The tree that officially signals the start of sakura season in the capital has missed the predicted starting date, but we have some new dates to keep an eye out for.

Every year in mid-March, discussions around the nation turn to when the Somei Yoshino sakura trees, Japan’s most famous and predominant sakura variety, will bloom. While all the official forecasts give us a general idea for the predicted date when the cherry blossoms will start to unfurl their petals, there’s only one way to know when sakura season has formally arrived, and it involves something called a sample tree, or “hyoujun-ki” in Japanese.

There are currently 58 sample trees around Japan, and in Tokyo, the hyoujun-ki is located on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. Ever since 1966, this tree has been observed by the Tokyo Regional Headquarters of the Japan Meteorological Agency, and once five or six flowers appear, officials formally declare the start of sakura season. When over 80 percent of the hyoujun-ki is in flower, the agency announces that the city’s sakura trees are in full bloom.

▼ The outer garden at Yasukuni Shrine

The sample tree is located in the inner garden, which is where our reporter Mr Sato went to assess its current state. With 19 March being the start date quoted on this year’s official sakura forecast for Tokyo, he wanted to know if five or six blossoms had appeared on the tree as predicted.

Sadly, signboard translations in Japan don’t always include all the details that are given in Japanese, and that’s the case here, as the additional sentence in Japanese contains the following information:

▼ “The ‘sample tree’ designated by the Tokyo Regional Meteorological Observatory to observe flowering is included amongst them.”

While the general public are permitted to photograph the sample tree to their heart’s content, those wanting to publish photos for the purpose of reporting need to present their business card to the shrine office, where they’ll receive instructions on the rules, which include no entry past the sample tree fence, no touching, climbing, or close-up photography of the cherry blossoms, and no interviews with worshipers inside the shrine grounds.

There’s also a pass that needs to be worn, which lets everyone know you have permission to gather information for reporting purposes, albeit with the caveat that interviews with worshippers on the grounds is off-limits.

After picking up his permit, Mr Sato headed to the sample tree, marked in pink on the map provided.

When he approached the site, he found a sign indicating that this was indeed the city’s famous sample tree.

So…were there five or six blossoms on the tree to herald the start of sakura season as predicted by weather forecasters?

▼ Nope — none at all.

Mr Sato observed buds on the tree’s many branches, but they didn’t even look swollen, suggesting there was still a while yet for even one blossom to appear.

Though Mr Sato was surprised to see this year’s forecast was off, it also got him wondering — when will sakura season really begin? With this thought in mind, he returned to the office and showed the photos he’d taken of the sample tree to eight of his colleagues, asking them to play amateur flower forecasters and use their intuition to predict the flowering date. So what do their amateur predictions look like? Let’s take a look at them below!

▼ Yoshio’s prediction: 20 March

“Nerima is already in bloom” was the simple reason Yoshio gave for this surprisingly early date. However, as someone who’d just returned from seeing the sample tree in person, Mr Sato believes Yoshio might’ve seen an early-blooming variety, because he doesn’t think even a single flower will appear on this date.

▼ P.K. Sanjun’s prediction: 21 March

These first two predictions made Mr Sato think neither Yoshio nor P.K. had looked at his photos carefully. To repeat, having seen the real thing, Mr Sato believes there will be no flowers on the tree on March 20, nor the day after tomorrow.

▼ Mariko Ohanabatake’s prediction: 22 March

If the weather is good for the next three days, 22 March is a serious possibility. However, considering the cold weather on the 19th, it still might be difficult for them to bloom by this date.

▼ Ahiruneko’s prediction: 23 March

This prediction falls on a Saturday, which would be perfect timing for a lot of Monday-to-Friday workers. However, Mr Sato still has doubts that the start of sakura season will officially be declared on that date.

▼ Go Hatori’s prediction: 25 March

Out of all eight predictions, Mr Sato feels Go’s is the most realistic, saying it’s very, very possible. In fact, he’s certain that at least one flower will have appeared on the sample tree by then, but whether there will be five by that date is yet to be seen.

▼ Takashi Harada’s prediction: 25 March

Takashi is renowned for his lack of luck in lotteries, so Mr Sato was surprised to see him land on this highly possible date. Perhaps some natural intuition was at work? Whatever the reason, Mr Sato thought the mystery of Takashi’s highly intuitive prediction was even more intriguing than the mystery of the blossoms.

▼ Seiji Nakazawa’s prediction: 26 March

Seiji is pushing the envelope with one of the furthest dates of the lot, but if there are a few cold days between now and then, the blossoming date could very well be pushed back until then.

Mr Sato’s prediction: 28 March

Mr Sato has totally pushed the boat out here, with a 28 March prediction for the start of the blooms. Granted, he’s relying on a whole lot of intuition because although his eyes tell him the flowers might start blooming on 25 March, his heart tells him those essential five to six blossoms will appear three days later.

The only thing missing from this collection of dates is…your prediction! Using Mr Sato’s photos as reference, he invites you to throw your hat in the ring as well and contribute your own ideas for when sakura season will officially be declared in Tokyo this year. There’s a good chance the flowers will start appearing within the week so now’s the time to start planning for them…and scheduling a visit to some of the country’s most popular cherry blossom sites!

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