The ExPat Returneth

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Building Universal Studios Japan, the Reunion

Originally from California, the married couple Lorna Lund and Larry Collins both worked in Osaka on the Universal Studios Japan theme park. Larry was a Project Engineer, responsible for the Jurassic Park, JAWS and WaterWorld attractions. Lorna was the Document Control Supervisor in the Osaka field office. Their memoir of that experience, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park was a 2006 EPPIE finalist, named as one of Rebeccas Reads Best Nonfiction books of 2005, and is available in ebook, paperback, and hardbound formats. Lorna & Larry now reside in Dana Point, CA, where Larry enjoys surfing and Lorna spends time with family and friends. They both continue to write.

Their other publications include the mysteries, Murder…They Wrote and Murder in Paradise (Whiskey Creek Press), Lorna's Ghost Writer (Oak Tree Press, 2012), and Larry's collection of short stories Lakeview Park (2011). Lorna's short stories through Whiskey Creek Press are found in the anthologies Snowflake Secrets  (Whiskey Creek Press), a finalist for the Dream Realm and Eric Hoffner awards; Seasons of Love (2009); Directions of Love, winner the 2011 EPIC eBook Award for best romance anthology; and An Aspen Grove Christmas (2010). All are available in ebook and paperback, and are available from the publishers, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, their website ( and other online book outlets. Follow Lorna’s blog at

You Can Go Home Again

Ten years after we completed construction of the Universal Studios Theme Park in Osaka, Japan, our team was invited back for a reunion celebration. The planning began a year ahead, and quite a few of us made arrangements to be in the park in March 31, 2011 where we would be given complimentary tickets and join for a celebration party followed by special seating to watch the nighttime parade.

Then, just two weeks before we were scheduled to leave, the earthquake and tsunami struck. Since we had hosted six Japanese students on homestay programs prior to going to Osaka, and had acquired quite a number of additional ‘children’ during our sojourn in-country, they were our first concern, followed by our fellow Japanese teammates and their families. Over the next couple of days, we were able to ascertain that they were all safe, but the question of the reunion remained.

We contacted our friends in the park and asked if we should cancel or postpone the event. We were very concerned about taxing the country’s resources.

“Oh, no,” they answered. “We are on a separate power grid, so there are no issues here. And we’ve had a severe drop in attendance. We need your tourist dollars.”

The only people who actually cancelled were those whose airline tickets were through Narita airport. It was closed for some time following the earthquake. Since the majority of us were booked into Kansai, our flights ran as scheduled.

We had lived in Takarazuka, Japan for thirty-one months from the summer of 1998 through February of 2001 during park construction. We were the first of the California employees to relocate and among the last to leave. We were curious about what we’d find when we returned.

We had booked our hotel room at a property next to Universal Studios Japan to make our access to the park and public transportation easy. We arrived at night, and all the lights were on making it look like a fairyland. As we got our first glimpse of the place we had dedicated nearly three years of our life to (in Larry’s case, nearly four), Lorna began to cry. It was even more beautiful than we remembered.

The next morning, we woke early and walked to the park entrance before opening. Watching families arrive and the kids’ excitement fulfilled all our hopes and wishes for what the venue would mean to the Japanese people.

After watching the crowd eagerly rush through the gates, we decided to make our ‘pilgrimage’ to Kyoto. This beautiful old city had been one of our favorite places while we lived there, and its close proximity to Takarazuka made it a frequent excursion destination.

We boarded the train to Umeda station in the heart of Osaka. We were both stunned at how little everything had changed, and even more that after ten years, we still remembered which platform and train to take. Somehow the trip felt even easier than when we were living there.

We spent most of the day doing what we loved best: walking the streets and alleys, poking into the little shops and elegant stores, visiting the regal Heian Shrine, walking through elegant gardens, and buying souvenirs at the Handicraft Center.

The next day, our precious Japanese son and daughter, Toshi and Kae, arrived from their home in Yokohama. She had been in California as a student in 1998, just before we left for Osaka, and the couple was married in our home in Dana Point. They were among the ‘kids’ we were most worried about since they lived closest to the earthquake. During the first day following the disaster, we were able to contact them and discover they had walked home from work. When we asked about damage to their new condo, they just answered, “It is messy.” Even though we knew they were okay, ‘Mom’ felt a whole lot better when she was able to hug them!

When we planned the return trip to Japan, we contacted our good friend and neighbor in Takarazuka. As soon as she knew we were coming, she immediately invited us to a ‘sukiyaki party’ in her home. She had honored us in this way whenever we had guests from home, and sitting around her table was one of our most treasured memories. We also shared all the American customs and holidays with her, and our lives had been enriched from our cultural exchanges.

Even though we had been warned by a very close Japanese friend not to mistake friendliness for true friendship, Lorna and Misayo became fast friends. Her daughter, Kazue, often acted as translator since her English was about on par with our Japanese, and neither of us was very competent. Nevertheless, we communicated easily and well, even when Kazue was not present.

When we arrived for lunch, having once again remembered every stop and connection, Kazue escorted us through the locked gate and into their ‘mansion.’ She called out to her mother, who quickly emerged from the kitchen with arms outstretched. “Besto friend!” she cried as she embraced Lorna, who replied in kind in Japanese.

What a glorious day spent with friends. It was as if no time had passed.

And the same was true when we queued up for park opening in the early morning of March 31. As team members arrived, we greeted each other with handshakes and hugs. (Very un-Japanese!) As we entered the gates, all the cast members as well as office employees lined the entire entrance street. What a thrill to see so many of those people who had shared the frustrations, excitement, and elation of bringing this world-class tourist destination into being. It remains the only theme park in history to be completed ahead of schedule and under budget. The credit must go to those folks, American and Japanese, who dedicated themselves to making it happen.

Throughout the day, while we rode the rides and visited all the shops and venues we had contributed to, we ran into more and more of our fellow team members. Each one had been a special gift to us ten years earlier, and our shared memories continued our bond.

A large crowd met for dinner and to celebrate our accomplishment. The evening was much too short.

When we’d returned from Japan in 2001, we began writing a book about our adventures. 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park was published in 2005. Several team members had asked us to bring copies to the reunion, and we’d done so. But instead of selling them, we asked folks to make a generous donation to the Universal Studios earthquake relief fund. And they did so. Our donation was the books we’d brought with us. Since many of the people in attendance had been involved in the story, they were curious to read what we’d said. From their later response, it would appear that they had enjoyed re-reading about all the adventures.

Many of us felt that we hadn’t had enough time together at the celebration, so we met at a buffet restaurant the following evening, our last in town.

Throughout the trip, Lorna had been trying to find a significant souvenir of this extraordinary trip, but had found nothing. During dinner, one of our Japanese team members withdrew a small box from his pocket and gave it to her. When she opened it, he explained, “This is a fifty-yen coin. The word for the five-yen coin means ‘relationship.’ So this means ten times that much.” The coin had been laser cut so that only the beautiful decorations remained as a lacy design. What a perfect gift and remembrance!

Before our departure the following day, we met another of our Japanese daughters, Yuka, and her good friend, Yoko, for lunch. Both had stayed in our home during visits subsequent to Yuka’s first homestay. Events had come full-circle because Yuka was working at Universal Studios Japan.

We returned from our all-too-brief stay feeling an incredible sense of accomplishment and love for our ‘kids’ and co-workers.

The only sad note came several months later when we learned of the death of the precious friend who had given Lorna her lovely gift. It is now even more special.

We could and did go ‘home’ again, and it was joyous!

Questions for Lorna and Larry?


  1. Thanks for coming on the blog Lorna and Larry! What a fascinating story. We were living in Yokohama in 95-96 and I remember hearing about the construction. Universal Studios is such a popular park and really perfect for Japan. Congrats on being part of such an amazing experience.

  2. Larissa, thanks for having us. Being able to share our memories was a real treat!