CAMP ITAMI, Japan (Jan 25, 2012) -- Many times when a U.S. Soldier hears the word "exercise" he or she may often think of a broad range of training possibilities that may include use of advanced weaponry, communications, or even time spent in a field training environment.

However, the annual Yama Sakura in Japan also offers Soldiers a unique cultural experience designed to strengthen relationships between U.S. personnel and their Japanese counterparts.

This year's Yama Sakura 61 presents the largest bilateral exercise between the U.S. Army Pacific and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force since the Great Tohoku Earthquake in March 2011.

Various entertainment and cultural activities include a Japanese drum performance and traditional Awa dance, a tea ceremony, as well as courses of instruction in calligraphy, ceramics, and cooking.

There are also several off-posts tours that enable U.S. Soldiers to see the beautiful sights and historical landmarks of Japan such as the Kyoto Temple, Todai Temple, and Osaka Castle.

"This is my first time overseas and I had no idea about what to expect from the Japanese culture," said Pvt. Tyler J. Ritter, motor transport operator for the 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota National Guard.

Ritter said the ceramics course was his favorite cultural activity because of the tremendous challenge that was presented to him.

"Centering the symbols properly on the bowl takes a great deal of precision. I am very excited to tell my parents about this wonderful experience here in Japan," he said.

According to Sgt. 1st Class Natsuo Endo, drill instructor for the Middle Army Combined Brigade at Camp Itami, Japan, the U.S. Soldiers are very motivated to learn new and exciting things about the history of Japan.

"It has been very interesting for us to show the U.S. Soldiers about our culture and customs," Endo explained. "I personally observed the U.S. Soldiers to be great students while participating in the cultural activities thus far. Although the highlight of this event is the main exercise, it is also very important to develop our bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Japan through various cultural activities."

Nearly 800 U.S. military service personnel and more than 3,500 Japan Ground Self Defense Force servicemembers are participating in Yama Sakura 61 from Jan. 23 through Feb. 5, that focuses primarily on the bilateral and joint planning, coordination, and interoperability of ground based elements of the United States and Japan security alliance.