• The Associated Press

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The news was broadcast on every TV network and headlined in the major newspapers. It set off a flurry of phone calls to weather officials. The big story: Japan may be on its way to one of its earliest cherry blossom seasons ever.

Cherry blossom viewing is a much-anticipated annual event that sends millions of Japanese revelers outdoors for several days of sake-sodden picnics. And this year, weather forecasters say, the parties may start a week or so early.

Cherry blossom spotters at the Meteorological Agency predict Tokyo’s “sakura” blossom season will begin eight days ahead of the average year, and one week earlier than last year, agency official Hideo Morizane said.

He said the blossoms — notoriously sensitive to the weather — will open earlier because of an unusual warm spell in February. The average temperature for February hovered at 8.5, the highest for the month since February 1979, he said.

Tokyo’s earliest blooming on record was registered March 16 two years ago. The government keeps its records based on observations of one specially designated cherry tree on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Although the temperature turned low at the beginning of March, slightly slowing the blossoms, they may still beat the record if the weather turns warm again and remains stable through mid-March, Morizane said. He said cherry blossoms in Tokyo are expected to be in full bloom by late March.

The agency has been keeping records in the capital region since 1951.

During the cherry blossom season, parks throughout the country are filled with people hosting “hanami,” or flower-viewing, parties under cherry trees.

The parties, which generally involve lots of drinking, singing and eating, can be a major production.

For larger gatherings in the more popular spots, some people stake out plots for their blankets a day or so in advance. Companies often hold large parties, along with the smaller gatherings of families or friends, and the progression of the blossoming from the warmer southern part of Japan to the cooler north is followed by daily “blossom frontline” reports in the media.

“We received some 100 phone calls asking about when the cherries will blossom” after the agency announced its general prediction on March 3, Morizane said.

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