KUMAMOTO, Japan (Jan. 25, 2011) - Soldiers participating in exercise Yama Sakura 59 had the opportunity to visit nearby cultural and natural sites before the exercise began Jan. 22 with a visit to Mt. Aso, Japan's largest active volcano.

"I'm taking advantage of a little down time before the exercise starts to do some sightseeing and see some of the local culture here," said Col. Kevin Pehr, commander of the U.S. Army Reserve's 8th Medical Brigade. "It's a great opportunity professionally and culturally to be here."

Yama Sakura is U.S. Army Pacific's premier bilateral exercise. It focuses on the development and refinement of the ability of the Japan Ground Self Defense Force and U.S. Army Japan to work together in defense of Japan. Even minor excursions like this to Mt. Aso contribute to U.S. Army Pacific's goals of integrating Pacific forces.

Soldiers participating in the exercise are given numerous opportunities to participate in cultural exchanges with their JGSDF counterparts, as well as some opportunities to visit local sights such as Mt. Aso and Kumomato Castle.

"My first time overseas and I'm loving it here in Japan," said Spc. Cory Lagusker, an air traffic controller with the 40th Infantry Division, California National Guard.

About 1,500 U.S. personnel and 4,500 Western Army Soldiers are participating in the exercise. U.S. units include the U.S. Army Pacific, I Corps Forward, and U.S. Army Japan. I Corps, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., is supporting the exercise at Camp Kengun.

Yama Sakura is an annual, bilateral exercise with Japanese forces and the U. S. military. This year's exercise is a simulation-driven, joint-bilateral, command post exercise and is the 29th iteration of the Japan-based exercise series.