Photos by Pam Stoikopoulos
With all the hype
swirling around Universal Studios Japan, we couldn' help getting sucked into the media
Stoikopoulos tries to
find the universal truth.
Without a doubt, Japan is a
theme park-loving nation. From the commercial (Tokyo Disneyland, Kittyland and
Ultramanland) to the cultural (Huis ten Bosch, Tivoli Park, Shima Spain Village) to the
literary (Gulliver's Kingdom - based on Swift's novel) theme parks offer cute fantasy-land
characters, thrilling rides, abundant omiyage and the escapism that every
vacationing office worker could ever need. Universal Studios' decision to put down roots
in Japan was therefore a wise, if not obvious, choice.
"If you build it, they will come," W.P. Kinsella said. And build they did.
Developers in Osaka overcame the perpetual land shortage problem by constructing an
artificial island a la Kansai airport and - poof! - a spacious, glitzy Universal Studios
Japan was born and opened on Mar 31. USJ's information guide reads like a "best
of" collection. Combining the most popular features of the Florida and Hollywood
parks, USJ also contains several attractions exclusive to Japan. A second phase plan to
add further sites to the grounds is also in the works.
Walk of fame
"Hooray for Hollywood" burst through the stereo system as we strolled through
the infamous palm-lined arched entrance and were transported to a kind of Truman Show-esque
land of perfection with impeccably manicured greenery and inspirational soundtrack music
sweeping in from every corner. Camera-snapping gangsters, waving Southern Belles and aging
Beach Boy wannabes thumping on their instruments helped to complete the movie set
While everyone and their pet offered words of warning about the thought of attending
within the first month (on a Saturday no less), the park, to our surprise, seemed
virtually empty compared to the throngs of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
After perusing the Japanese brochure - shockingly, they don't yet have one in English
available - we decided to skip Snoopy's Playland and live shows such as Waterworld
and the Blues Brothers to head straight for the rides. Bypassing the
50-minute-wait ET mob, we set our sights on the less taxing 30-minute (the average
that day) line to board Back to the Future - The Ride.
|Visitors get doused among the dinos
As with all the sites, the
video that explained that we needed to "catch Biff" (the bad guy) was entirely
in Japanese. If your Nihongo isn't up to snuff you can resolve the problem by trying to
lip-read. It might be more enjoyable, though, to just sit back and marvel as your favorite
celebrity's voice drops three octaves in one fell swoop. Where else can you listen to Ron
Howard grunt like a Japanese Sly Stallone?
The virtual reality special effects and nausea-inducing jolts of Back to the Future's
silver DeLorean induced a "totally awesome" and "wicked" response from
us born-again teenagers.
With adrenaline still coursing through our veins we blazed a trail straight to Backdraft.
Despite the fact that the preliminary introduction was too long - a recurring annoyance
throughout our visit - it pacified the crowds and tricked them into believing that they
were actually entering the show. In reality we went from standing in line to standing in a
room with a few distractions.
It was, however, worth the wait and the audience "sugoi"-ed as we came
perilously close to becoming yakiniku. Checking that our eyelashes hadn't been
singed, we exited hot, sweaty and thirsty for more and headed for the beckoning cool
waters of Jurassic Park.
Wet! Wet! Wet!
If you're contemplating a cruise through the dinosaur's residence or are planning on
visiting that friendly great white, Jaws, then be warned: Bring a raincoat or be
prepared to endure a day of moist clothing.
Forget to bring one? Don't worry; one of USJ's friendly staff will gladly sell you a
garbage-bag-cum-raincoat. After being spat on by a baby dinosaur and lunged at by an
inhospitable shark, we considered the JY200 a prudent investment. Besides, you can always
add the jacket to your rainy season wardrobe.
Our wild-water yachting experiences left our tummies rumbling, so we went off on a hunt
for food. In place of the usual exorbitant cardboard food that amusement parks are
renowned for, there was a rather impressive selection of reasonably priced, inventive
fare. Foregoing the prehistoric barbecued turkey drumsticks near Jurassic Park, we
strolled to "San Francisco" and feasted on smoked duck and Greek salad at the
full-service Lombard's Landing.
With our batteries recharged and the queues diminished, we raced through Terminator 2's
high tech 3-D performance, amazed at how far the technology has come since the B movies of
the 1950s. We'll definitely be back.
The evening came to a cute anticlimax with a final spin on a slow-moving ET
bicycle. Lacking the anticipated blood-rushing excitement of Back to the Future,
the strange and wonderful beauty of ET's planet was enchanting regardless.
Emerging from the ride, an all-ET merchandise shop lit up the dark avenue like an omiyage
beacon. Selling everything from freeze-dried space food to ET dolls that can communicate
with Furby, the shop also sold traditional over-packaged mini-cakes and rice crackers. In
fact, at virtually every exit visitors are inundated with movie-theme souvenirs.
|Hollywoodland, Japan style
The revolving globe's mauve lights glistening through a gurgling fountain coaxed us out of
the park shortly before its 10pm close. As the emotional gush of the symphony reached its
climatic crescendo, we - exhausted, satisfied and with stars in our eye - faded to black.
While USJ doesn't have all the thrills and spills of death-defying looping roller
coasters, the park's atmosphere is both kid-friendly and sophisticated in its conceptual
realization and definitely worth the JY5500. In other words, USJ has serious universal
Take the Tokaido shinkansen to Shin-Osaka stn and transfer to the JR Tokaido line. From
Osaka JR station, take the special "Universal Studios Train" directly to the
park. Packs including, admission, train/flight and hotel are also available at most travel
agents. Admission: adults JY5500, children JY3700, seniors JY4800. Tickets are available
at Lawson, JR Green Counters and at the park's entrance.