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ASAKA, Japan — Dinner was in the tatami room — mats on the floor. Another room was for serving tea. Then there was the Japanese calligraphy — and for about 200 U.S. servicemembers, an especially warm welcome to Japan.

“There’s nothing like this in the U.S.,” said Spc. Ariele O’Brien, with the 201st Military Intelligence Brigade from Fort Lewis, Wash.

O’Brien and about 1,500 other soldiers and Marines are in town to take part in Yama Sakura, the largest command post bilateral exercise in Japan. To introduce them to Japanese culture, organizers invited 200 of them to visit 40 families.

At the home of businessman Katsushige Suzaki, four servicemembers experienced life in a Japanese home for an evening. They ate dinner, including sashimi — or cuts of raw fish — participated in a traditional tea ceremony and tried their hands at Japanese calligraphy.

The four servicemembers said they were most impressed by the tea ceremony, held in a special room in the Suzaki home. “As I explained today, the tea room, which I showed today, is a room where one can feel at ease. I’ve always wanted visitors to use my place to feel at home,” Suzaki said.

“That’s what I’ve enjoyed the most,” said Gunnery Sgt. Douglas Baker, from the 3rd Marine Division on Okinawa. “Other than their hospitality.”

To enter the room, they crawled into a small entrance, a holdover from the old days when a small, low door required all social classes to bow, and prevented Samurai from brandishing a weapon as they entered a room.

Army Col. Clarke McGriff, I Corps chaplain, enjoyed learning about the traditions as he experienced the ceremony. “Getting into the (tea) house, bowing, turning the cup and drinking three times,” he said. “This is very enlightening.”

Narumi, Katsushige’s wife, who prepared the tea, also taught the servicemembers about calligraphy.

“It is hard to explain things from ancient times, such as the tea room that they saw,” said Narumi.

She later played two flute pieces. Yuki, the couple’s 7-year-old son, played piano.

Later the Americans and the Japanese exchanged gifts, showed each other photos and got acquainted.

Yuki impressed the group with his English skills.

“I was nervous,” the boy said. “I want them to come again.”

Marine Capt. James Keisler, with the 3rd Marine Division from Okinawa, said seeing a close-knit family spending time together was refreshing.

“In the U.S., there’s not many things we do together as a family,” he said.

Keisler has been to the homes of Japanese friends on Okinawa but hasn’t experienced the same traditions with a family in mainland Japan.

“I wanted to skip the formalities and show just the way we are,” Suzaki said.

McGriff said his hosts’ enthusiasm and hospitality made the evening.

“They’re kind, gracious. That’s the thing that stood out the most: how willing they are to share.”

Said Suzaki: “We are the way were are because of America. If something happens, it will be better if they knew what they were defending by learning about this country, such as the culture.”

Servicemembers said the experience also showed how alike and unlike their cultures are.

“We have a better respect for them,” McGriff said. “And actually in a way, a lot of envy, because in American homes we don’t have a lot of traditions.”

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