Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Right Time - Right Place

Our trip to Osaka for the ten-year anniversary of the opening of Universal Studios Japan has been planned for about a year. After the earthquake and tsunami, we questioned whether it was still a good idea to come. But our friends here in Osaka encouraged us not to change our plans. Now that we’re here, we’re certain we were meant to come.

Wrong Airport
I made the reservations for this trip, our trip to EPICon in Colonial Williamsburg, and our November trip to Hawaii at about the same time last summer. The Hawaii trip originated from LAX. The Virginia trip originated out of SNA (John Wayne in Orange County).

Larry said he’d take care of the parking for our car for this trip as he had for the other two. He had access to the information, so I assumed he’d actually read it. He hadn’t.

We drove to L.A. and left our car in long-term parking, then caught their shuttle to the airport. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that our tickets were actually out of SNA! (He assumed, and you know what that means!)

We were assisted by a terrific United Ticket Agent named Rosa Santana. (She deserves to be mentioned by name!) She saw our panic and quickly and efficiently switched us to a flight from LAX. In addition, she wait-listed us on an earlier one so we’d have moe time to make our connecting flight to KIX once we got to SFO.

We made it onto the earlier flight knowing we were supposed to meet Rosa that morning and grateful that she was there for us.

In-flight Connection
I was seated in the middle seat between two people traveling together. I switched to the window. Turns out, we were meant to meet for several reasons. The gal’s sister is writing a book and wondering about publishing. I gave her my best advice and encouraged her sister to contact me.

The guy works for Disney and is another theme park junkie like us! We had a great time talking about theme parks, and they took my card intending to look up our book.

Last, one of their relatives is with the VFW, working with disabled vets. We gave him Len & Lu’s card and recommended their book, Promises Kept for the VFW.

It was a quick and most enjoyable flight. And I was in Economy Plus with extra legroom. (Larry was in a different row – an exit row. So he had better seating as well.)

New Friends with USJ in Common
While waiting for our flight to KIX, we ran into a couple whose son works at USJ. Did we ever have fun talking about the park! Claire and Roger’s son has been here for eight years, and their granddaughter just started working here as well.

The flight was quite pleasant with good food. (Actually, real old-fashioned airplane food. I’ll never complain about it again!) There was also enough beverage service so that we weren’t dehydrated when we arrived, and the cabin was kept at a cool but pleasant temperature with adequate ventilation.

When we got here, we ran into our new friends again. They were taking the shuttle to the same area, so we shared the ride with them. Since their son and granddaughter are in entertainment, we recommended the Takarazuka Revue to them. They’ll try to get there.

Once again, we knew we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

Seeing the Park Again
We arrived at USJ just after dark. There were few people around, so we got to see the place for the first time without the usual crowds. It is GORGEOUS! I don’t know how else to describe it. It was like seeing an old friend again after many years, and they look even better than you remembered.

The new 10-year anniversary logo was illuminated, and the big coaster looked like a comet sweeping around the park. The familiar theme music was playing, and it was like coming home. I cried. And it surprised me how moved I was by being back.

We walked the long, long, LONG way through CityWalk to the hotel. (We missed the street that goes from the front gate under the highway and directly to the hotel entrance.)

Seeing all the activity in and around the park filled both of us with a tremendous sense of having actually accomplished something monumental in our lifetimes. We were part of making all this happen. We were partially responsible for all the smiles on the faces of the people exiting. And it felt so good. We’d needed that confirmation.

Early Morning Experience
Since we were still in a different time zone, we woke very early. At about six-thirty, we decided to take a walk to the park. At that early morning hour, nothing was open, but we enjoyed the quiet. The sakura (cherry blossoms) are coming out, and we found a small path at the edge of the park flanked with several of the trees. We were reminded of how beautiful the spring is here. One year we had several weeks when the trees were covered in the pink lace of blossoms. Another year, however, they came out late only to be destroyed after a day or two by a fierce storm and high winds.

We went back to our room, but came out again just before the park opened at eight. What a thrill to watch all the kids coming off the trains positively vibrating with excitement. This is spring break, so lots of families have come to visit the park. Also, we suspect that the anniversary has been quite well advertised, increasing attendance.

We joined the crowd inside the gates waiting for them to open and simply enjoyed the anticipation of the crowd. Then we watched as the kids rushed in. And we were reminded once again that the potential of giving people pleasure was the main reason we came here to work. What a joy to finally see the fruits of our labors in person!

Return to Kyoto
I confess, Kyoto was and is my favorite place in Japan. (I also loved Hiroshima and Miyajima Island, but my heart for Japan lives in Kyoto.)

When we lived here, we went frequently, sometimes by ourselves, and often with visiting friends. A week or two before we left for home, we made one last pilgrimage.

I confess, I dreaded the thought of having to manage the Japanese rail system again. I remembered a lot of the lines and stations, but we always had maps and compasses when we ventured out. This time we’d be departing from a different location.

No worries. It all came back. It was sort of like déjà vu - the same, yet different. But it started to come back.

I was also afraid that I’d forgotten all of my Japanese. In truth, most is gone, but we were never more than functionally illiterate anyway. I surprised myself by how, in specific situations, the right words and phrases returned.

We had no problems getting where we wanted to go.

Walking in Kyoto is one of the greatest pleasures of being in Japan for me. We used to take the Hankyu train to the station below the Takashimaya department store and walk from there. But this time, we were on the JR and the main station is quite a bit farther south than the Hankyu. However Larry remembered taking the bus one time, and we managed to locate the right one.

We began walking north, and all the sights and sounds, including passing many shrines and temples, came back like a familiar symphony, and bringing a similar pleasure. After sitting on the plane most of the day before, getting out in the cool afternoon felt wonderful.

We must have walked about five or six miles from Takashimaya, to the Hainan Shrine, and then farther north to the Kyoto handicraft Center where we made a good start on our Christmas shopping. (For years, I have done my holiday gift buying wherever we traveled. That way, I’m done early and don’t have to worry about making decisions at the last minute.)

Then we took the bus back to the department store, and returned on the train from there.

Unfortunately by the time we returned, we were in the midst of rush hour. Kyoto is te beginning of the line, so we had seats when we left the station. We were on Rapid (express) train, so we made few stops until we got close to Osaka where we were to change trains. At Shin Osaka station, the last stop before our destination, the mother and son who had been seated across from us, got off and three older ladies got on. There were seats for two of them opposite us, but the third was prepared to stand. Larry, always a gentleman, got up and offered his seat. At first, the lady declined politely, but he encouraged her until she sat. We had only one more stop before we were getting off, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

The lovely lady sat down, and then handed me a package. Cookies! Delicious homemade cookies! What a lovely and gracious thing to do, and yet another indication that we were, indeed, supposed to be in Japan at that moment.

We returned and had a delicious dinner at the Hard Rock Café. A perfect end to a perfect day.

Seeing the Kids
On the day of the earthquake, we had a few anxious moments of concern about some of our Japanese ‘kids’. Before the end of the day, however, we had heard from most of them – through Facebook!

Nevertheless, I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d been able to give them hugs in person.

Kae and Toshi arrived this afternoon, and it was so good to see them! We’ve had a wonderful time just talking and being together. And another of the reasons we needed to be in Japan this week became obvious.

Tomorrow we go to Takarazuka for ‘sukiyaki party’ with our dear friends the Igos, and Thursday is our day at USJ and the big celebration dinner in the evening.

The past couple of days have been filled with many small moments of absolute confirmation of the correctness of our decision to come. We’re making priceless memories and finding real closure on our experience in Japan.

(You can read about our adventures in building Universal Studios Japan in our book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park.)