Overworked or too sick to travel? Some people in Japan find solace in sending stuffed animals on trips in their place.
Companies, travel agencies and other organizations are being asked to take stuffed animals on trips, cafe outings or to "enjoy" other experiences for people who cannot get away or have health issues. These people seem to derive comfort and encouragement in seeing their favorite stuffed animals active as their proxies.
A 49-year-old female civil servant in Saitama Prefecture has sent two of her stuffed animals on a number of trips since last summer. One is Pako, a stuffed panda that belonged to her late grandmother, and the other is Kaki, a stuffed bear she received from her father when she was a child. She and her husband used to enjoy traveling, but about five years ago it became difficult to get away as her 57-year-old husband's health deteriorated.
"I feel better when I think that these stuffed animals are taking trips in my place," the woman said.
The travel agency she uses is Tokyo-based Unagi Travel, which specializes in trips for stuffed animals. Unagi Travel sends her travel photos of Pako and Kaki via a members-only social networking service.
Last autumn, she tucked a photo of the grandmother in a small furoshiki wrapping cloth, tied it to Pako's back and sent it on a tour of Tokyo. Her father and mother, aged 80 and 78, who live on their own, were delighted when she showed them photos of Pako's travel. Her father learned how to use a smartphone and started following Pako and Kaki's travels on his own. Inspired, last month her mother went abroad for the first time. "Stuffed animals have tremendous power," the civil servant said.
Unagi Travel representative Sonoe Azuma started the service in 2010. The idea for the company came after she asked an acquaintance to take her own stuffed animals on a trip, and then received a huge response when she documented the travel on her blog. Many people use the service in addition to those with illnesses or with long working hours. For example, members include ordinary lovers of stuffed animals or those who are looking for a new hobby.
The cost of sending a stuffed animal on a trip is in the 5,000 yen (about $44) range. "Stuffed animals are akin to family," Azuma said. "Seeing them 'enjoying' travel seems to motivate many to take the first step for themselves."
Services specializing in travel for stuffed animals are on the rise. In a society in which it is sometimes difficult to form human relationships, stuffed animals appear to be a source of comfort.
Yawarakan's cafe in Tokyo opened last summer to "entertain" stuffed animals. Upon entrusting the cafe with a stuffed animal, the cafe keeps it for three days and sends back photos of it at meals and events.
"When I'm preoccupied with work and have no time for myself, I feel comforted seeing my stuffed animal having fun," said a 35-year-old woman from Kanagawa Prefecture. Yawarakan's cafe is reservation-only and so popular that applications are filled up on the same day they open.
Last year, the Japan Nuigurumi Association, an NPO based in Yokohama, began offering homestay tours for stuffed animals. Members around the country accept an applicant's stuffed animal and take it around sightseeing spots in their area. It apparently is a great source of moral support for people who cannot get away themselves due to illness or other reasons.
A service for children called "stuffed animal sleepover" provided by libraries throughout Japan is extremely popular. The library takes a child's stuffed animal in the evening, snaps photos of it apparently enjoying storybook time and other activities at night, and then hands the child the photos when they return for their stuffed animal the next day. Libraries report that the children are ecstatic to see their stuffed animals in a library at nighttime, an experience they are not privy to themselves.
The Japan Teddy Bear Association is an NPO that provides teddy bears to hospitalized children.
"Stuffed animals have a connection to people and the power to comfort them," said Kumiko Komuchi, the NPO's chief manager. "They seem to provide encouragement and a sense of affection not only to children but adults, too."