THE FRIENDLY GHOST
TOKYO – Panda fever showed few signs of dying down in Japan on Tuesday after the arrival in Tokyo of the country's latest pair of giant pandas from China.
Xiannu and Bili, both five years old, reached the capital's Ueno Zoological Park late at night after a journey of nearly 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from China's Sichuan province and were greeted by nearly 200 journalists.
"When the first panda came to Japan in 1972, they came here to Ueno," said Ueno Zoo president Teruyuki Komiya. "As there haven't been any pandas at Ueno for a while now, there's been a lot of people wanting to see a panda again."
The last panda at Ueno, Ling Ling, died in 2008, although there are pandas at other zoos in Japan.
Morning news programmes reported at length on the arrival of the pair, featuring shots of their special plane in white and black livery. Airport staff held up a banner saying: "Welcome to Japan, dear pandas."
Little was seen of the pandas themselves, except for distant glimpses of one's head inside its cage as it was transferred to a truck.
Some reported on their characters. Their Chinese keeper, quoted by Kyodo news agency, described Bili, a male, as "a big eater and sporty". Xiannu, a female, was "active and affable".
The presence of pandas in Japan is often linked to the state of relations between the neighbors, whose ties occasionally chill over issues such as Japan's handling of its wartime past and territorial rows over islands.
The first pair arrived in Ueno in 1972 to celebrate the restoration of diplomatic ties. The loan of the current pair was offered by Chinese President Hu Jintao during a 2008 visit aimed at mending frayed ties.
"Animals can open up the way for wonderful communications that help overcome difficult problems between countries," said Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the ruling Democratic Party.
"I hope that this will help further decrease the distance between Japan and China."
The privilege of hosting the pandas comes with a hefty price tag of $950,000 a year. Ueno Zoo has also renovated its panda habitat at a cost of 90 million yen ($1.1 million).
But the cost seemed to matter little to many near Ueno, with shopkeepers hoping the presence of the pandas, to be put on view from sometime in March, will draw plenty of visitors.
Streets were festooned with banners hailing their arrival, while some shops sold products like bread with panda designs.
"We bake 20 to 30 of the breads, and they usually sell out in about an hour," said the manager of one bakery, adding that long lines form before the loaves goes on sale twice a day.