Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko were given a harmonious musical welcome to Estonia on Thursday as they began their first-ever visit to a former Soviet republic.
After a formal welcoming ceremony held under overcast skies and in chilly winds at the presidential palace of Kadriorg in the seaside capital Tallinn, and a luncheon hosted by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Akihito and Michiko attended a choral concert by some 3,000 Estonian youngsters.
Thousands of spectators and performers applauded warmly as the imperial couple arrived at the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, which holds a special place in Estonian history.
It was under the huge arch at the Tallinn festival grounds that Estonians staged their "Singing Revolution" -- the peaceful, musical demonstrations of the late 1980s that paved the way to ending Soviet rule in 1991.
Estonia is the second stop on the Japanese royal couple's 10-day European tour, which began in Sweden and will also take in the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania, which were also occupied by the Soviet Union.
In a speech given at the official luncheon in Tallinn, Akihito recalled the year he ascended to the throne, which was also the year that thousands of people in the Soviet-occupied Baltic states formed a human chain that extended from Estonia to Lithuania, to peacefully press for freedom.
"I ascended to the throne in 1989, the same year that the Baltic Chain, which started in Tallinn and united the three Baltic countries, attracted the attention of the world," said Akihito.
"In 1991, I learned that the three Baltic states were the first countries to free themselves from Soviet power, and I remember the emotions that this powerful course of history created in me," he added.
Later, as hundreds of red and white Japanese flags fluttered alongside the blue, black and white of Estonia's banner, the audience at the song grounds rose to their feet as Akihito and Michiko walked to their places in the first row to listen to a half-hour concert of Estonian choral songs.
"For us, it's a great honour to show our musical culture to the Japanese emperor," choir conductor Aarne Saluveer said.
In the crowd, a few dozen Japanese people stood shoulder to shoulder with Estonians.
"I've only seen the emperor on TV in Japan, so it's my chance to see him in person here," said 39-year-old Junko Yasuda, who had travelled to Tallinn from nearby Finland, where she lives, just to see the emperor.
As the youthful voices intoned the songs, the clouds lifted and gave way to a clear but crisp late spring day.
"Even the clouds have disappeared," said Mailii Tamme, an Estonian woman in the audience.
"It always happens with our song festivals: we sing the clouds away."
On Thursday evening, the imperial couple will meet with key players in Estonian-Japanese relations in Tallinn's medieval Town Hall.
Ilves said in a statement that cultural exchanges between Japan and Estonia were "part of a global process, in which various conceptions and ways of thinking meet."
"This creates understanding and brings our people closer together," the Estonian head of state said.
The emperor and empress will spend one day each in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on the first Japanese royal visit to territory that was once part of the Soviet Union. Because of a territorial dispute, Japan has never signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union or Russia officially ending World War II.