Japan agency offers travel for your teddy bear
Tour operator Sonoe Azuma holds a stuffed toy during a visit to a station in Tokyo, on October 4, 2013
Tokyo-based Unagi (Eel) Travel has a range of offers to suit every cuddly companion's purse.
For instance, a day trip around sightseeing spots in the Japanese capital is $45, plus travel -- by parcel post -- from and to the toy's home address.
The more adventurous bear might like to see some of the grand temples and shrines of the ancient capital of Kyoto for $95, or unwind in the hot spring baths that dot volcanic Japan -- a snip at $55.
"Some clients join tours simply because it seems fun but there are also people who want to send stuffed animals as their proxies since they can't travel by themselves, because they are in hospital, handicapped or too busy," tour operator Sonoe Azuma told AFP.
"A client asked me to take her companion up some stairs and walk through narrow streets she can't go into with her wheelchair.
"Another client wanted her animal to get a lot of sunshine as she can't go outside because of a skin disease."
A form sent to teddy owners ahead of the trip asks for the tourist's name, if they are prone to car-sickness or sea-sickness, and if they are allergic to a particular food.
Owners are invited to give a bit of background about the participant's character, such as what their hobbies are and why they are joining the tour.
On a recent tour of Tokyo, to which an AFP team was invited, a menagerie of creatures were entrusted to Azuma's care.
The group included a tiger from Osaka, a shark from Kanagawa, a rather well-loved Hello Kitty from Hyogo and a small version of Sesame Street's Big Bird from Hokkaido. They were escorted around Tokyo by the agency's resident tour guide, eel girl Unasha.
After an early morning briefing on what to expect, participants were gently packed up and taken to the expansive Meiji Jingu Shrine before heading for the Imperial Palace gardens, where Azuma carefully spread out a towel for the gang to sit on as they posed for one of many group photos of the day.
While it may sound a little far-fetched, 39-year-old Azuma, who used to work in finance, takes her task very seriously and objects to the idea that she is just firing off snaps at famous locations.
"Anyone could do it if it was simply about taking pictures of stuffed animals... You must do this with the belief that 'I'm taking care of other people's children'," she said.
Azuma, who has been running Unagi Travel for three years, live-blogs her tours, uploading pictures on Facebook and Twitter (https://www.facebook.com/unagitravel, https://twitter.com/unagitravel).
Each photo is captioned with comments from tour participants, ranging from the simple "yummy!" when sampling food to a more considered "Always important to look at things from a different perspective" as they stand in front of a tall building.
Azuma even prepares tiny costumes for her pint-sized charges that match tour locations -- such as kimonos for a sleepover at a Japanese-style inn. She says this helps to add a little surprise to owners who are monitoring the trip online.
And she uses the photos she takes to map out a story that chimes with the background each owner has provided.
On one tour, a Tokyoite bunny carried a frog from a provincial town on her back through the din of the capital city because the frog was not used to crowded places.
And her human clients seem to appreciate the personal attention.
One woman said she had never seen her rabbit looking so happy as in a photo of it eating at a restaurant with other stuffed toys, Azuma said.
A satisfied customer in her 40s told AFP she did not think it was strange at all to send two cuddly companions on a mystery tour.
"I enjoyed the scenery or the food through their eyes, even if I was not physically there," said the woman, who did not want to be named.
With digital photography, mocking up a picture of your bear at a tourist spot would be easy, concedes the woman, but that rather misses the point.
"I think it is very different when they go there physically by themselves and take pictures," she said. "They must have their own fond memories of the travel."
She acknowledges that to many non-Japanese people, the practice may seem a little strange.
"I would be a little more (circumspect) if a non-Japanese friend asks me if I would be interested in the service. But if I talk with my Japanese friends, it's a very natural thing," she said.