CAMP ASAKA, Japan -- As the Japanese flag rose in the morning, nearly 240 U.S. Army Soldiers with America's First Corps boarded buses to explore Tokyo as part of a cultural tour, Dec. 6-7, 2019.
The Soldiers were in Japan prepping for the beginning of Yama Sakura 77, a bilateral, command post exercise between the U.S. Army and Japan Ground Self-Defense Force.
Service members from each country had been gearing up for the exercise, working hand in hand with their counterparts and attending nightly cultural events hosted in the camp. The weekend's trips into the city, however, offered many a chance to see and experience Japan hands-on.
"Coming to this exercise here, we were given the opportunity to go outside and visit, meet with the locals and interact," said Lt. Col. Matthew Barbour, the I Corps G2 operations night officer in charge."It was a very effective use of my time and gave me a true understanding and appreciation for the country of Japan."
For their first stop, Soldiers made their way to Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple and most popular tour stop. At the temple, visitors were able to cleanse themselves with incense and water, purchase charms promising protection and prosperity and receive fortunes.
Soldiers followed their noses from the temple to the Nakamise Dori, a street market where the smell of fried dough and sweets permeated the air. Eighty-nine stores lined the streets, peddling souvenirs, memorabilia, fried treats and fresh soft-serve ice cream.
Next up was a lunch buffet offering traditional Japanese dishes, including fresh sushi rolls and raindrop cakes, followed by a 333-meter elevator ride to the top of Tokyo Tower - the second largest building in Tokyo.
The tour came to a close at the Imperial Palace - home to Japan's imperial family and the geographic center of Tokyo. Soldiers took pictures in front of the moat surrounding the keep and strolled through parts of the Imperial Palace East Gardens before returning to camp.
Spc. Corey Stark, a signals intelligence analyst with I Corps, believes trips like these are an important way to learn more about our allies and build stronger relationships during exercises.
"They all work together to maintain their culture," Stark said, adding that the trip offered an opportunity to "see a little bit of what their daily life is and how their country operates."