Ueno Zoo’s panda cub Xiang Xiang makes her media debut

Area merchants prepared to cash in on panda mania

by and

Staff Writers

A six-month-old giant panda cub was unveiled to the media at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo on Monday, becoming the zoo’s first to debut in 29 years.

“We started a panda breeding program in 2010 but it’s not easy to make these animals produce a cub,” Yutaka Fukuda, head of the zoo, said at a ceremony on the zoo’s premises. “We’re happy and proud of our success.”

He stressed that female Xiang Xiang is the zoo’s first cub born as a result of natural mating, and expressed hope the parents’ further reproductive attempts will be successful.

On a makeshift stage on a chilly Monday morning, students from nearby Shinobugaoka Elementary School celebrated the cub’s birth with musical performances. Wan Wang, the wife of Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua, presented the zoo with a statue of a panda cub as gift to Japan.

“Wild giant pandas are at risk of extinction and there are only 1,800 remaining worldwide, which makes this one very precious,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said at the ceremony.

The cub was shown to about 130 guests including local officials and lawmakers. She’ll make her first public appearance on Tuesday.

Koike, who was one of the first guests to see the cub, said: “To put it simply, (the cub) is cute” and called Xiang Xiang “A Tokyo treasure.”

The cub’s name, which means fragrance or popular in Chinese, was chosen from suggestions from the public.

On the day of her debut, the fluffy panda was playing on the ground in the panda house, crushing bamboo stems, and attempting to climb and hide behind tree trunks.

Zoo officials described Xiang Xiang, born on June 12 and now weighing over 12 kg, as healthy.

The cub’s appearances will be restricted to 2½ hours a day until Jan. 31 to ease the burden on the animal, although zoo officials have been preparing Xiang Xiang for crowds for several weeks. It is a tradition to display panda cubs around 180 days after birth.

Visitors will be able to see the cub during five short sessions daily and will be chosen at random from among those who apply. According to the zoo, it received 247,083 applications for sessions this month. The officials warned, however, that Xiang Xiang takes naps several times a day and may be asleep during some sessions.

A live video of the panda can be viewed on its website starting Tuesday, they said.

Meanwhile, many eateries and shops in the area have been beckoning zoo visitors and panda aficionados with panda-themed foods and goods ranging from cupcakes to obi (kimono sashes).

The Ueno Tourism Federation began giving away 50,000 copies of “Ueno Panda Maps” at the Ameyoko street market and the nearby Ueno Information Center that list shops and facilities offering panda-themed goods and attractions.

Some business owners in Ueno saw Xiang Xiang’s birth as a chance to recover from the death of the giant panda cub that died of pneumonia within a week of its birth at the zoo five years ago.

“The death of a newborn panda cub was the biggest disappointment for residents, mentally and financially, as we had already made several goods featuring the giant panda cub,” said Yoshishige Yamazaki, vice chairman of the union of the Ameyoko market’s Omote street. He added that member shops in the union “probably lost over ¥10 million” in total.

“We’re ready to welcome panda lovers,” he said, adding he was hopeful that Ueno would regain its vitality.

Ueno no Mori no Panyasan, a bakery across from JR Ueno Station, lures visitors with buns and small brioches with images of Xiang Xiang and her mother, Shin Shin.

“I had never seen panda-shaped buns before and I think this is something I can only find in Japan,” said Cai Kot, a 13-year-old Australian who revisited the store on the last day of her trip to Japan to buy the buns in bulk.

On Monday, Hard Rock Cafe’s Ueno branch started serving panda-themed burgers made of black and white buns, along with coke bottles featuring panda labels.

The restaurant also displays the cub’s stages of growth on five TV screens near its entrance and since October has sold celebratory lapel pins designed by its staff.