HOKKAIDO, Japan (Dec. 12, 2009) -- There was some nervousness at first, but in the end, the similarities between the New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division Soldiers and their Japanese hosts outstripped the differences.

"I felt completely at home and completely welcome," said Sgt. First Class Denis Topliffe, who was one of eight division Soldiers selected to visit Japanese homes during Yama Sakura 57, the bilateral command post training exercise with members of the Japan Ground Self Defense Forces.

The visits were part of the exercise's cultural exchange aspect. Most of the New York Army National Guard division's command staff arrived here on Dec. 2, and accompanied by interpreters, the Soldiers visited the homes the following evening.

Topliffe, of Guilderland, and Warrant Officer Kelly Fancher, of Valatie, visited the Segawa family. A family of five, the Segawas have three girls, ranging in age from 20 months to seven years old, Fancher said.

"I was excited to do it because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Fancher said of the visit. "But I was nervous too."

Fancher and Topliffe both like sushi, and expected a traditional Japanese dining experience. In addition to sushi, the Segawas served hotdogs, French fries and chicken - all prepared equally well, Fancher said.

"It was good," Fancher said.

They went out of their way to make food they thought was culturally appropriate, said Topliffe, referring to the American cuisine.

"Of course, I didn't eat any of that," Topliffe said with a smile. "I filled up on sushi. It was fabulous."

Though shy at first, the children grew more carefree as the evening wore on - playing and horsing around, reminding him of his own children, Topliffe said. The fact that he is part-time soldier and full-time special education teacher at Peter B. Coeymans Elementary School in Ravena helped as well, he added.

"When I told them my fulltime (job) is teaching, they seemed more relaxed," he said.

At the children's request, he and Fancher sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," Topliffe said. They then sat on the couch and enjoyed the children's rendition of the song - in Japanese, he explained.

Staff Sgt. Fredric Trunzo, of Buffalo, visited the Ikeda family with Staff Sgt. Robert Lant, of Staten Island, N.Y., and Pfc. Kelly Rushing and Pfc. Callie Haynes, both of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Trunzo said he felt privileged to visit with the Ikedas - and nervous.

"I wanted to make sure I represented my unit and the United States as best as possible," he said.

But when he saw the trappings of the Ikeda home - which included a living room with a television set and the childrens' toys - Trunzo, too, felt right at home.

"It looked like my home," he said. "There doesn't seem to be any differences in how we live our daily lives."

One new experience was sitting cross-legged at the Ideka's foot-high table, dining on sushi and a enjoying a number of dishes, most of which he didn't know the name of, he said.

"It was huge spread," he recalled. "There was probably 20 different Japanese food items. It just kept coming."

They ate while wearing ceremonial robes the Idekas had provided, and "talked about everything" - from music and Michael Jackson to Pokemon, Trunzo said. They also spoke with the Ideka's grandfather, a former major and engineer in the Japanese Defense Forces, he added.

The Soldiers said they exchanged gifts like Japanese fans, baseballs, T-shirts and the 42nd Division rainbow patch.

It seemed as though the Segawa's children didn't want the evening to end.

"They actually didn't want us to leave," Fancher said. "One of them was crying."

It was wonderful that they created a bond in such a short time, Topliffe said. For him, the evening with the Segawas hearkened back to his experiences in a Egyptian cultural exchange program and his interactions with Iraqi civilians while helping them to rebuild a school in Tikrit.

"It doesn't matter where I go in the world, people are all the same," he said.

(Staff Sgt. Raymond Drumsta serves with the 138th Public Affairs Detachment, New York Army National Guard.)