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Fire and rain at Universal Studios Japan

Every trip we do as a family these days seems to involve at least one amusement park. That's what happens when you have kids I guess. One this trip Universal Studios in Osaka was our designated theme park.

When we looked out the window this morning we had second thoughts. Wet and cold again. On the plus side I thought that this should further decrease the crowds beyond the weekday timing. So after a breakfast at the Muu Muu Diner in the Mio Centre that included an "Eggslut" set (sadly, not a bad translation) we jumped on a Osaka Loop train to Nishikujo and changed to the Yumesaki Line to Universal City.

It was pouring with rain and we thought we'd better get some raincoats. Tip: the Heart In on the inside of the ticket gates sells them more expensive than the Lawson, which we only discovered after we'd purchased them.

The path towards Universal Studios is lined with multiple levels of restaurants and some quirky shops. We just continued on to the gates, where the ticket queues were almost non-existent. Once inside we moved quickly to our most important destination.

Did Alex get into Harry Potter himself or did we encourage him in preparation for the newest attraction at USJ? I can't remember now, but he's quite crazy about it. It was necessary to first locate the Wizarding World of Harry Potter access ticket dispensers as visitors are given a specified entry time.  It's free.

We actually arrived ten minutes early, but we waved through, joining the crowds of mainly Asian, but in many cases non-Japanese, tourists. The streets were a sea of umbrellas and raincoats.

You enter the world through a recreation of snowy Hogsmeade, past the Hogswart Express and along streets lined with shops. We bought a pack of Bertie Bott's Every Flavoured Beans from Honeydukes, which look remarkably like Jelly Bellies. Not sure if they include the Bean-boozled flavours...

From other stores Alex wanted a nice Gryffindor notebook, a motorised Monster Book and B bought him a Harry Potter Quidditch t-shirt.

Everybody was drinking non-alcoholic Butterbeer, which is served hot or cold. I liked both! A very creamy top, the flavour was a lot like vanilla cream soda, but, especially obvious when hot, there were also spice flavours, like cinnamon and nutmeg. Pity it's so expensive, starting at Y600 for a plastic cup.

We queued up for the magic show at Ollivanders, where an American actor playing the shop's namesake, selected an member of the audience to test a wand, causing a few special effects. Afterwards you move out to a shop where you can buy a variety of wands from the books/movies.

Alex genuinely believed that the special effects were real magic and expected the wands to be capable of the same. With some relish he selected Voldemort's magic stick. Fortunately, we are safe from his powers, but it's hard to know what to say to a kid.

Hogsmeade is overlooked by Hogwarts Castle, which hosts the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey Ride. Fortunately for me, the minimum height is 122 cm, which just ruled Alex out. The three hour wait didn't encourage us either.

Despite enjoying them on so many previous trips, Alex has developed a fear of rollercoasters and refused to go on the Flight of the Hippogriff. I'm not encouraging him to take after me in that respect and B was very frustrated.

All Alex wanted was some food and to go on the Flying Snoopy ride. So we left Harry Potter World and had a rather nice lunch of hamburgers at Mel's Diner. After a hot butterbeer, of course.

Snoopy Studios if full of activities for very young children. Despite enjoying spinning around on the Flying Snoopy it took a lot of cajoling and worse to get him on the short Snoopy's Great Race indoor rollercoaster. When he and B returned from the ride he was crying, having not enjoyed it at all for the same reasons I wouldn't.

Somehow B convinced him to join her on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride, while I waited outside for them to finish the 70 minute queue and ride. I rather liked the mock New York setting, the comforting illusion of another world where everything is fixed and happy, a sense of nostalgia for a world that probably only ever existed on screen.


The Terminator 2 3D show was probably a lot more amusing for Japanese speakers as it featured a somewhat psychotic marketing lady doing a spiel on Cyberdyne's robotic technology and elucidating a few laughs from the crowd. The actual show was a combination of impressive 3D animations, film footage and live actors, with only a few little shakes. Alex has never seen a Terminator movie, but for us adults it was quite easy to follow.

I had promised Alex Minions (from Despicable Me) so Minions came next. Firstly in the form of a cutely decorated pork bun, then Y1000 for a sideshow game of trying to knock the cans down to win a Minion prize. Unlike the young girl and her Dad before him, Alex had no such luck. We bought nothing from the Minion shop.

Behind there was the Back to the Future ride. B insisted that I come along, so I asked the attendant if there were any drops. No, only shakes, she replied, so I joined the short queue.

After watching Doc Brown and Biff dubbed in Japanese we were lead to hydraulically mounted "cars" which simulated motion while a movie played in front. I had to close my eyes as we "flew" through the air, lest I get motion sick. Alex did the same. With eyes closed it wasn't too bad, but it's not something I want to repeat (especially on the flight home...).

Time enough for one last show. Backdraft (caused by eating too many beans?) starts off with a couple of movie set rooms with big screens where first a very young Ron Howard and then Scott Glenn describe making the movie Backdraft. At least I think that's what they were doing as it was all overdubbed in Japanese and not particularly interesting for us as a consequence. The final room is where the real action happens with very impressive flame effects, fireworks, water sprays and just a couple of bumps and bangs. It's loud, but the heat was quite nice after such a cold day!

It was now dark outside. The streets were lit up, but the restaurants had closed early, We walked past Jurassic Park, where the steep splash drop of the ride put even B off, and she had no wish to get even more wet with the Jaws ride. The wet weather probably meant that the parade was cancelled, so we just walked along the gauntlet of shops and headed out of the park to eat dinner outside.

There were long queues at many restaurants, but at least the prices were quite reasonable. Discouraged by the waits elsewhere we ended up eating tempura donburi and soba noodles, trying to get Alex, who has also now decided he hates softer style eggs, to eat his dinner.

By the time we returned to the hotel it was late and most of the shops were closing. But I had to return out on a mission to find a Seven Eleven to withdraw some cash from their ATM, then buy batteries for Alex's Monster Book. There seem to be way more Family Marts and Lawson convenience stores around now than Seven Elevens. Unfortunately, only the latter (along with Post Offices and Citibanks) have ATMs capable of handling foreign cards.

Google Maps pointed the way and I took a walk along the opposite side of Tennoji Station to where we are staying. A pity we hadn't gone there last night as there were far more late night eating options. It was very much a local street, apart from the Bali Towers hotel and resort, in contrast to the shiny modern towers and malls on our side of the station.

Though we managed to enjoy ourselves at Universal Studios I don't think it's particularly well setup for rainy days. There's a lack of shelter if you aren't eating or shopping. USJ also targets an older age group than Disneyland with several rides and shows more appropriate for adults who remember seeing the referenced movies. Harry Potter's World is a great addition to the park, but the atmospherics were somewhat lost in the crowd. I do wish I could have more Butterbeer, though.


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