Japan eagerly awaits pandas arriving from China

Japan is rolling out a red carpet ahead of the arrival of much-awaited special guests from China: a pair of giant pandas.

The two 5-year-old pandas are due to arrive at Tokyo's Ueno Zoo on Monday. They'll be the zoo's first since the 2008 death of its beloved giant panda Ling Ling.

The Ueno area was filled with panda themes Sunday. Streets were decorated with banners carrying panda cartoons, and shops were selling novelty goods.

"The pandas are finally coming to town," said beaming Masahiro Kayano, a jewelry store owner in Ueno. "We are so excited."

The zoo's first pair of pandas arrived in 1972, marking the signing of a peace treaty between Japan and China.

Expectations are running high for the new set of pandas to boost Tokyo's economy and its troubled relations with Beijing. The two Asian powers were locked in a heated diplomatic dispute late last year over small islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim.

"I hope the pandas become popular and many Japanese people get to see them so that their impression on China would improve further," Japan's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Friday.

The zoo and its neighborhood community have worked for months to provide VIP-class hospitality.

The zoo gave its panda cage a 90 million yen ($1.1 million) facelift, installing floor heating, a playground with a sandbox and landscaping, as well as various safety features.

A Ueno veterinarian and a panda keeper, already in southwestern China's Sichuan province, where the bears are coming from, are escorting the pair to Tokyo on an aircraft decorated with a black-and-white panda design. The pair will be treated with rare bamboo from the central Japanese mountain of Izu that is similar to what they used to eat at home.

Business and tourism officials expect the bears to boost the local economy by about 20 billion yen ($240 million) a year, or 10 percent, said Kayano, also a member of the town's panda task force.

The pair — female Xiannu and male Bili, both 5 years old, or about 20 in human terms — are expected to debut for the public in late March following health checks and other procedures.

Visitors to Ueno Zoo have fallen to around 3 million a year from 3.5 million since Ling Ling's death in 2008, 16 years after he arrived from China. When he died of illness at the age of 22, many Japanese sent condolence messages, bouquets and offerings to the zoo. Chinese President Hu Jintao offered to loan a fresh pair to Tokyo during his Japan visit a month later.

Tokyo is renting the pandas for $950,000 a year. The payments will help to rebuild a Sichuan panda sanctuary that was nearly destroyed by a May 2008 earthquake, and fund Japan-China joint breeding projects.

About 1,600 pandas live in the wild, mostly in Sichuan.