CAMP HIGASHI-CHITOSE, Japan - Tea ceremonies, paper folding and sword demonstrations aren't usually the first things to come to mind when you think of a command post exercise with one of the U.S. strongest military allies.
Yet, the more than 1,500 troops participating in Yama Sakura 57 had the opportunity to visit Japanese children with special needs and practice the art of calligraphy and origami before the start of this year's exercise.
These events were part of a series of cultural exchanges designed to foster a better understanding of Japanese culture and traditions.
The Northern Army of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, the U.S. military's bilateral partner for this year's exercise, planned and executed the cultural series. Each day featured a different event, hosted on the Northern Army's camp on the island of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.
One of the first cultural activities offered was a Japanese home visit, which was designed to let U.S. participants experience Japanese home-life first hand.
Staff Sgt. Andrew Knight, 169th Fires Brigade, Colorado National Guard, helped prepare a northern Japanese staple, mochi gome, or sticky rice, during his home visit.
"One of the neater things we got to do was take steamed rice and put it in this big bowl and started pounding on it with a hammer," he said. "Later, (our host's wife) came back with soup and the rice was in it. It was absolutely delicious."
Knight also added that experiencing the home life of an average Japanese family was something he has always wanted to do.
"I've always been intrigued by (East-Asian) culture," he said. "So many ancient traditions that we as Americans don't get to see too often. It was very eye opening to be able to see this in person and actually visit with a Japanese family and see how they live and how they view America."
"I was humbled by this experience and I love the respect and honor I felt being at my host's home," said Spc. Latangia Oliver, 40th Special Troops Battalion, California National Guard. "This is my first trip to Japan and did not know what to expect and felt a little apprehensive, but after tonight I feel right at home."
First Lt. Kyosuke Moriguchi, Northern Army, JGSDF, served as an interpreter during the home visit. He said that he was happy to experience the interaction.
"The U.S. military and the host family made a good connection," he added. "I hope the JGSDF and U.S. military make as good a connection (during Yama Sakura)."
Capt. Ryan Mundy, Utah National Guard, learned how to write his name in Japanese during the calligraphy class.
"I am amazed at the beauty and difficulty of writing Japanese," he said. "It's a beautiful language."
Sgt. Lizeth Reyes, 40th Infantry Division, California National Guard, participated in a tea ceremony and enjoyed the attention to detail placed on such an important part of Japanese life.
"This has given me a great appreciation in working with my counterparts and I'm glad they made an effort to share their world with me," she said.
Other classes during the week included the Japanese art of flower arranging, or kado, and the proper wear of a kimono.
For many, the best part of the cultural exchange was the joint U.S.-JGSDF visit to children with special needs. The 29 U.S. and 29 JGSDF troops played wheel chair soccer and had a great time, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Alveno Hodge, command sergeant major, U.S. Army, Pacific Special Troops Battalion.
"When you come to different countries, you usually only get to see what's on that particular installation during that military operation," he said. "But here, our host, the JGSDF, has done so much for us. They have gone out of their way to make us feel comfortable in their country."
"I saw lots of smiling," said Command Sgt. Maj. Hisanoria Honda, command sergeant major of the Northern Army, JGSDF . "I believe that the U.S. participants will have some good memories to bring home.
More than 1,500 U.S. military personnel and nearly 3,500 members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force are conducting the exercise here Dec. 7-13. Yama Sakura, which means "mountain cherry blossom," is an annual, bilateral exercise designed to strengthen military operations and ties between the U.S. Army and the JGSDF.