Kobe welcomes giant panda pair

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KOBE — If all goes according to plan, two distinguished visitors from China will arrive in Kobe tonight to take up permanent residence.

And, best of all, once they pass through quarantine, they’ll be given a lifetime visa. Not even a three-day trip to Seoul while the immigration bureau processes their documents will be necessary.

The visitors in question are two giant pandas, who will become the star attraction at Oji Zoo here.

After years of planning, the two pandas, a 3-year-old male named Koko and a 4-year-old female named Tantan, are scheduled to land at Kansai International Airport from Shanghai this evening.

From there, they will be transported to Oji Zoo, where they are expected to arrive at about 7:30 p.m.

The arrival of the pandas has been greeted with great enthusiasm by the people of Kobe.

During the past few weeks, excitement has been building as local media played up the arrival and local merchants rushed to cash in on “panda mania.”

For example, in the city’s Motomachi district, some stores have announced “panda arrival” sales.

Other shops in Nanking Mura, the city’s Chinatown district, have put up panda posters, or are selling panda cookies, key rings and other souvenirs.

“My children have been asking me when we can go so the pandas. For them, this is the big event,” said Sayuri Tanabe, a resident of Hyogo Ward.

Oji Zoo officials, who built a 300 million yen facility for the two pandas, say it is likely to be a couple of weeks before the pandas will be able to be viewed by the general public.

“We have to make sure that the pandas are in good health and that they have become used to their new environment,” said an Oji official.

He predicated that the addition of the two pandas would mean an additional 300,000 to 400,000 visitors per year. Currently, Oji Zoo receives about 1 million visitors a year.