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Stuffed-toy savior shares secrets of his plush lifestyle

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

A chap doesn’t often talk about his teddy bear in public, let alone bare all to eternal cyberspace through a national newspaper. But someing so extraordinary happened to mine of late that I’ve resolved to throw caution to the wind, to defy, umm, teddiquette — and to come clean.

First, a clarification: While said bear was until recently mine, decades have wafted by since I last exercised any proprietary rights over “Mummy” — so called, I hasten to add, because my brother had named his teddy, “Daddy.”

For more than 30 years, in fact, the bear was in a box. Well, I think it was. I don’t really know. What’s for sure is that late last year — when it arrived on my doorstep in Japan after being unexpectedly “rendered” from my parents’ house in Australia — it was in a box. And it was a very old-looking box.

The bear was looking old, too. A wobbly leg prevented it from properly presenting its 40-cm stature; an eye was missing; an ear almost severed; and, worse still, its fur, which I remembered as cream-colored, was now a speckled mix of brown and … browner. Given enough time, a forensics investigator could no doubt have identified every breakfast I ate between the ages of 1 and 5.

All this was anthropologically fascinating, of course, but rather problematic after it was decided that my bear was destined for the home of an infant relative.

Drastic action was called for: “Mummy” needed a thorough cleaning. But how?

Enter Sadaharu Yoshinaga, of Miyazaki City, on the southern island of Kyushu. Search for “nuigurumi kurīningu” (meaning “soft-toy cleaning”) on the Web, click around a bit, and there he is — a 59-year-old denim-shirted gent sporting a most unusual job description: that of a soft-toy cleaning craftsperson.

Suffice to say, Yoshinaga didn’t disappoint. My bear returned from a couple of weeks in Miyazaki as though after a year in rehab — the leg reattached, matching eye added, ear fixed and fur as soft and springy as could be imagined. It might have been a model for Hallmark — but fate had deemed otherwise. The bear was promptly delivered to yonder relative who, by all accounts, is now busy infusing it with traces of breakfasts and who knows what else.

All good, I thought — but there was simply something so wondrous about the bear’s transformation that I couldn’t quite get it out of my mind. And then, like magic, a plan materialized: A business trip to Kyushu became necessary, an embarrassed phone call was made, plane tickets were bought, a car hired, the rural fringes of Miyazaki were navigated and — before you could say “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” — I was standing in front of the very man who had breathed new life into my childhood treasure.

Not that Yoshinaga immediately struck me as the teddy-bear type. His crew cut, solid build and a mysterious scar on his chin seemed more attuned to what he soon — rather disconcertingly — informed me was his hobby: custom-making knives.

It was in the 1990s, Yoshinaga told me, that he turned teddy-bear savior. Before that he’d cleaned futons for a living and, before that, he was an engineer who’d been posted to Taiwan with a Japanese manufacturer.

“In Taiwan, things were good in the ’80s, but when the Japanese economy went bad, I decided it was time to return to my hometown here in Miyazaki to try something new,” he explained.

Nowadays, it turned out, the great majority of his 20-odd teddy-bear clients each month are from Tokyo and Osaka. Recently, he’s also branched out into cleaning kigurumi — the plush character suits that performers wear at fun parks and for advertising campaigns — and that’s added around 15 more commissions a month to his burgeoning business.

Not that Yoshinaga is quite up there with the titans of industry yet. When he led me into his hub of empire it turned out to be a workshop in a converted garage. And in there resided a large, plastic-covered table on which sat a stuffed Doraemon toy with, quite literally, a particularly filthy grin.

“It’s really quite simple,” Yoshinaga said, as he picked up the toy.

He wasn’t lying: After dousing said mucky specimen with a fine spray of water, he reached for what appeared to be an ordinary bar of soap. Incisive journalistic probing soon revealed that was indeed the technology to hand.

So there I was, watching a large, good-natured man work up a thick lather on Doraemon’s tummy, and then lovingly rub its armpits and neck. It occurred to me this was the first time a Doraemon’s smile had ever really appeared genuine.

The next phase in my teddy-cleaning epiphany involved a high-pressure hose. Out we went to the driveway, the toy was held at arm’s length — and then blasted. As Doreamon’s smile began to look increasingly forced, its scarred savior assured me in caring tones, “This is the only way to get the soap out from between the fur fibers.”

Now the challenge was to dry the toy, and for this Yoshinaga employed a machine that for any Sydneysider brought to mind only one thing: the Rotor, an amusement-park ride consisting of a large cylindrical room that spins, pushing you against its walls so that when the floor recedes, you’re left hanging in place, stuck against the side like an insect swatted on a windshield.

In Yoshinaga’s Rotor, the floor didn’t give way, but the concept was the same. Placed inside, this hapless Doraemon was spun at such a rate as to expel most of the water its savior had just squirted into it.

“This is much less damaging to the toy than a tumble dryer,” Yoshinaga yelled over the machine’s howl. Then, he confided, any leftover water is expelled by the ingenious expedient of setting the toy out in the sun.

I asked about an array of buckets seemingly filled with water. “That’s the EM bacteria,” he said, referring with scientific fluency to a blend of “effective microorganisms” that a Japaneese university patented in the ’80s. “My secret weapon,” he disclosed.

It turned out that a quick dunk in the solution can rid toys of unwanted smells — baby spew and cat pee being the most common, he told me.

I guessed it must have been at this stage that Mummy had finally been purged of my festering, decades-old detritus.

However, as would befit a busy savior, Yoshinaga confessed he couldn’t quite remember ministering to my bear — though his insouciance betrayed just a hint of delight when I told him how pleased I’d been with the results.

“I’m a craftsperson,” he reminded me.