Because of course I went on a Japanese-Kyrgyz cultural tour.

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It should come as no surprise that I typically jump at any chance to experience Japanese culture. Therefore, you can understand my disappoint when I realized the Japanese-Kyrgyz cultural tour I’d spotted fell over 4 days when I only had 3 off. Fast forward a week and all university staff had been granted a four-day weekend around the end of April and beginning of May. Sheer minutes later, I was contacting the Sakura-Apricot Tour organizer, Banur, about signing up and paying for the tour. I wasn’t sure what I expect but I loved the opportunity to experience my old home with my new one.

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Upon boarding the minibus bright and early Saturday morning, I saw our group was mostly Kyrgyz, two Japanese, and me! A chance to practice my Russian and Japanese, I thought. (That said, several members of our group spoke English, too). Our first stop was at a local yurt for lunch. We went around making introductions and I listened as one of our guides translated from Russian into Japanese for the other non-Kyrgyz folks. Never did I ever imagine that I’d be perfectly content understanding the Japanese flowing from the Russian…in a yurt…in Kyrgyzstan.

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The afternoon brought exploration of an area I’d long heard about: Fairytale Canyon, otherwise known as Skazka Canyon. The pointed red, craggy rocks really did remind me of the castles in fairytales and the views overlooking Issyk-Kul’s turquoise waters proved spectacular once again. As we neared the end of our stroll through the canyon, we heard music around the corner. Our tour leaders had thoughtfully arranged for a formal string quartet to play Japanese classical music in the middle of the canyon. Truly, it was a once in a lifetime moment, and the few other tourists around quickly pulled out their cameras to capture it. If only they had played “My Neighbor Totoro!” 😉

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We spent the rest of the day leisurely along the south shore of Issyk-Kul after checking into our adorable accommodation, Apricot Guesthouse, only about 400 meters from the water. We were all in shared rooms which was nice because it gave everyone a chance to chat with one another. Looking back, between Banur’s mother who ran the guesthouse, Aigul, a local Japanese and English-speaking entrepreneur from Karakol, Ibrahim of Visit Karakol, and of course, Banur, we were certainly in good hands. A home-cooked meal was prepared as our dinner and afterwards, we literally raced down to the lake to catch the sunset just as it was descending. In a word, it was perfect.

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Our second day around Issyk-Kul was perhaps the busiest! Ibrahim led us on a mini-trek to an impressive panoramic viewpoint up above the lake. We did our best to point out the nearby villages, soak up the sun, and appreciate the natural surroundings. Lunch was done with the Japanese hanami (cherry blossom viewing party) in mind. A few hundred meters from the shore, we sat under the apricot blossoms and shared a picnic of plov (tasty rice pilaf), fruit, Kyrgyz bread, jams, and tea straight from the traditional Russian kettle. It really did bring back so many memories of Japan, sitting under the sakura at Kokura Castle and drinking Asahi on those blue tarps.

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In the afternoon, we made our way to an old, but still in use, Soviet-style sanatorium. Scattered around the former USSR, according to The Telegraph, sanatoriums “were built under Stalin, and subsequent leaders, to serve as both holiday resorts and medical centers for hard-working citizens of the state.” They are a pretty darn fascinating snapshot of Soviet culture and I’m hoping to go stay at one someday when my Russian language skills are better. Anyways, at this particular sanatorium, there used to be an old military camp that held a small number of Japanese POWs during World War II. These Japanese were transferred there from Tashkent and sent as laborers.

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We began our visit with a tour by one of the facility coordinators. Photos showing the history of vast complex of buildings depicted the evolution of its use. We wandered into rooms were some rather, in my mind, peculiar, “medical practices” and therapies were done on guests to help rejuvenate the body. Just Google “Soviet sanatoriums” for a glimpse of these. Not done yet, outside of the main building, we were shown a field of cherry trees. Our guide explained that these trees had been planted around ten years ago to commemorate the Japanese who were once imprisoned here. In 2008, one of the former Japanese POWs returned to the sanatorium camp as a sort of “reconciliation” and closure and he wanted to create a legacy of their time there.

There was also a designated room full of photographs from the time of the POWs’ stay, complemented by old love letters between Kyrgyz and Japanese inmates. Overall, the Japanese POWs were not tortured and all were eventually freed without harm. The main evidence of the POWs was the long stairway leading down from the sanatorium-camp complex to the lake. Apricot trees resembling cherry trees lined the walkway and it was oddly appropriate here. With each step I took, I imagined the Japanese laborers painstakingly building the stairway in both the hot sun and in the snow.

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By this point, though it was late in the day, we still had some energy so we scooted over to Barskoon Valley for a wee hike up to Barskoon Waterfall. When we reached the small waterfall, we discovered it was primarily frozen over but we could still try some of its refreshing ice cold water coming from the rocks. I looked over for a second and noticed my groupmates asking a couple of other tourists to take a group photo for us. And that’s when I saw these two guys were wearing William & Mary hats and shirts. Again, never would I have thought I’d run into fellow W&M alumni in the middle of Kyrgyzstan! We took some obligatory Tribe Pride photos and then I re-joined my group as we picked up litter down the mountain. In all, we collected over 10 bags of trash to be disposed of properly. Really, it was both sad and disappointing to see the way people treated their own land, their most precious resource. Our goal was to highlight the importance of taking care of it! We wound the day down with the dreamy never-gets-old Issyk-Kul sunset.

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I started the next morning off with my usual walk down to the lake for some peace, quiet, and fresh air. Since it was the middle of April, no one was around and I was grateful to have a few minutes to gaze out over the sparkling, majestic mountain lake. Before really getting going, we then hit up a swimming spot. I just could not get over how clear the water was, punctuated by the snow-capped mountains rising above the lake. My eyeballs about popped out of my head every few seconds.

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The epic Jeti-Oguz, a red hiccup of big Utah-esque rocks, served as the main attraction of the third day. Jeti-Oguz actually means “seven bulls” with this name given as the sandstone rock formations are said to resemble seven bulls. I enjoyed walking through the red rock formations, seeing horses sipping from the stream, and looking up at the amazingly blue sky. Banur pointed out a specific area where livestock were often kept before being taken to the market auction. One of the things I love about Kyrgyzstan is the diverse natural landscapes, similar to the US. Jeti-Oguz certainly reminded me of the American Southwest! And now it will be the other way around 🙂

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For lunch, our lovely guide, Aigul, had a treat for us. We would get to eat at her local establishment in Karakol, Dastorkon, a ridiculously cool ethno-cafe she built. Walking in and looking up, I felt as if I was magically transported into a colorful yurt again. We were served plate after plate of food, topped off by giant shashlik (grilled shish kabobs). I will surely make it to Dastorkon again! With our bellies stuffed to the brim, we ventured over to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Headquarters in Karakol.

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Having long known about JICA’s development work around the world for years, I was extremely eager to hear about its efforts around Kyrgyzstan, and specifically, the Issyk-Kul region. We were given a short tour of the JICA offices and then listened to an interesting presentation on JICA’s “One Village, One Product” movement/approach around Issyk-Kul. This production method was meant to prevent both too much competition and market saturation by supporting each village to make and sell a different unique product. The best example of this is the Issyk-Kul Brand, a range of handmade products from a wide variety of regional villages. There were different types of delicious honey but the most outta sight thing was that this initiative actually serves as a supplier to the Japanese “superstore brand” MUJI.

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We were fortunate enough to tour where wool was processed, dyed, and then processed again. We were shown the storage area, where due to quality assurance requirements, they had recently changed the types of bags they stored the wool in. The new giant bags were fairly transparent, allowed assessors to see the state of the wool more easily. As MUJI has 400+ stores in Japan alone and another 300+ worldwide, the supplier contract for JICA and the Issyk-Kul Brand is a massive coup. The toned-down colorful wool products include everything from cute little kids’ toys to mini yurts to slippers to cell phone cases, and they’re sold in Issyk-Kul Brand shops in Bishkek, Karakol, and Osh.

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Now, you wouldn’t expect there to be a Japanese guesthouse in Karakol but, yes, there is one, and yes, I did stay there. At Matsunoki Guesthouse, I had my own immaculately designed room, lined with beautiful golden wood and Kyrgyz-patterned linens, blankets, and wall hangings. It was the ideal blend of Japanese and Kyrgyz style. The wooden interior was adorned with little Japanese trinkets, like an abacus, here and there, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the thought and time that went into the design of the building. The few rooms and the floral wool slippers made the guesthouse feel extra Kyrgyz cozy.

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The wonderful thing about Matsunoki is that you can reserve Japanese meals there. We subsequently revelled in a full spread of Japanese tea, gyudon (beef bowl), karaage (fried chicken), miso soup, and fruit for dessert. Banur invited some of her local friends to join us for dinner and we spoke for hours over the table. In thinking about the mix of people, the food, the atmosphere, and the timing of it all, I did my best to take a mental snapshot of the warmth I felt then. (Outside of that, we were blessed by Ibrahim’s videography and photography skills throughout the trip!) #ThankYouIbrahim

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I rose early the next morning and was joined a Kyrgyz compadre on a little adventure to see Karakol’s vibrant Dungan mosque and Christian Orthodox church. Thanks in part to the Silk Road trade, the Dungan are a people of mixed Chinese and Arab blood, and as a result, their mosques look different from the ones we are used to seeing. We weren’t able to go inside because it was so early but my partner helped make sure we were able to wander the complex. We moved on to the church, again locked, though we were able to see the unique sea foam green rooftops through the fence. Upon returning to Matsunoki, we were greeted by a delectable full Japanese-style breakfast. As much as we loved our time at Matsunoki, we had to say goodbye to the Japanese-Kyrgyz owners and their kawaii little boys. The latter were sad to see their Japanese buddy, Kikuchi-san, leave after he spent so much time playing games with them.

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Although we had a long drive ahead of us from Karakol all the way back to Bishkek this last day, we did have one relaxing stop left: hot springs! Because onsen (hot springs) are so popular among Japanese people, we would be remiss if we didn’t experience the Kyrgyz version of a hot spring during our trip. In order to accommodate many people, the beautiful hot springs at Oruktu feature beautiful stoney pools of water heated at three different temperatures. We had sunny spring weather and we all just melted into the hot water pools. After relaxing for a bit, we indulged in a fresh fish lunch and piled back into the minibus one last time.

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The journey back to Bishkek came with some intense rain and heartwarming reflections about our trip. During lunch, Banur encouraged us to write little notes to the friends we’d made in the group, distributing paper and pens, so I finished mine on the bus home. It was nice to revisit the conversations I had in English/broken Russian/and Japanese over the last four days and I felt privileged to experience a tour that intertwined two major parts of my life. Thanking Aigul and Banur, we all finally parted ways at Dostuk Hotel in Bishkek, with ideas of a fall colors Japanese-Kyrgyz tour. But still, the Sakura-Apricot Tour experience was beyond anything I could have asked for – reuniting me with my forever home and linking it with the flavors and history of my current one.

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