About 50 Russians from disputed islands off Hokkaido arrived Wednesday in the northern city of Nemuro on a visa-free visit, the first to take place this year under a bilateral exchange program.

The trip by teenagers and their escorts follows Russia's earlier cancelation of a visa-free visit by Japanese to the islands. Moscow cited administrative reasons in calling off the visit planned for mid-May, but has since rescheduled it for June 5, the Foreign Ministry has announced.

The Russians are scheduled to tour Nemuro and visit Tokyo starting Thursday. They will experience a tea ceremony and meet with Japanese students studying Russian before returning home on Monday.

The visa-free visits began in 1992 as part of efforts to boost ties between present and former residents of the disputed islands and deepen mutual understanding. About 12,000 Japanese and 8,600 Russians had taken part in the program as of last year.

Tokyo and Moscow are locked in a long-standing dispute over the four islands off Hokkaido. The Soviet Union seized Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group following Japan's surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945. The dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty.