OSAKA - When Seiko Kita took her 3-year-old to an Osaka hospital for treatment of injuries, including damage to her ears and other body parts, she never expected the service would be such a godsend.
But Nuigurumi Byoin — a self-styled hospital for stuffed toys — came to the rescue of her pink toy rabbit Pi-chan, as Kita affectionately calls her “only girl.” She has another stuffed toy who is Pi-chan’s brother.
The hospital prides itself on having the standards of a top-level medical facility — high-quality care, skillful “doctors,” reassuring nurses, and a friendly and sanitary environment — but only treats stuffed toys.
Nuigurumi Byoin, which can be rendered in English as Stuffed Toy Hospital, which opened in 2014 in Osaka Prefecture and only accepts patients by reservation, has become a hot topic on social media, its popularity stemming from its attention to detail.
In the six months from March to September it received some 3,200 reservations, with some placed on standby for up to three years, according to Komichi Horiguchi, head of hospital operator Cocoro Co.
Horiguchi, 41, admits the hospital’s popularity has come as a surprise. “We did not think there was this much demand. Inquiries and bookings keep coming,” she says.
So far, 800 “patients” in total from Japan and abroad have been admitted to the hospital, where they stay on average for two to three weeks, depending on the extent of treatment required.
The patient’s condition and other basic information are entered on a registration form, and owners are also asked to provide an “unforgettable episode” involving their stuffed toys.
After a checkup by the resident Doctor Inono — a stuffed toy himself — patients are assigned for surgery or treatment. They also receive a “prescription” bag of colorful candies, supposed to prevent the stuffed animals from decaying.
Essentially, the hospital is a cleaning and repair service for stuffed animals or plushy toys that have been torn, dirtied or are lacking some body part. The doctors there, currently six, are experts in suturing and repairing damaged parts.
“I felt the word ‘repair’ just did not sit well, based on the close relationship between the patients and family members,” Horiguchi explains. “The stuffed toys are treated as family, so it was right to welcome them in a hospital.”
Kita recalled how anxious she was about Pi-chan, which is a mix of “Pinky” and “chan,” a Japanese term of endearment for girls. Pi-chan was hospitalized in September last year. There were similar repair-shop facilities, but she was touched by the quality of service at Nuigurumi Byoin, she says.
Pi-chan had to undergo a difficult procedure involving “suturing” and “hair transplant,” which entails replacing deteriorating cotton. Afterward, the originally pink-colored rabbit, which lost some of its stuffing, was considerably lighter.
Kita and her husband, both aged 52 and childless, dote on Pi-chan, who has lived with them for more than a decade and has become their “source of comfort.” They live in neighboring Nara Prefecture, an hour’s drive from the hospital in Osaka’s Toyonaka city.
The basic cost for such care — including surgery, admission, “bed” space, and nursing expenses — is around ¥3,300. Other options include a travel cost of ¥600 if the patient is transported home by postal service, and a spa treatment that involves bathing and massaging them in organic detergents, as well as a commemorative CD documenting their hospital stay.
It might be more practical to buy a brand-new stuffed animal, but for the Kitas and others the benefits outweigh the costs.
Kita describes Pi-chan affectionately as a “pampered girl who gets lonely” but says “she is irreplaceable,” adding that one of the services she most appreciated was being updated about Pi-chan’s progress through an exclusive website.
Horiguchi says that since no patient is alike, all of them must be treated with “delicate” care. “Failure is not accepted,” she says.
With no signs that the hospital’s popularity is waning, Horiguchi is determined not to compromise the quality of treatment by accepting new reservations for now, as the current number of requests is more than enough to handle.
In the future she hopes to cater to a broader overseas clientele, as the hospital has accepted some patients from China and Taiwan among tourists who visit Japan.
But there are several hurdles, for instance translating the website (nuigurumi-hospital.jp) into English and hiring a multilingual staff to handle overseas customers.
The idea of treating stuffed animals as patients might sound far-fetched, but activities specifically designed for cuddly companions are not unusual in Japan.
For example, stuffed toys can be sent on vacation tours or to Yawarakan’s Cafe, a cafe exclusively for stuffed toys where they can make friends with other patrons and have commemorative photos taken.
“Stuffed toys are simple and unlike robots cannot move. But there is something about their presence that brings out kindness in people,” says Harumi Kozuka, head of the Yokohama-based Japan Nuigurumi Association, which has been organizing trips for stuffed toys since 2002 in and beyond Tokyo, and as far as Boston.
Stuffed toys also provide “emotional support for people with disabilities and elderly people, who find it harder to keep pets, so the stuffed animals fill the role of companions,” Kozuka says.