TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan's countdown to spring traditionally began with a government announcement on when the cherry blossom season will start, but this year, the people are taking over.
Each year, forecasts of when the blossoms will open are headline news. The information is used by cities to plan cherry blossom festivals, travel agencies to schedule tours, and ordinary people to set dates for often raucous parties that involve lots of eating and drinking under the trees.
This season, Japan's national obsession with the timing of the flowering of the delicate, pale pink blooms, called "sakura" in Japanese, will depend on private weather companies and their volunteer recruits, after the Meteorological Agency decided to end its official forecasts that began in 1955.
Among the three major private weather forecasts that compete to be the most accurate on the timing of sakura, Weathernews Inc provides forecasts based on input from over 15,000 volunteers around the nation who submit mobile phone pictures of how buds on their favorite cherry tree are doing.
"There are so many people who love sakura ... Many send us updates every day as if they were raising their child," said Yuki Tokumaru, a spokeswoman at Weathernews, who also monitors a tree near her house.
"I chose my own tree and keep monitoring the same bud so that I can find out how it's growing," said 24-year-old Tokumaru, standing near the tree. "It makes me happy to see a little bit of progress every day and I look forward to seeing flowers bloom."
Private weather companies also offer forecasts on when sakura trees will be in full bloom and when blizzards of falling petals can be expected, whereas the government only made predictions on the start of the season based on 64 "benchmark" trees.
Some Japanese people say cherry blossoms appeal to them as it serves as a poignant reminder of the briefness of life. The flowers are also associated with new beginnings as the country's business and school years start on April 1.
Many Japanese songs released in spring also use sakura as a symbol for farewells at school graduation, or new encounters at the start of the school year.
A few years ago, Japanese government weather officials were forced to apologize after a computer glitch led to incorrect forecasts for the start of the cherry blossom season. But the agency said that was not linked to the end of its forecasts.
"The agency should focus on the government's duty of giving accurate information to the public during disasters," said Yoshitoshi Sakai, a senior scientific officer at the Meteorological Agency.
"Things like cherry blossoms forecasts are more to do with leisure and tourism. So if the private sector can do the job, we thought we should let them do it instead."
Some local media initially voiced concern about the change, but Kiyoteru Morita, Director at Weathernews, said each company offers forecasts to serve different purposes, so people can choose one based on how they want to enjoy the blossoms.
Yasuaki Tachibana, public relations manager at a Japanese travel agency, Kintetsu International, was also unfazed by the change, saying the firm does its own research to plan tours.
But he added: "If sakura blooms out of line with our tour schedules, that will affect our business. So we are always anxious about when cherry blossoms start."
Editing by Miral Fahmy