Another universe

Photos by Pam Stoikopoulos

With all the hype swirling around Universal Studios Japan, we couldn' help getting sucked into the media cyclone. Pam 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 atmosphere.

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 and sharks

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.

Riverside shopping

Techno trip
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

Dramatic departure
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 appeal.

Getting there
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.

389: God speed
The mother of all Shinto temples, Ise Grand Shrine
385: Hattoji
Highland hamlet
380: Nagasaki
Remembrance of things past
378: Kawagoe
From modern Tokyo to "Little Edo"
376: Tottori
Tottori's stunning landscapes
375: Kyushu
Bed and bath under the volcano
373: Ryogoku
Land of the giants
372: Osaka
Universal Studios Japan
371: Osaka
Amerika-mura: Osaka's funky town
369: Mie
Mikimoto Pearl Island
368: Takarazuka
Hyogo-ken's all women theater group
365: Kawasaki
Kawasaki's annual fertility festival
364: Aomori
A day on Fear Mountain
362: Nagano
Chill out snowboarding
361: Asuka
One foot in the grave
356: Yamanashi
Hakushu's hidden treasures
355: Waseda Tram Trip
A streetcar named...
352/3: Aomori
Jesus in Japan
351: Kumamoto
Under the volcano in Kyushu
350: Sado Island
Explore the forgotten charms of Shukunegi