BEIJING, Feb. 22 -- A pair of pandas being loaned by China to Japan was set to arrive in Tokyo's Ueno Zoo on Monday night, sparking a frenzy of interest in the endangered creatures in the Japanese capital and raising hopes that the animals may help improve bilateral ties.
Bi Li and his female partner, Xian Nu, both 5, were due to touch down at Narita International Airport in Tokyo on a flight from Shanghai.
They had left their home in the Bifengxia Base of the Wolong Nature Reserve in Southwest China's Sichuan province, at 5 pm on Sunday.
Together with their keeper and a vet, the pair were transferred from the provincial capital, Chengdu, to Shanghai on Monday morning, said Li Desheng, deputy chief of the Wolong Nature Reserve.
The pair, which are young adults, will be the first pandas at Ueno Zoo since April 2008, when the institution's beloved Ling Ling died.
Japan rolled out the red carpet for the arrival of the long-awaited guests.
The All Nippon Airways plane they travelled on had been painted with a panda logo and its crew donned panda costumes, Japan's NHK television reported.
And the streets around the zoo were decorated with banners carrying panda cartoons after the zoo and its neighboring community worked for months preparing for the big day, Associated Press reported.
Ueno Zoo had given its panda enclosure a 90-million-yen ($1.1 million) facelift, installing under-floor heating, a playground with a sandbox and landscaping.
The pair will dine on rare bamboo from the central Japanese mountain of Izu that is similar to what they are used to at home in China.
The zoo's first pair of pandas arrived in 1972, marking the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Expectations are running high that the pandas that will stay in Japan for 10 years will boost the local economy and improve troubled relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
Business and tourism officials expect them to bring in around 20 billion yen a year, or 10 percent of the local economy, Masahiro Kayano, a member of the town's panda task force, told AP.
In 1993, a year after Ling Ling arrived in the zoo, an additional 1 million people visited the attraction. Visitors have fallen to around 3 million a year from 3.5 million since Ling Ling's death.
President Hu Jintao offered to loan the pandas to Japan during his Japan visit a month after Ling Ling's death.
The new panda pair is expected to debut to the public in late March.
Since a boat collision near the Diaoyu Islands in September, Sino-Japanese relations have been at a low point.
Because of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in the wake of the collision, the feelings of Japanese people toward the Chinese have deteriorated, said the Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Kyodo News in September. The media outlets expressed hope that bilateral relations will improve with the arrival of the pandas.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said earlier that he hoped the pandas will serve as envoys of friendship between the two peoples and enhance friendly feelings and mutual understanding.