KUMAMOTO, Japan - Soldiers from Wisconsin National Guard's 64th Troop Command visited the local fortress Kumamoto castle Jan. 24 as part of Yama Sakura 59's cultural exchange programs. The cultural exchanges strengthen relationships between U.S. and Japan Ground Self Defense Force troops.

"I have never been outside of the U.S., and I am glad that I my first trip was to Japan," said Spc. Alex Goehring, a chemical operations specialist with the 64th. "The Japanese are so formal, yet so friendly."

The castle is Japan's third largest and is more than 400 years old. Soldiers spent most of the morning learning about the castle's history from their tour guide, as well as visiting its many museums and interacting with Samurai soldiers posted throughout the castle.

"I loved visiting the castle and sharing in Japanese culture. They're very traditional people, and I found their history to be insightful," said Staff Sgt. Randolph Lockman, a fire support noncommissioned officer for the 64th.

"The visit to this castle really helped me appreciate the Japanese culture. It's so different from what I am used to, but I love it," said Pfc. Brett Cook. Cook, a radio operator with the 64th Rear Operations Center, has been outside the United States twice, including this trip to Japan.

Roughly 1,500 U.S. personnel and 4,500 Western Army Soldiers are participating in Yama Sakura 59. U.S. units include USARPAC, I Corps Forward, and U.S. Army Japan. I Corps, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., is supporting the exercise.

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.