By Chris Buckley
NARA, Japan, May 10 (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao paid his respects at Buddhist temples on the last day of a visit to Japan on Saturday, adding a pointedly religious note to a trip aimed at cementing warmer ties between the Asian rivals.
Hu’s five-day state visit, the first to Japan by a Chinese leader in a decade, was intended both to ease strains with Japan over energy, security and wartime history and quell international pressure over unrest and a subsequent crackdown in Tibet.
On the day of his return to Beijing, Hu visited Japan’s ancient capital of Nara, about 400 kilometres (250 miles) west of Tokyo, and paid his respects at two Buddhist temples before heading off to meet regional officials and visit the headquarters of Japanese electronics maker Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. (6752.T).
"I believe that the trip has resulted in achievements," Kyodo news agency quoted Hu as telling Nara Governor Shogo Arai. "I think this will greatly promote bilateral ties in the future."
The Chinese President, who also serves as chief of the country’s officially atheist Communist Party, bowed in respect before a statue of a Chinese Buddhist monk in Toshodaiji temple, an official of the temple told a group of reporters.
At a time when China has faced widespread criticism over its controls in Tibet from exiled Tibetans and Western human rights groups, Hu’s temple visit appeared intended to deflect criticism that his government is hostile to religion.
The two temples both said they have been receiving protest calls from Tibet supporters complaining about Hu’s visit, and security was tight in Nara, as it was for his entire stay.
Outside Toshodaiji temple, a cluster of about 50 protesters denouncing Chinese rule in Tibet shouted "Free Tibet". One of the protesters was taken away by police after he tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag in front of the temple before Hu’s arrival.
Shortly after Hu left the ancient capital, about 150 protestors walked through central Nara, carrying Tibetan flags and banners saying "Free Tibet".
China recently held talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader. But Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and other foreign leaders have urged Hu to engage in more substantive dialogue to address tensions in Tibet.
Standing outside the ancient Horyuji temple while Hu inspected its bells and Buddhist statues, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Reuters that he was pleased with Hu’s visit to the long-time rival neighbour.
"It was very successful," Yang said before slipping off to join the thick phalanx of guards and officials accompanying the Chinese leader.
After Nara, Hu made a stop at the headquarters of electronics giant Matsushita, maker of Panasonic goods, one of the top sponsors of the Beijing Olympics. He chatted and made jokes to Japanese and Chinese employees and asked the firm to cooperate in the field of environmental protection technology.
Like much of Hu’s trip, the final day was dominated by ceremony rather than substance.
Besides the serious summitry with Fukuda, Hu announced China would lend two giant panda bears to a Tokyo zoo, spoke to university students, admired ballet dancers, and briefly played ping-pong with a star Japanese player.
China and Japan remain divided by friction over Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and its misgivings about China’s economic clout, military growth and export safety.
Many Chinese are also still bitter about Japan’s brutal occupation of much of China from 1931 to 1945, while many Japanese distrust Beijing’s assertion that its rise presents no economic or security threat.
Hu avoided harsh words on history and repeatedly stressed that he wanted to narrow differences and find common ground between the two biggest Asian economies. Chinese state media have lavished upbeat attention on Hu’s trip.
He also talked up the most substantive achievement of his visit — an announcement that the two sides were close to finding agreement over undersea gas in the East China Sea.
Beijing and Tokyo disagree over how to define their exclusive economic zones in the sea, which may hold hefty gas reserves.
On Friday evening, Hu met Toru Hashimoto, Governor of Osaka in western Japan.
Asked about the meeting, Hashimoto told reporters: "I heard the President’s thoughts, such as ‘you can choose a friend but you can’t choose a neighbour’ and ‘the mission of a politician is to search for a common benefit.’" (Additional reporting by Toru Hanai and Yoko Kubota, Editing by Linda Sieg and Alex Richardson)