OTTAWA - The emperor of Japan praised Canada's urban green spaces and clean living Monday before he planted a tree at the Governor General's residence during an official visit steeped in pomp and ceremony.
"We are most impressed with the effort the people of your country make in order to maintain nature in metropolitan areas and try to lead a healthy lifestyle," Emperor Akihito said through an interpreter.
"We hope to deepen our understanding of your country where those who have lived here for generations and those who have moved here from various countries recognize and respect their mutual cultures and strive to create, harmoniously, the Canada that is today."
Akihito and Empress Michiko shovelled earth on a hemlock tree planted in their honour on the grounds of Rideau Hall as Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean cooed "wonderful, wonderful."
She told Japan's royal couple that the hemlock will one day grow taller than the canopy of trees high above it.
"It will grow very tall," Jean said. "Sixty to eighty feet. So, it's going to be a very strong Canadian and Japanese tree.
"We have a good future."
The official visit began when a landau carrying Akihito and Michiko rumbled up Rideau Hall's winding lane to the waiting Governor General.
Akihito briefly inspected the Governor General's ceremonial guard before entering her official residence.
They spent about an hour talking inside a large drawing room with Jean's secretary, the Canadian and Japanese ambassadors and the emperor's grand master of ceremonies.
A small contingent of mostly Japanese journalists captured the first moments of the meeting.
Jean leaned in toward Akihito and thanked him for visiting Canada.
"It's very important for Canada and Japan to really reinforce their connections and relations ... especially in these uncertain times," she said.
"This is a time when we have to push down barriers and go beyond borders and join our efforts to find the solutions."
The emperor smiled but said nothing.
The emperor last visited Canada in 1953 when he was the heir to the throne. He's making up for lost time by travelling to Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria on a 12-day tour.
Later in the day, Akihito and Michiko returned to Rideau Hall to met Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen.
The two men briefly made small talk before the cameras.
"It's wonderful to have you. It's been 50 years," Harper said.
"Fifty-six," the emperor corrected.
"Fifty-six," Harper said.
Akihito was to dine with Harper, Jean and other dignitaries at Rideau Hall on Monday evening.
The visit to the Governor General's residence drew a crowd of Japanese, who came with fluttering paper Japan flags to greet the emperor and empress.
But in the Land of the Rising Sun, the royal visit appears to be a mere blip on people's radar screens.
"I have talked to my cousins and they said, 'Oh really? They are going (to Canada)?' They didn't know," said Noriko Davy, who came to see the emperor.
"Maybe there are some people who are very much interested in the ... royal family of Japan," explained Kazue Furuya. "Then probably they will follow whatever they do.
"But the ordinary people, especially the younger generations, they are not much interested."