Friday, April 8, 2011

Reunion Celebration - Continued

Saturday, March 31, 2011

At the end of our special day in the park, we looked for an exit gate with a hand stamp, but were unable to find one. We went back to the helpful gal at Customer Service. She instructed us to follow her to the exit gate, where she politely asked the young man working the gate to stamp our hands for reentry into the park. (She had been at the desk in the morning and was already aware of the team plans for the day.)

Apparently, they no longer routinely allow hand stamps for park reentry. We were aware that there have been quite a number of days when park capacity was exceeded – and the currently-allowed capacity is well over the original intention.

After returning to the hotel and gathering up our presentation materials for the evening’s event, we returned and made our way to Lombard’s. This location is not used as a regular venue, but is reserved for special occasions. At the entrance, we ran into more of the team, also waiting for the doors to open. The laughter and shared memories we had enjoyed all day, continued.

Yutaka Izutsu and her staff arrived to explain the arrangements. Then we all trooped upstairs to hang our coats, pay for dinner, and get ready for the party.

A great buffet was arranged on tables at the perimeter of the room. Japanese-style stand-up tables were set up in the center, with a podium and screen at the front. Larry started setting up the computer and projector, while I gathered our books and my notes. Yutaka found a couple of small tables for the projector and the book display.

She even called in the park audio/visual crew to connect the projector into the sound system. Everything was handled efficiently and with a smile. She is really amazing, and a huge asset to Randy!

Once we were set up, we decided to start showing our movies until everyone had arrived and was ready for the toast.

I’d put together a short movie of the highlights of the project. (You can see it on YouTube at:

We also updated and expanded the PowerPoint with highlights of our book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, and made it into a movie. (It’s also on YouTube:

Finally, Tomoko Ohara created a great movie of the construction photos. She even had some of the team photos we’d asked for but never gotten from the teams. (See it at:

I had agreed to act as MC, and Tomoko had said she’d translate. Felt like old times!

We finally were able to start the evening with the toast. This is what I said:
Konbanwa – Good Evening and welcome to the ten-year anniversary of the opening of USJ.

As we gather this evening, we are aware of the suffering of the Japanese people in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami. So let us begin with a moment of silence in honor of all those affected.

Tonight we offer you the opportunity to contribute to Japan Earthquake relief. Since we were able to enjoy a wonderful day in the park, thanks to Randy Barnett, Matt Jones, Yutaka and others at USJ, please consider donating the cost of your ticket.  

We also brought a few copies of our book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, for sale. All the gross proceeds from those sales will be our contribution. We have commitments for three books, but the rest will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

In 1994, the city of Osaka approached Universal Studios about building a theme park in this city. In August of 1998, Larry and I were the first members of the USI construction team to relocate. On this date in 2001, the first paying guests entered the park.

USJ still holds two records: We are the first and only park ever to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget. And the first year attendance of eleven million still stands as the highest of any park in the world.

And we did it!

Thanks to Randy, Matt, Douglas Gordon, Tomoko, Yutaka and everyone who made today possible Now, let’s enjoy being together again. We have good reason to be proud!

To USJ and the team that built it! Kampai!

After the toast, the meal began. Unfortunately, I was working most of the evening selling and signing books, starting the videos, which ran continuously during the evening, and talking. I got to eat very little, but what I had was delicious. Larry had the same problem. He’d take a plate, eat a couple of bites, then put his plate down to talk with someone. By the time he tried to retrieve it, the crack wait staff had whisked it away. He did get two full plates of dessert, though. (The first Japanese word he learned was ‘desaato’ – dessert!)

It was delightful seeing old friends and sharing wonderful memories. We’d all enjoyed our park experience during the day and were once again reminded of what we’d all accomplished together ten years before.

In order to get to the parade site, we had to leave before any of us really wanted to. But we knew we’d still have time to talk before the parade began.

We saw the basketful of cash for Japanese Earthquake Relief. It appeared that everyone had given generously. We requested that our contributions be added to the official Universal Studios donations since we were, once again for that night, representing Universal. (We hope to get a final count of our gift from the folks at USJ.)

The USJ folks had reserved a special prime seating area along the street for our group, so we had a great view.

The Magical Starlight Parade was a bit of a surprise. It was very much like the Electric Light Parade at Disneyland. (We’ve loved it since it was the Main Street Electrical Parade years ago.) The Universal parade is very well done with awesome costumes and floats. It’s also a long parade. I watched the kids across from us completely mesmerized by all the color, music and action.

The parade began with enormous lighted images of Snoopy, Elmo, and Hello Kitty. Next came a group of characters and floats from Alice in Wonderland. Next was Arabian Nights, followed at the end by Cinderella.

At the end, though, I turned to the American team members near me and whispered, “Am I the only one confused? Aren’t these Disney images? What do they have to do with Universal?” They were equally baffled.

Actually, when it comes to branding, the Universal brand is nearly gone. I could actually envision the name of the park changing in a few years to something far more appealing to the Japanese like “Best Happy Experience.”

I wanted a special souvenir of our magical celebration and looked everywhere in the park for something with just the tenth-anniversary logo. NOTHING.  (I’d also looked in the CityWalk and hotel Universal stores with the same results. I’d even asked Vernon McGugan about it. He said he didn’t think they carried anything with just the logo.)

As a matter of fact, I couldn’t find anything with just the Universal logo on it. When the park opened, we were able to get hats, t-shirts, and sweatshirts with the USJ logo. Not now. Everything is character-branded. The only places where the anniversary logo showed up was in the background of a couple of images of the characters.

I did find an Elmo t-shirt that said “Happy 10th Anniversary.” However the name of Universal Studios was nowhere to be found. (So, ‘happy anniversary’ to whom and for what? Oh, and Elmo wasn’t even in the park ten years ago…)

I did find a small metal image of the logo, mounted on black velvet in a shadowbox frame, for about $35. There were also metal ‘puzzle pieces’ of some of the attraction logos that fit around the center image – each for an additional price. All I wanted was the ten-year logo. I should probably just have bought the thing, but at the time, I was worried about suitcase space.  (We gave Toshi and Kae back the three pieces of their luggage we’d been storing and had used on the way over, and were planning on using a nylon bag on the way home for our dirty clothes.) Not getting that is my only regret.

Exhausted, but still on satisfaction overload, we returned to the hotel. Kae and Toshi were supposed to leave on the 9:00 train for Yokohama, but Kae wanted to see the parade. They had already checked out of the hotel, but Toshi scrambled for another room and tickets for early the next morning.

Friday, April 1, 2011

When we awoke, we found a note under our door. The kids had left at 4:45 a.m. to head back. Kae had to go into her office to work. Toshi didn’t. We were so happy to have spent a couple of days with them and to have been able to share the anniversary with them. They had attended most of our parties while we were in Japan, so they had already met some of the team members. They said they had a great time.

I wrote a bit and tried to answer email. The dial-up cable was SO slow! We’re really spoiled at home since we’ve been on cable for several years. With our new computers, connection is even faster. We kept getting timed out of our email accounts.

We walked to McDonalds again for breakfast, then took another stroll around the park, once again admiring our handiwork. We checked all the external Universal stores for tenth anniversary logo items, once again without success.

The evening before, Dote-san had told us that he had a meeting in the morning and asked if we’d like to do something with him afterward. He was staying at the same hotel, so we agreed. We looked forward to having some time with him since he hasn’t been traveling to the US in the past few years.

About mid-morning, I hit the wall. I hadn’t slept much for the two weeks prior to the trip, both from the excitement about going and trying to take care of all the crises with Dad’s house and the remodel of our own, wrapping up work, dealing with setting up the new computer, etc. Once we arrived, we’d gone non-stop, not wanting to miss a thing.

I slept for about three hours while Larry read, finally waking sometime after noon. We decided to eat protein bars from lunch since we had plans to meet some of the team again for dinner that night.

I was still sleepy, so we took a long walk down by the ferry dock and then around by the beach as far as we could go. It felt good to finally feel more awake.

Dote-san never called, so we assumed that his meeting took longer than planned.

We arrived at the restaurant to find Douglas and Tamaki Gordon, pus Tomoshige Inoue and two of his friends we hadn’t seen the night before. Terri Igarashi and her kids, Yukari Hinode and her son, and Randy Barnett and his family got there soon after. And John Erickson, who had finally made it to the party very late the evening before, arrived. We were so glad to have a little time with him.

Before we left, Tom gave me a lovely memento of this special visit to Japan: a pendant made from a fifty-yen coin. He explained that the word for a five-yen coin meant good relationship, so this represented ten times the friendship. I hadn’t been able to find anything to keep as a remembrance of our trip, and now Tom had given it to me. I was touched and grateful.

Enjoyed a great dinner and shared many memories. After dinner, Tom had this photo taken. The perfect reminder of another great day with good friends:

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Day in the Park

Wednesday, March 31, 2011 – Universal Studios

We woke early, excited about finally seeing the theme park to which we’d devoted nearly three years of our lives.

We’d been told that our passes would be ready at Guest Services after 8:30, but we wanted to be at the park entrance at 8:00 to watch the guests arrive. Seeing families pouring through the gates, kids hyper with anticipation, reminded us of our dream when we arrived. We wanted to create a place where families could come and where they could have fun. Our hopes were more than fulfilled.

One surprise was seeing fathers with their children. The guests were predominantly mothers and children, but fathers with their kids and entire families were not uncommon.

As we approached Guest Services, Tomoko Ohara who coordinated the notification and responses from the Japanese, arrived with her daughter. She recognized us instantly. As we would hear throughout the next two days, we were told that we hadn’t changed. The hugs from her were only the first of the many we would enjoy during the next forty-eight hours.

The young lady at Guest Services called the USJ offices, and soon Yataka Izutsu arrived with all the information and tickets. She was the major organizer of the events for the team reunion, and she is a darling young lady. This special day could not have happened without her and her crew!

While waiting to enter, we got to see the opening show inside the gates prior to park opening. Then the announcement was made and the gates opened. We joined the other guests and entered.

It looked as though every cast member in the park had lined the entrance and Hollywood Boulevard to welcome guests. I’m sure they do the greeting every day since this is a requisite Japanese formality.  However, we ran into Vernon McGugin who told us there were more than 300 cast members on the street!

Wearing our USJ team clothing, we were easily recognized and treated as minor celebrities. Kae and Toshi enjoyed the attention we got so much so that Kae began telling everyone that we had a part in creating the park. Seeing so many enthusiastic young Japanese representing the park helped to start our celebration on the right note.

As we entered, we also ran into Randy Barnett and Matt Jones, both of whom played a role in bringing this event to fruition. They were also taking part in the ‘meet and greet’ on the street.

Our first stop was the new Spiderman attraction. Well, actually it’s not that new since it was built a year or two after we left.  We’d heard all about the attraction when it opened in Florida, and it was very well done.

After the ride, we walked around the lagoon to check out our windows. They are still there. We’d wanted to see Raouf’s plaque, but it is currently hidden by a temporary stage on which the big anniversary show is being performed.

Leaving the San Francisco Wharf area, we proceeded towards Area 3. On the way, we checked to see that Cathy Pechstedt’s classic cars were still outside Mel’s Drive-In. She will be happy to know that they are being well-maintained. Groups of guests posed for pictures near their favorites.

Next we went on JAWS. Mark Kuskowski will be happy to know that his plants are all thriving in the queue area. It is cool and green and should provide some relief from the summer heat. It also hides much of the garishness of the adjacent water slide.

We joined the other guests to take the trip around Amity Island. All effects worked as designed, and our ‘pilot’ displayed the proper level of fear at the attacking sharks. Seeing all the beautiful work on the buildings of the island carefully preserved gave us a great deal of satisfaction. Larry amused the kids by telling them about walking barefoot on the ‘sand’ of the island’s shore – in the dead of winter in the wet cement – to create the appearance of footprints. They enjoyed hearing this and many other ‘behind-the-scenes stories throughout the day.

On to Jurassic Park. All torches were lit. The Lost World Restaurant was closed and it appeared to be permanent. We wondered if it’s used for special events. (Some of the other eateries – like Boardwalk Snacks and Amity Ice Cream - were also closed, but they are seasonal and only open during the summer.)

Time for lunch at Discovery Center. Gene Nollman’s beautiful art direction remains to set the atmosphere. The food was more than adequate and not outrageously expensive – by Japanese standards. We ate on the patio behind the restraint fronting the lagoon where we had met Berj and Aida Behsnalian on the photo op day in December 2000. We remember remarking how amazing it was that we’d actually finished the park on schedule. We are happy to report that it looks even better today!

Then on to JP, The Ride. Again, Mark’s foliage has matured and provides the jungle ambiance we had originally intended. Apparently the maintenance crews finally understand the look required.

The ride effects worked perfectly. But we were in for a surprise since many of the dinosaurs now sport brightly colored skin. Perhaps the intention was to make them less threatening. Or maybe they want to sell more of the Paint-Your-Own Dinosaur souvenirs.

The T-Rex, however, remains intimidating.

Splashdown was fast and nearly dry. However, the spitters had already soaked several of us. Overall, the ride is exciting and gorgeous.

We observed the other guests as they emerged, and they obviously thoroughly enjoyed their experience.

Next, we had to see the WaterWorld show. First, however, we photographed Larry’s benches, shaped like surfboards. We still have the model for the one without the back. We originally had both models in Japan, but the other one was larger, and we only had room to bring one home.

We especially wanted to see the Infinity stickers – and they’re still in place. Larry rides Infinity boards, and Steve Boehne provided lots of logo stickers. So did quite a few other shops and manufacturers (Stewart, Harbor, Robert August, and others). The benches look appropriately worn, but sturdy.

Larry’s bicycle wave maker is long gone, but his standpipe still creates small waves in the entry pool.

The show remains a special effects masterpiece. Still my personal favorite attraction in the park. Even without understanding the Japanese language, the story and physical humor are accessible and easy to follow.

The seaplane splashed down with the usual audience reaction. And the fire-fall went as planned. (Of course, Casey Yadon took the first jump from the platform on the day he left Japan!)

We strolled back down Rodeo Drive and were somewhat taken aback by all the pink. The Outfitter is now the Pink Panther store painted bright pink. Across the street is the Hello Kitty store – also in the same bright cotton candy hues. And the trim on the Brown Derby matches, as well. I was sure the art directors would be appalled, given their meticulous attention to authenticity. But it does appeal to the Japanese asthetic sensibilities.

On to Boulangerie for sweets and coffee. The beautiful deco statue still guards the doors, and my favorite pink and green tile still punctuates the walls.

Then it was time to ride the Hollywood Dreams coaster. This is a huge ride that starts near Monsterfest, travels across Hollywood Boulevard, loops at the park entrance, then its path, diving and climbing in a quick series of undulations and high-banked twists at the main lagoon before returning to its starting point.

We’d seen this in operation on our arrival and it is beautiful at night. All that is visible are the sparkling lights, making the vehicle appear to be a comet, streaking across the dark sky.

We were very impressed with how well this ride was incorporated into the landscape without compromising the overall effect of the areas through which it passes.

Kae was reluctant to go on this attraction, but finally decided to join us. The vehicles are the most comfortable and the ride is the smoothest we have ever experienced. I’m not a huge coaster fan, but this one is especially appealing. It didn’t seem as intimidating as some, despite the height and drops it takes.

Unfortunately, Kae was not as happy at the end of the ride. She’d been truly frightened and was in tears. None of us stopped to think about the effect the g-forces might have had on her following her aneurism a couple of years ago. I’m still a little concerned, but Toshi said he’ll have her checked out now that they’re back in Yokohama.

We decided to walk back along Hollywood Boulevard to check out the shops. Our timing was perfect since the Tenth Anniversary Show was about to begin. What a great source of entertainment, featuring lots of dancers, singers, and athletes! Special music was written for this production, and it was a fitting tribute to ten years of park operation.

After looking everywhere unsuccessfully for a keepsake with the gorgeous tenth anniversary logo, we headed back to the hotel to grab our equipment and get ready for the evening’s celebration.

Sentimental Journey

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 – Takarazuka

Awoke early at our hotel, showered, and ate a protein bar for breakfast since we were invited for lunch in Takarazuka with our friend and neighbor, Misayo Igo. Toshi and Kae met us in the lobby for the trip since they were also invited. Toshi had contacted Misayo and Kazue several months ago. The invitation was extended at that time.

Whenever we had American guests, Misayo-san invited us – and them – for a sukiyaki party. Very un-Japanese, but very Misayo.  We had shared many meals, both in their home and in ours. Once again, we would relive a memory from the past.

The weather was clear, but cold. Toshi bought our tickets on the JR. Then we caught the train from Universal City Station to Osaka Station and there changed to the Takarazuka line, a route we had taken many times ten years earlier.

Walking through Osaka Station felt very familiar. We remembered the pathway through the crowds, and even the correct track. The station itself hadn’t changed much, but the trains themselves had.

New railcars on the Takarazuka line sported recessed air conditioning registers in the ceiling and hidden heaters. Gone were the old hanging oscillating fans. During the summer, the fans merely moved the hot sticky summer air without any cooling. And in the winter, the old exposed under-seat heaters often burned the backs of our legs while our upper bodies remained cold. The new heaters worked much better, and we assumed the new air conditioning would make summer more bearable.

Arriving at the Takarazuka JR Station was a shock. The old, rickety wooden stairways and exposed overcrossing were gone. In their place was a new, much larger, building with concrete walkways and stairs, and a second floor shopping mall. Most of the station area was at least partially enclosed. Quite a change.

The same old busses left from the same location in front of the Hankyu Station - at the same cost: 210 yen.
The trip up the hill to La Vista, however, was both completely familiar and completely different. The road made the same turns, but many of our landmarks we no longer there, replaced by new buildings. Even lots of the old buildings sported new and different signage.

At the bus stop, we were met by Kazue and her boyfriend, a charming young man whose name I don’t know how to spell. They accompanied us to the Igo’s condo. Good thing they did because we approached from the bottom of the hill, and ten years ago, we always entered from the top. After taking the inclinator and several circuitous hallways, we finally arrived at a location we recognized. Finding their home was a cinch from there.

Entering the genkan, we removed our shoes and donned slippers. Larry’s heels hung over the backs, just like always.

Kazue called to her mother, who appeared from the kitchen wearing an apron. Just as we had in parting almost exactly ten years earlier, we hugged and cried. We had both lost much of our skill in each others’ languages, but the ‘heart connection,’ as Misayo once described it, remained.

She still remembered the English for ‘best friend,’ and I remember the Japanese. Nothing had changed, yet everything had moved on.

During the year following our return to the US, ‘Papa-san’ died in an auto accident. This sweet, funny, quiet man was no longer present, yet we still felt his spirit.

We had brought her omiage, the requisite gift. We had wanted it to be extra special because of all that we had shared. Several months ago, we found all the photos of the various occasions when we were together. Larry scanned them, then I had a photo book made. Misayo was very moved and seemed pleased to have this memento of our mutual history.

We sat at their kontatsu table for a cup of tea and sweets. Misayo remembered Larry’s famous (infamous?) sweet tooth, and had a variety of candy and cookies for us.

We found out that Kazue’s boyfriend is fluent in several languages, including Japanese, English, German, and Russian! They met in German language school prior to her move to Germany several years ago.

Between Kazue, her boyfriend, Kae and Toshi, we had more than adequate translation assistance!

Lunch was just as we remembered: a simming pot of vegetables and meat, cooked in soy sauce with a little sugar and water added to make a broth. DELICIOUS!

The fun part of sukiyaki is fishing the desired items from the pot while talking. As items are removed, others are added, so the cooking process continues throughout the meal.

Misayo had grown her own dikon radishes in her garden, and they were sweet and crisp and tender – the very best we’d ever had.  At the end of the meal, she brought out my favorite udon noodles and some sprouts. We all ate too much, but the food and conversation were so good, we didn’t want it to end.

In our honor, Misayo served her plum and sakura (cherry blossom) wines. Before we left Japan, she had given us small bottles of each. Some of both remain. Since they are talking about coming to California next year, we promised to toast with our wine when they arrive.

I had mentioned on the train through Osaka that we had always wanted to see the Sky Building but had never gotten there.

Toshi and Kae took the train, and Kazue’s boyfriend drove the rest of us into town. This route, from Takarazuka to downtown Osaka, was also familiar since Larry had driven it many times. However, there is a new and improved feature on the tollways. They now use transponders! No more stopping in a long line at each tollbooth to give your coins to an attendant.

The Sky Building is a structure of dual towers, joined by one floor across the top, like an inverted letter U. Crisscrossing the expanse, at 173 meters above the ground, are two glass escalators. Around the top floor is a 360-degree open-air viewing platform called the Floating Garden. Not for those who have a fear of heights, but great for anyone who wants to see the entire city of Osaka laid out below in every direction. It was approaching sunset, and the bay shimmered golden toward the west. Clouds and fog dissipated the light, giving the vista a surreal, dreamlike quality. Gorgeous!

We strolled around the garden on the ground floor until it was time for us to leave. Toshi had made reservations for dinner at a tempura restaurant.

And just as ten years ago, saying goodbye was difficult. Misayo and I clung to each other and cried. But we hope they will actually come for a visit next year and we can show them Dana Point and Southern California. So perhaps we will not take another ten years to reunite.

Dinner was superb! We were first asked what kinds of foods we would like, then small individual skewers arrived at each of our places, one or two at a time, freshly coated in a very light batter, and fried to a perfect golden brown. I had never thought of tempura with asparagus, but the tender spears with their crisp coating were delicious!

Larry ate the shrimp, head and all, tiny fish, head and all, and many other delicate vegetables as well as chicken, beef, and cheese. Each one was better than the last. We finished the meal with a small scoop of pear ice cream. The perfect finale to a wonderful meal.

We returned to our hotel, sated and ready for a good night’s sleep in anticipation of our day in the park to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of USJ. So far, this entire trip has far exceeded our expectations.