My Mom, sister, and I left one day free and “guide-less” so that we could take a trip to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which was relatively painless to get to from our hotel in Shinsaibashi:
Take the Midosuji line bound for Umeda from Shinsaibashi Station. Then, change to the JR Railway loop line bound for Sakurajima at Osaka Station. Get off at the Universal City Station.
Voila! You’re there. Subway fare (at that time) between Shinsaibashi and Umeda was ¥230/person, and the JR fare between Osaka and Universal City was ¥170/person.
You can’t really miss the train going to USJ because it looks like this:
By way of context, this was my first time ever to go to a Universal Studios theme park. (I’ve since been to the one in Singapore, which I’ll save for another post.) Hell, the only theme parks I had been to at that time were Enchanted Kingdom in Laguna, Star City in Manila, and Dufan (Dunia Fantasi or Fantasy World) in Ancol, Indonesia.
Suffice it to say, some of those parks’ rides have seen better days. One of my early memories was of a dude dressed in a lion costume inside Istana Boneka or Doll Palace, Dufan’s spin-off of the popular Disneyland ‘It’s A Small World’ ride. He was waving at our group half-heartedly as we passed by in our little boat. Then, when he thought we weren’t looking, he took his lion head off. Presumably to wipe off his sweat, which was understandable, given the circumstances. But you can just imagine how disturbing this seemingly suicidal act of a cute cuddly animal would be to a little kid.
So I was understandably very excited to go to USJ, having listened enviously to stories from cousins who lived in the US of the Universal Studios park in Florida and Six Flags-style parks in America. I wanted to go ride the Jurassic Park ride, the Jaws ride, etc etc.
However, I overlooked one very basic yet crucial point in managing my expectations, which is this: Universal Studios Japan is in Japan. That is, the rides would be in Japanese.
Ha, and major D’oh (Homer Simpson style) moment.
So we listened to the “tour-boat guide” speak in rapid, frantic Japanese while the shark tried to bite the boat on Jaws; listened to Japanese videos in the long queues while waiting three (yes, three) hours to go on Jurassic Park – The Ride; and listened to Japanese-dubbed Backdraft, a ride demonstrating the magic of Hollywood fire effects in movies.
That being said, we still had quite a lot of fun.
Makes me wonder how the Harry Potter attraction slated for a 2014 opening will work out (a Japanese Harry! THAT I would like to see).
I won’t post photos of the rides, since most of them are probably similar to the ones in other Universal Studios parks.
What I’d like to write about were those small differences which really stood out for me, such as:
(1) The great patience of the Japanese in queues – It was highly admirable. Even the kids were playing quietly, no tantrums, no fidgeting. Whereas back home you could expect some mild (or loud) grumbling by the time the 2nd hour rolled around, in USJ we were in queues for an average of 3-4 hours (especially for Jaws and Jurassic Park) and no one complained. All waited patiently for their turn. Amazing.
(2) Little touches of the kawaii (read: Japanese cuteness overload) in some of the park souvenirs and snacks, such as:
I almost couldn’t bring myself to eat the little darlings.
(3) This is more of an observation than anything else: we were looking around for someone to take a photo of the three of us. When we tried to gesture to a random guy sitting on a bench to take our photo, he moved away quite suddenly without so much as a head-shake or anything. It felt a bit rude.
That being said, while we were on the Jaws ride, the “tour-boat guide” seemed to sense we were foreign, because he said something then all of a sudden, the whole boat suddenly turned to us with wide smiles and applause. My younger sister, who understood a wee bit of Japanese, tried to translate for us: it seemed the “tour-boat guide” said something along the lines of, “I know you’re not Japanese and it must be difficult for you to understand, however we hope you will still enjoy the ride.” Which actually felt quite nice.
I guess it all depends who you talk to, as it is with any culture.
I said I wouldn’t post photos of any of the rides, but I just wanted to mention the Hollywood Dream roller coaster especially.
My mom decided to skip Hollywood Dream, so it was just me and my younger sister who went. Luckily enough the queue was short.
Riders get to choose a “soundtrack” for the ride. There are speakers on either side of your ears and your chosen song will play for the whole of the ride while you scream–which sounded pretty cool. So my sister chose Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” while I chose The Beatles’ “Get Back.” There was a moment of panic when the ride started gearing up and we hadn’t keyed in our choices yet.
“I forgot the key code for my song,” she said. I told her what I thought it was, then keyed in the one for mine.
Then the ride started, and I was startled to hear Eminem rapping in my ears–and (faintly) The Beatles crooning in my sister’s speakers.
For some odd reason, this struck us as extremely funny and we laughed sooo much all throughout the ride. That simple dusky-sky wind-in-my-hair moment, with my sister and I laughing next to each other, still ranks as one of the top happiest moments of my life to date.
All in all, USJ is worth a trip–just be mindful that everything will be in Japanese. It’s also best to avoid the weekends, or else you’ll be spending a good part of your day in queues like we did.
We were already due to fly out the next day, so we decided to save all my sister’s manga shopping for last.
OSGG-ers Ms. Jane Shibatani, who was also a retired teacher, and trainee guide Ms. Katsuko Yamazaki, accompanied us that day. First stop was the Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade for souvenirs. My dad collects caps, so we were really keen on getting him a Hanshin Tigers cap. Hanshin Tigers, the city’s popular local baseball team, has an official souvenir store in the arcade.
Then we made our way to DenDen Town for the anime-related shops and cafes. Ms. Shibatani took us to a maid’s cafe, where all the young-looking waitresses wore short French-maid uniforms and pigtails. The feeling of mild dodgy-ness about the whole business deepened when one of the waitresses stopped us from taking any photos of the cafe. Haha.
We managed to sneak one anyway:
Anyway, the tea and sweet cakes in the cafe were quite good. The waitresses were also selling a calendar with their photos (their site here).
The nearer we got to DenDen Town, the cooler the store names got:
My sister loved the wide selection of souvenirs, stationery, and anime in Animate. The area is also a popular place for cheap electronics.
As our last stop, we made our way to Tsutenkaku Tower in Shinsekai.
I recalled seeing an illustration of the Tower in one of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s works, which told me it was probably quite an old landmark. Tatsumi is one of my favorite Japanese authors (more on Japanese fiction in another post).
We had lunch at a restaurant right near the Tower, called Roku. The food was quite good, but pricier than what we had the other day with our other OSSG-er guide.
I guess if we had to force-rank the guides for the two days, we’d prefer Mr. Akira, only because he seemed to be conscious of recommending only the “best value” buys wherever we went. Nevertheless, both guides were equally friendly and helpful.
It was a great, albeit short, introduction to a fascinating country. Till next time, Japan!
Note: We went to Osaka, Japan in April 2010, before the unfortunate tsunami that hit the country last year. The people of Japan have done an amazing job of rebuilding their country since then. 私はあなたの勇気を賞賛!