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Cherry Blossom Festival, Tinged With Post-Earthquake Sadness, Begins In Tokyo

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TOKYO (AP) - Cherry blossom season has arrived in Tokyo, tinged this year with particular sadness. (Scroll down for photos)

The Japan Meteorological Agency said Monday that the country's capital was officially in bloom.

The proclamation marks the start of Tokyo's cherry blossom viewing season and is normally among the most anticipated announcements of the season. This year, the usual excitement has been overshadowed by the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast coast, as well as the ongoing nuclear crisis.

The annual rite of spring in Japan goes back hundreds of years and involves sitting under "sakura" trees and taking in the fluffy pink flowers, which drop off about a week after they appear.

Japan designates certain trees for monitoring across the country, and considers a region to be in bloom when at least five or six flowers can be counted on its trees. Tokyo's benchmark tree is located at Yasukuni Shrine, home to a celebrated grove of sakura.

When 80 percent of the trees' flowers have opened, an area is officially designated as in "full bloom."

This season starts six days later than last year in Tokyo. The blooming of sakura begins in the warmer south and moves north. Flowers regions hit hardest by the tsunami are projected to make their appearance in early- to mid-April.