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The love story that captured the romantic imagination of a nation neared its climax on Thursday when Prince Aya, 24-year-old younger son of Emperor Akihito, returned to Japan to take the hand of his commoner fiancee.

"I'm looking forward to my new life, but distance has made it difficult for me to really feel the excitement," the tall prince with the droopy mustache said.

Aya, second in line to the imperial throne behind unmarried elder brother Naruhito, 30, surprised the public last fall by announcing his engagement to 23-year-old Kiko Kawashima. They will marry Friday.

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