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The Mad Men of Tenpukutai

The 15 members of Tenpukutai are not your average salarymen. They work tireless hours like their gray-suited brethren, yet that’s where the stereotype ends. These mad men of Japan’s advertising world work hard and play even harder.

Take a moment to consider the plight of the Japanese salaryman. Long hours in soulless offices; the surrender of self to a commitment to the company; a slow progression up the corporate escalator; accepting golf as the amusement of choice (especially if it’s a smooth ride up the escalator), which inevitably leads to phantom club- swinging on train platforms — or even while still riding the train.

After decades of toiling for the greater good, retirement earns him a return to a house he hardly knows and no particular hobbies or interests on which to fall back. This is, of course, a stereotype, but if you spend any time in Japan’s major cities, you have known this creature well, or perhaps you have become one yourself.

Then there is Tenpukutai™. The name roughly translates to “Capsizing Crew,” an alliterative to the original, and tells what they like to do — get outside and paddle and flip over some boats. All 15 members are salarymen.“It was just me and a few friends at Dentsu when I started it 25 years ago,” says Tenpukutai taicho (leader) Ryo Honda. “We didn’t know a thing about paddling, but we thought it sounded like fun, so we decided to give it a try.

“We started paddling in jeans,” he laughs, “and carried our stuff in garbage bags. Later, we found out about dry bags, we got more experienced, and we started to get more ambitious.”

Ambitious, and also — for a bunch of salarymen —unexpectedly quirky. Over the past 25 years, Honda says, the group has run some 50 rivers in Japan and abroad. Tenpukutai has ventured to Alaska, Canada, the Amazon, Kamchatka, Mongolia, New Zealand and Madagascar.

“We’ve done some of the same rivers in Japan, but it’s a Tenpukutai rule that we never go down the same river twice the same way,” he explains. “Groups usually go to a river with which they are familiar, but we always try to go somewhere new. If it’s a place we’ve been before, we’ll start from a different place or do it in a different style. I doubt if there’s any other group quite like us in Japan.”

Yuzo “Mario” Nishihashi, one of the founding members, agrees. “We have got to be one of the craziest, worst kayaking groups in Japan,” he says with what can only be called a giggle. “We’ve done a lot of stuff that should have gotten somebody killed. We didn’t really know about ocean currents until we tried to cross the 45 kilometers or so from Honshu to Sado Island, but we learned quickly.

“We like bakanakoto (stupid things),” he continues, “like playing too much, drinking too much, eating too much, night boating. We’re trying to do something to make an un-genki Japan a lot more genki. Nothing as big as Yuichiro Miura climbing Everest; we just want to do what most people won’t.”

They do take a lot of pride in their crashes, but more about that later. The group’s rules, available at their Web site (www.tenpukutai.com) are likewise a bit eccentric.

The group size is limited to 15 people.

Women are not allowed.

Golfers will be excommunicated.

Seconds on ramen are strictly forbidden.

Although many people have tried to enter the Tenpukutai ranks, it’s no easy task since the number of members doesn’t change.

“Lots of people want to join, but 15 is the best on a river,” Honda says. “More than that and it just gets too stressful. As far as women…yes, we’re a discriminatory organization,” he says with a laugh. “Ninety percent of the members are married, and we’re all kind of like those awkward, un-sporty kids who happened to grow up.”

They hint that most women probably wouldn’t want to hang out with these big boys anyway.

“Golf is an unnatural way to have fun,” he says. “Several of the members are salespeople, so of course they get invited to play golf. They used to say, ‘I’m in Tenpukutai, so I can’t,’ but now, at least at Dentsu, the others have just given up, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s Tenpukutai, so shoganai!’”

It’s not clear how the ramen restriction came about, but they do seem to eat well otherwise on their forays into the wild.

The adventures aren’t only on rivers. “We’re a sogo autodoa group,” Honda says. That translates roughly to “a comprehensive outdoor organization.”

“Basically we go out about five times a year; it’s pretty much wherever I feel like going,” he laughs.

The group climbs up mountains and canyons, and on bicycles. The common theme seems to be finding ways to do things the hard way.

“I was in the mountain climbing club in college,” Honda says, “but in Tenpukutai we don’t do normal climbing.”

Instead they might carry their bikes with them, as they did to the top of Mt. Fuji, before riding down.

“We’ve done that on lots of peaks,” Honda says with some delight.

They also have taken on several challenges on the humble mamachari —the simple bicycles used by urban women to deliver kids and pick up groceries. One such multiple-stage trip followed the sacred Buddhist pilgrimage route on Shikoku Island. The quirky adventure took one year covering 1,200 kilometers, on these one-speed bikes, while wearing the conical straw hats and white vests of devoted pilgrims.

They also bicycled in costume and on mamachari, in the heat of summer from Tokyo to the famous Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori. This year has seen the start of a three-year mamachari adventure, again in stages, on the Oku no Hosomichi, the route made famous by the celebrated poet Matsuo Basho in the “Narrow Road to the Deep North.”

We’re all salarymen, so time is limited,” says Nishihashi, also a Dentsu man. “We can only go out for a few nights at a time, so we can cover about 300 kilometers on each trip. Three years might be a bit overly ambitious,” he jokes.

Honda no longer works at Dentsu, Japan’s largest ad agency, having gone full-time freelance a few years ago. About half the current members are from Dentsu, half from elsewhere, although there still is an advertising connection for most.

Honda has recently been doing more work on photography, manga and books, such as his “Mamachari wo Henro 1,200 km.” (1,200-Kilometer Pilgrimage by Mamachari), chronicling the Shikoku expedition. With outdoor magazine Be-Pal (Shogakukan), he has also produced an outdoor cookbook, “Tenpukutai Takibi Ryori” (Tenpukutai Campfire Cooking).

The book gives some insight into the group. The recipes are excellent and perfect for anyone who enjoys outdoor cooking, but while there are beautiful photos of the finished dishes, the main photos are always of a boat in some form of distress — overturned, with the paddler in the water; kayaks wrapped around rocks, broken, never to float down the river again. The faces are smiling in defeat — wet, shivering, holding battered bits of boat, and loving it.

A DVD of the group, also produced with Be-Pal, shows it even more vividly. These guys are far from the best paddlers in the world. They take inordinate pleasure in recalling tales of being attacked by hordes of mosquitoes, packs of half-wild South American dogs or just barely getting up the rocks of a backwater canyon. Maybe that’s the whole idea.

The group’s enthusiasm is contagious and inviting, even though no one has much chance at becoming a Tenpukutai member. Their books and videos are fun to watch and clever (they are ad men, after all). It doesn’t feel exclusionary — if anything, it makes you think, “Hey, I could do that too.”

Hopefully people pick up on the message, and more salarymen might get out of the city, into the wild and gleefully throw themselves into some crazy adventure.

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