Travel tours are big business in Japan, especially this year, given the country's recessionary struggles. Domestic tour sales were more than double those of international tours in 2014 for three of Japan's top travel wholesalers (JTB KNT-CT Holdings Nippon Travel Agency) , proving that destinations like Mt. Fugi, Osaka and Kyoto still command plenty of interest at home.
And anyone who has vacationed in Japan, and taken an organized tour of one of the country's thousands of shrines and temples, knows that Japan's many travel destinations are best appreciated up close. They are also often highly understated when it comes to walking and stamina.
Visiting the ancient Mt. Osore at the northern tip of the country or taking part in Yamagata's snow lantern festival northwest of Tokyo can be difficult for elderly or mobility challenged travelers, who may not be able to make the three- to eight-hour trip by car or bullet train, let alone manage the walking tour that follows.
So, one medical supply company with a big heart and an unusual amount of imagination came up with an answer: stuffed animal tours.
According to The Japan Times, residents who have always wanted to visit, say, a few of the 88 temples along the 750-mile-long Shinkoku Pilgrimage Trail, can send their favorite stuffed animal in their stead for about $20. And individuals who have a yearning to see Japan's unusual whirlpool currents but wouldn't be able to make the high-speed boat trip, can send their favorite companion for that unusual photo shoot for $34.
Owners pack up and send their emissaries to Sudachi Travel by courier, and the company takes care of the rest. The cuddly companions receive their very own escort, and the owner receives a panoply of photos and postcards from each destination. At the end of the trip, the stuffed animals are returned by mail, accompanied by a CD of photos and memorabilia from the tour.
Sudachi Travel is owned Namiko Miki and is located in Itano on the mountainous Shikoku Island, about seven hours southwest of Tokyo. The concept has also inspired a local elder day center to start its own stuffed animal fruit-picking tour, in which attendees at the center (all of whom are 70 and older) send their companions on the traditional citrus fruit-picking tour. For attendees who can't make the time-honored trip, sending a photogenic emissary is almost as good as being there. The stuffed animal is returned to the center with complimentary citrus fruit.
The tours have been such a hit that Sudachi Travel has already started planning for overseas tours.
Some might ask whether the carbon footprint left by a plane full of well-dressed stuffed animals on their way to take photos in New York or Disneyland has a place in today's CO2-conscious world. It's a tough question when considering that more than 20 percent of the population of the world's fourth-largest economy comprised elders above the age of 65 in 2007. That number is expected to reach 30.7 percent by 2030.
But as one 95-year-old attendee of the day center summarized after one of the trips: There's also immense value to be gained from exceptional acts of compassion.
“I want (my stuffed toy) to go traveling again,” remarked Noboru Fujita, after his envoy returned accompanied by the prized Japanese sudachi fruit.
What do you say to that?
Image of stuffed animal: Yasuhiko Ito
Image of traditional Japanese garden, Yamagata: Tanaka Juuyoh
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.