Students under cherry trees

The blooming cherry trees are a perfect backdrop for studying, picnics or just hanging out with friends or family.

Photographer: Ohio University Photography

Illuminated cherry trees

The cherry grove has been illuminated at night since 2007.

Photographer: Ohio University Photography

Planting cherry trees in 1979

Ohio University President Charles Ping, right, helped to plant the first sakura trees with Chubu University President Kazuo Yamada in 1979.

Photo courtesy of: Robert E. and Jean R. Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections

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Sakura Watch website to track progress of cherry blossoms

For more than 30 years, the blossoming of the Somei Yoschino cherry trees—sakura—on the Ohio University campus have heralded the arrival of springtime in Athens. Starting this month, local residents and far-flung alumni alike can watch the trees change from first budding to peak flowering via the OHIO website.

The “Sakura Watch” is the brainchild of Chris Thompson, chair of the Department of Linguistics and a specialist in Japanese language and culture, and Hiroyuki Oshita, associate professor of Japanese and linguistics. Both are faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“In Japan, they follow the ‘cherry blossom front,’ with trees first blooming in Okinawa and moving north,” Thompson explained. “Many towns have sakura cams so people can time they visits for mankai, the peak blooming time.”

Eiji Deguchi, husband of Japanese language lecturer Ayako Deguchi, will take daily photographs of the trees to be posted on the site, which was designed and created by University Communications and Marketing and OHIO Information Technology.

The addition of a dedicated sakura website is a logical next step in showcasing the trees. Parts of the cherry tree grove along the Hocking River have been illuminated at night since 2007; that too is a longtime practice in Japan.

OHIO’s trees are a gift from Chubu University, OHIO’s sister institution in Japan. (This year marks the 40th anniversary of that relationship.) The first 175 trees were presented in 1979 in recognition of OHIO’s 175th anniversary. In 2003, Chubu offered 94 Yoschino cherry trees and nine Double Weeping cherries to replace damaged plants and to increase the total number of trees to 200—in honor of OHIO’s bicentennial.

In addition to their signaling of the arrival of spring, sakura have held deep philosophical importance in Japanese culture since the 8th century. Because full-blown blossoms last for only a day or two, sakura are a symbol of mono no aware: the concept of the impermanence of life. Cherry blossoms are a recurring motif in Japanese art from paintings to pop songs.

OHIO’s grove—possibly the largest in the Midwest—is increasingly popular with Japanese expatriates in the region. With the relocation of Honda of America’s headquarters from California to suburban Columbus, Ohio in particular has a growing Japanese community. And that community is increasingly aware of Ohio University, Thompson said, because of the sakura.

“I’ve always felt that we could promote the Japanese program and attract more Japanese students and families to Athens with the sakura,” he said.

For his part, Oshita would simply like to see more members of the larger Athens community coming out to enjoy the blossoming trees, in the way that families in Japan do. And he wishes that more University organizations would take advantage of the trees’ brief beauty as a backdrop—say, for a musical performance.

“I’d like to see more activities under the trees,” he said.

 Cherry tree trunks

OHIO's cherry trees are damaged by our harsh winters.

Look, But Don’t Touch!

When in full bloom, Ohio University’s sakura grove attracts families and lovers alike. It’s tempting to allow a young child to climb the trees, or to snap off a blossoming twig. But that’s a really, really bad idea.

“The winters here are colder than in Japan,” said Hiroyuki Oshita, associate professor of Japanese and linguistics. Those splits in the trunks that look like a perfect spot for a toddler photo are caused by water seeping into cracks in the trees and freezing — which weakens the tree. Even snapping off twigs can damage the delicate trees, Oshita said.

So please, look—but don’t touch!