Can't get away from work for that long awaited holiday? In Japan, you can now send your stuffed toys in your place.
Teddy bears, cuddly snakes, and frilly beans are going sightseeing, chilling out at cafes or "enjoying" sleepovers organised by their owners, who are too busy to get away or are too sick to do so, media reports said on Friday (Feb 12).
The latter are happy to live vicariously through their snuggly proxies, in a society where human relationships are sometimes difficult to cultivate.
A 49-year-old female civil servant in Saitama prefecture, for example, has sent two of her stuffed animals on trips since summer, reported the Yomiuri Shimbun. One is Pako, a stuffed panda that belonged to the woman's late grandmother, and the other is Kaki, a stuffed bear she was given by her father as a child.
Last autumn, the woman -- who is not named -- tucked a photo of her grandmother in a small wrapping cloth, tied it to Pako's back and sent it on a tour of Tokyo.
Her father and mother, aged 80 and 78 and who live on their own, were delighted when she showed them photos of Pako's travel. Her father learnt how to use a smartphone and started following Pako and Kaki's travels on his own.
Inspired, her mother went abroad last month for the first time.
The woman told the Yomiuri that she and her husband used to enjoy travelling, but found it increasingly difficult to get away about five years ago after her 57-year-old husband's health deteriorated.
"I feel better when I think that these stuffed animals are taking trips in my place," she told the Yomiuri. "Stuffed animals have tremendous power."
The travel agency she uses is Tokyo-based Unagi Travel, which specialises in such trips.
The company's owner Sonoe Azuma escorts clients' teddy bears, dolls and other assorted stuffed toys on excursions to some of the most famous sights in Japan before sending video clips and photos of the toys back to their owners, The Telegraph reported.
"Stuffed animals are akin to family," Ms Azuma was quoted by the report as saying. "Seeing them 'enjoying' the trip seems to motivate many to take the first step for themselves."
Ms Azuma launched the service in 2010, the Yomiuri said, after she asked a friend to take her own soft toys on a trip. Ms Azuma documented the travels on her blog, which received overwhelming response.
Besides the sick and the overworked, other customers have included stuffed toy lovers or those looking for a new hobby, said the Yomiuri.
Typical itineraries include a day out among the temples and shrines of Kamakura, the ancient capital south of Tokyo, or a whistle-stop tour of historic Asakusa and Meiji Jingu Shrine before the stuffed toy admires the view from the top of the Tokyo Tower, reported The Telegraph.
According to the report, Ms Azuma usually travels with around seven stuffed toys, filming them in a series of settings, such as in a restaurant or an "onsen" hot spring bath.
A day out in Yokohama costs around 4,000 yen (S$50), although her top-of-the-range trip to Hawaii costs 50,000 yen (S$620).
Other companies specialising in travel for stuffed animals are on the rise, the Yomiuri said.
Yawarakan's cafe in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, opened last summer to cater to the stuffed travellers. It keeps the toys for three days and sends photos of them "enjoying" meals and events to their owners.
"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 female customer from Kanagawa prefecture.
Spots at the reservations-only cafe run out quickly.
Last year, the Japan Nuigurumi Association, a non-profit organisation based in Yokohama, began offering homestay tours for stuffed toys. The association's members around the country host the toys and take them to various sightseeing spots in their area.
Libraries throughout Japan, meanwhile, offer an extremely popular service for children called "stuffed animal sleepover". 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 night, an experience human readers do not enjoy .