawaiian forest.)


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The Henka of Bujinkan and Banjos

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.

Omote Gyaku Henka

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!


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Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

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

Ninjas walk softly and carry big sticks. I highly recommend both!
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The Power of Rope and Ring

Recently we guided a group of youth ninjas with our online live training program through the process of making training kyoketsu shoges. What's a kyoketsu shoge? For starters, a homemade version with parts gathered from nature looks like this...

A rope, ring, and wood. To be specific, the ring in this photo is made from a dog chewie. This is the training version. The ancient ninja version would have been made from an iron ring, and used among other things to hit the hands of sword wielding opponents, causing them to drop their sword.

A few summers back, Sensei Roemke and I co-led East and West coast summer camps where we had the kids make their own kyoketsu shoges. We realized that branches from trees made perfect handles. It was amazing to watch the focus (and quiet!) that kids put into carving, sanding, burnishing, and oiling their wood.

Then we started to train with them. So much fun.

Target practice, wrapping around branches, spinning drills. I can't tell you how high the youth stoke factor was, and for the instructors too!!!

What was really cool was how the kids used their creativity with these. They quickly figured out that with the right throw, that they could wrap them around branches and use them as a rope swing, or to climb up into the tree.

Then Mark showed them this "advanced" neck spin in the video below. Check it out. So much fun. have to make one first! I'll save that for a future blog entry. For now, enjoy this one.

Kyoketusu Shoge Neck Spin

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