One would think Eishin Murakata has a pleasant, relaxing job. Every spring, he strolls each day to the same cherry tree in central Tokyo and gazes up at its boughs. When he spots a full bud on the verge of blossoming, he carefully snaps a photograph.
But Murakata has been on edge recently. As an employee of the Meteorological Agency, his annual quest is to determine the official opening date of Tokyo’s hallowed, yet fleeting, cherry blossom season — and this year, the competition from rival weather agencies has been tight.
“I have to look very carefully so I won’t miss anything,” he said one afternoon as he examined the agency’s main benchmark tree at a Tokyo shrine. “Our mission is so important I don’t have time to enjoy the flowers when we spot them.”
The cherry blossom, or “sakura,” is an important cultural emblem. Delicate, elegant and ephemeral, the pink flowers have inspired poets, philosophers and even soldiers for centuries — and serve as an aesthetic pretext for all-out parties under the trees.
So there was a public outcry last year when the Meteorological Agency’s prediction for blossom-opening in Tokyo was four days early — triggering a wave of angry calls for greater accuracy in forecasting.
The foulup by the agency — the long-established standard-bearer for forecasts of the cherry blossom front as it moves up the archipelago — brought upstart weather services to the fore in a heated competition for the most accurate predictions.
“Who will get the right answer?” the Yomiuri Shimbun asked last week in a front-page article, comparing two conflicting forecasts. “Soon we’ll find out.”
Weathernews Inc. is one meteorological rival. It puts blossom forecasts and cherry blossom maps on its Web site, and provides weather information to 1.5 individual users and 3,000 corporate subscribers, including 30 retailers.
The company’s Web site also gives real-time cherry blossom condition reports, so visitors can click on an area and find out if it is time to pack a picnic basket — a service the Meteorological Agency does not provide.
“We just want to help people to enjoy the flowers,” said Weathernews spokesman Masaki Ito. “Nothing is more disappointing than cherry-blossom festivals without flowers.”
The competition goes far beyond aesthetics: the spring party season means big bucks for retailers.
Millions of people crowd the country’s parks and spend freely on picnic mats, food and drink during the few days that the flowers are in bloom. Municipalities and businesses depend on the forecasts to plan the revelry.
“We monitor the blossoms very closely, using both the Meteorological Agency and private forecasts,” said Mayumi Ito, a spokeswoman for Seven & I Holdings Co., owner of Seven-Eleven convenience stores. “Employees also visit nearby parks to check the blossoms.”
In anticipation of the flowers, the convenience store chain doubles its stocks of snacks, paper plates and cups, plastic mats — and beer. The day before the season starts, it places large orders for boxed lunches.
In response to last year’s outcry over the premature prediction, the Meteorological Agency has left nothing to chance this year. It has installed an upgraded supercomputer and revised its forecasting model, using temperature data from the last 30 years instead of 50 years for more up-to-date readings.
“We believe the accuracy of our forecast has improved . . . though we still have a margin of error and the forecast can be off by about one to two days,” said Takashi Nakamura, an official in the agency’s information and technology department. “We’re dealing with nature, which doesn’t always agree with our math.”
All the precautions appear to have worked. The agency pegged Tokyo’s blossom date at March 25, but then moved it up to March 22 — just, as it turned out, one day later than the actual date they began to open, which was Tuesday.
Weathernews’ initial forecast for Tokyo was meanwhile set for March 29, and they moved it to the 25th — still three days late.
Despite the talk of competition, most people keep things in perspective.
Daisuke Saito, 24, said the flowers were about having a good time as he gathered with friends under the mostly bare branches at Ueno Park in Tokyo’s Taito Ward.
“It’s only this time of the year we can enjoy friendship, sake and flowers at the same time,” Saito said. “We’ll come back here during the peak of the season, then before the end.”