15 years of Universal Studios Japan (and 15 years since I moved to Osaka)

Fifteen years ago this year, I moved to Japan. Also fifteen years ago this year, just a couple of months before my arrival in Osaka, Universal Studios Japan opened. What a brilliant coincidence, I think, that USJ would bring me back to Japan in this special year!

15 years of Universal Studios Japan

Magic at Universal Studios Japan

My first full day in Japan this trip was spent at Universal Studios in Osaka, and it reminded me quickly of something I’d learnt back in the day. If you’re going to head to a huge theme park somewhere in the world – be it Disney or Universal Studios – pick the Japanese versions. For one, you get to be in Japan (easily one of my all-time favourite countries), and on top of that, you get to be surrounded by some of the world’s most polite people. Lining up for a rollercoaster is never going to get better than in Japan (definitely no queue-jumping here); the park is kept immaculately clean; staff will go out of their way to help you more than you could ever imagine.

Universal Studios Japan - Hogwarts Castle in Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Hogwarts Castle reflecting on the lake in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

That’s just part of the magic of USJ. There’s also the more literal magic, new since I was last there: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s pretty apt that this was my first Harry Potter theme park experience because it was in Osaka that I started reading the Harry Potter books, trying to keep up with my Japanese students who kept asking me questions about them. I tried my hand at some magic using a wand from Ollivanders, but I must confess that my wand skills were a little shaky. I also rode the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and thoroughly enjoyed flying into Hogwarts, playing quidditch and all the other fun. Towards the end of the day we dined at the Three Broomsticks Tavern looking back towards Hogwarts and sipping on butter beer.

Character fun at Universal Studios Japan – meet Hello Kitty!

USJ is a perfect fit in Japan because long before it arrived, the locals were huge fans of cartoon characters (proof: my Japanese Snoopy bank card!). These days, Snoopy is still around in the Universal Wonderland section for younger kids, along with some of my childhood favourites like Bert and Ernie and the Cookie Monster. These kids were not quite sure about the Cookie Monster, it seems …

 Univeral Studios Japan - Cookie Monster in Universal Wonderland

Beware the Cookie Monster in Universal Wonderland!

For bigger kids there are Minions galore, Spiderman (I rode the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride too – heaps of fun, and flames?!), and for the biggest kid of all – me – there is Hello Kitty! It’s a little embarrassing just how excited I got when I had the chance to meet her in person. I rushed up to her (trampling on several small children …) and used my best Japanese to tell her I was from Australia, and then I didn’t know what else to say! Just like when you meet a celebrity, except that this one doesn’t talk. Oh well, I’ll let the picture below say a thousand words instead.

 Universal Studios Japan meeting Hello Kitty

Meeting Hello Kitty at Universal Studios Japan (a career highlight!)

USJ are building a new (enormous) Minions attraction as we speak and there are already Minions everywhere (including quite a few of the visitors being dressed up too), so any Minions-fans should get excited for the opening of that in the first half of 2017. (I have to say I’m a little sad it’s replaced the Back to the Future ride, which I got to try out all those years back, but I guess times change and Back to the Future is kind of old news now!)

Minions at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka

You can eat Minions, buy Minions, or see people dressed as Minions, at Universal Studios Japan

Christmas at Universal Studios Japan

Although the Japanese don’t technically celebrate Christmas, I remembered from my years there that they still managed to decorate well and have something of a Christmas spirit around. And at Universal Studios it’s even more present. I remembered their giant Christmas tree from a decade ago and it was just as impressive. They also had an amazing singing/dancing sound and light show once it got dark, “The Voice of an Angel”. If you happen to be in Japan this Christmas then get there fast for that, plus the last year of their enormous tree – next year they’ll be doing something different (a surprise, I take it – I didn’t get any insider knowledge!).

Christmas at Universal Studios Japan

Scenes from the “Voice of an Angel” show at Universal Studios Japan this year

Where to stay at Universal Studios Japan

Universal City is a train station adjacent to USJ and it’s also a great place to stay, with a variety of hotels to choose from and some great restaurants. (In fact, my first meal of this trip was here: okonomiyaki at Fugetsu. It’s apparently the best okonomiyaki in Osaka; I can assure you it was DELICIOUS but before I can be sure it’s the absolute best I need to go back to Osaka and try every okonomiyaki restaurant … yum!)

I spent one night at the Hotel Keihan Universal City (in the heart of Universal City, and with a real theme-park feel to its decor, I loved it) and another night at the Universal Port Hotel (a short walk towards the water, and with views over the river which fascinated me). I’d merrily recommend either and I suspect that the other hotels in Universal City are all just as good.

Why should you go to Universal Studios Japan?

I think this was my fourth visit to USJ, but the first in over a decade. I have thoroughly enjoyed every time – and that’s saying something for a person like me who doesn’t like scary thrilling rides, doesn’t spend much time watching movies and generally prefers to see off-the-beaten track stuff when travelling.

But sometimes it’s important and wonderful and fun to let go of being all cultural and traveller-ish and spend a day visiting the place where the locals go to for fun. There’s still lots to learn – I had so much fun spotting all the Japanese couples who’d dressed alike (or dressed up) to come to USJ for the day, and of course I still got to practice my Japanese language skills (I made Hello Kitty clap, for one!). I honestly spent most of the day smiling and laughing: that can’t be a bad thing, right? I’ll leave you with this snippet from their daily parade which still makes me smile at all their energy and fun.

 

So you know: Universal Studios Japan, the City of Osaka, the City of Sakai and the City of Kobe all supported this trip to Japan, but as always, all my opinions are completely mine. 

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Comments

  1. Looks fabulous. I can’t wait to go there.

  2. The super polite coaster queues are a big draw! This park looks like so much fun!

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