Japan goes crazy for Chinese pandas

Panda fever gripped Japan on Monday as two of the cuddly creatures arrived in the nation from China, with Tokyo zoo eyeing a visitor boom and the government anticipating improved ties with Beijing.

Panda flags lined streets near the capital's Ueno Zoo, which is to be the home of the pair of five-year-old giant pandas for the next decade, while television channels ran breathless coverage about the furry VIPs.

The pair, a male named Bili and female named Xiannu, left their sanctuary in China's Sichuan province on Monday and later flew from Shanghai to Tokyo's Narita airport on an All Nippon Airlines jet painted white with black spots.

Airline staff welcomed the animals, with one donning a panda costume, as the cages were moved out of the airline. They held signs reading: "Welcome to Japan, dear pandas."

One broadcaster, in a report headlined the "Pandas are coming to Ueno!", revealed titbits about the fluffy creatures, including that the male is shy and likes to do things at his own pace, while Xiannu is "friendly".

Kyodo News, meanwhile, reported that Bili is "a big eater and sporty, and enjoys tree climbing, while Xiannu is active and has an affable nature".

The animals arrived months after Japan and China engaged in a bitter territorial dispute, but Japan's top government spokesman voiced hope the bears will boost public goodwill towards China.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, which runs Ueno Zoo, will pay a giant price tag of $950,000 per year for the next decade to lease the animals, with the money to be spent on wildlife protection in China.

The bears are to greet the public, with new Japanese names, late next month and are expected to boost flagging visitor rates at the zoo, which drew three million visitors in 2009, down from more than seven million in the mid-1970s.

To prepare for the celebrities, Ueno Zoo has spent about 90 million yen ($1 million) renovating its panda cage, including fitting a floor heating system and a new playground, local media reported.

Around the zoo, shop and cafe owners offered panda-themed foods and products, including a cappuccino with a brown panda face in the milky froth, and bread that reveals cocoa panda faces when sliced.

"The loafs sold out in just an hour-and-a-half after they came out of the oven," said Andersen Bakery sales woman Mieko Kanayama.

Japan previously experienced a panda craze in 1972, when China gave Japan a pair to mark the normalisation of bilateral ties.

Ling Ling, the zoo's last panda, died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 22 - the equivalent of 70 human years.

The latest round of panda diplomacy started when Chinese President Hu Jintao and then prime minister Yasuo Fukuda agreed in 2008 on the new pair.

"While it cannot be denied that various challenges and outstanding issues exist in Japan-China relations, I expect the move to help deepen mutual understanding among the public," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said on Monday.

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