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Japan entrepreneur offers package tours for stuffed animals

TOKYO The Unagi Travel company caters to a decidedly underserved corner of the tourism market: Clients must be quiet, petite, and fluffy.

It is a travel agency, in other words, for stuffed animals.

It may not be easy bein' green, as Kermit used to wail, but you sure can't beat the travel perks. For as little as $20 (roundtrip shipping to Japan is extra), and no more than $50, even for a plush trip to a hot spring resort, toy travel agent Sonoe Azuma will escort the stuffed animal of your choice around local highlights, exhaustively blogging the jaunt in real-time on her Facebook page.

On a recent package tour, the 38-year-old entrepreneur clutched her charges -- a small toy dragon, frog and mouse, mailed in by owners from the U.S. and Japan -- and waded purposefully into the throngs at Tokyo's popular Asakusa Kannon temple.

Oblivious to the bemused, confused stares from passers-by, she posed the toys in front of a souvenir shop, grabbed a snapshot, and tapped out a quick accompanying message on her smartphone to preserve the moment for Internet posterity.

"I wanted to provide adventures for everyone, including people who are physically challenged," she said. "If their stuffed animals could travel all over the world, I thought it would be a communication tool."

Azuma's newly launched Unagi Travel offers four to five trips every month.

"I try to treat (the toy) as a person," said Azuma, who kicks off each tour by seating the toys at a conference table for an "orientation," complete with homemade tour pamphlets.

On a trip to a Japanese-style inn, the stuffed animals -- she dresses them up like real patrons, in doll-sized cotton kimonos -- get tucked into their own futon. She'll stage pillow fights and poses the toys chillaxing with a glass of beer, or "munching" on a Japanese matcha tea cake (for the sake of a photo-op, she obligingly takes the bite), packing as much local color into each tour as possible.

The venture grew, oddly enough, out of Azuma's previous occupation as a globe-trotting banker.

"I had lots of opportunities to visit abroad. I did my job, of course, did some shopping and eating out. But that was it." Despite her extensive traveling, she felt she had come away with only the most superficial impression of each destination.

While brainstorming a way that foreign visitors could somehow connect with local culture, she hit on the idea of taking toys on virtual tours as proxies for their owners.

From the tour guide's point of view, running package trips for teddy bears, Pokemon dolls and Disney characters has plenty of upside: No whiny customers. No clueless tourists gone missing. No bathroom or meal breaks. And reservations are a snap -- a single ticket for the tour guide and her purse-sized menagerie is adequate.

As for making money off the venture, so far, Azuma says she's in the red, although she insists the company could be viable once she "scales-up" and hires partners in other cities.

While it may all sound nutty, Azuma is convinced there are plenty of cash- and time-starved people with wanderlust who would be content to settle for sending a stuffed emissary abroad instead.

"Lots of people have a special stuffed animal in their lives."