Visitors flocked to Ueno Zoological Gardens in Tokyo on Sunday to bid goodbye to a hugely popular female giant panda on her last day with the public before her return to China.
Xiang Xiang's final appearance before she leaves Japan on Tuesday was subject to enormous demand, with many taking photos of her on the landmark day and some reduced to tears as their one-to-two minute time with the panda came to an end.
Admission to see the giant panda was limited to a pre-selected lottery of 2,600 entries a day. The final time slot on Sunday was so popular that there were around 70 times as many applicants as there were available entries.
Among the teary-eyed was Keiko Nakamura, a 59-year-old homemaker from the western Japanese city of Okayama who has been staying in Tokyo since November to see the panda, and made sure to visit almost every day before the lottery system came in.
"I don't know if I can live without Xiang Xiang," she said.
Kodai Yasuda, 38, came from Kashiwa in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo with his baby, who he had dressed in a panda outfit.
"I'm glad we could see her on the last day, and while it is sad, I'd love it if she can become a mom over in China."
As visits ended, Naoya Ohashi, an official at the zoo, said that "the fact she was loved by so many is what has led to today, and we'd like to send her off with a smile."
Regarding Xiang Xiang's mood during the final opening, Ohashi said she had been "livelier than usual" and speculated that she "may have known it was the last day because she gave the crowds her all."
Xiang Xiang was born at the zoo in June 2017 from a pair on loan from China, thereby making her also property of the country. She was Ueno Zoo's first naturally-conceived giant panda.
She was the first giant panda to be born and exhibited at the zoo since You You in 1988. Her debut in December 2017 was also subject to huge demand, with the number of applicants exceeding available spots by 46 times.
While her time in Japan was originally set to conclude once she had turned 2, the loan saw five extensions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Female pandas reach breeding age between 3-and-a-half and 4-and-a-half years of age. Xiang Xiang will be transported to a research center for giant panda breeding in Sichuan Province in China's southwest, where the search for her mate will begin.
Her parents, father Ri Ri and mother Shin Shin, were loaned to the zoo from China in February 2011. In June 2021, the pair had two more cubs, called Xiao Xiao and Lei Lei.
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