Friday, 17 June 2011

Osaka trip and review of Universal Studios Japan

I left Kobe for Osaka on the Wednesday 25th, taking the train from Sannomiya to Nanba. In the evening I met up with the two friends whose apartment I'd be staying at. I'd first met them when the international students at Kobe University held a 'Zombie Walk' in Osaka. They both had cameras with them and ended up taking loads of pictures for us all, as well as dressing up as zombies themselves. After that they showed up at most of the big parties we had with their cameras, and I've stayed in touch with them since. I'd met up with them last November when I was in Osaka, but now they have their own apartment in 大国町, which is close to Nanba, and that's where I stayed for my three nights in Osaka.

The first night we went for dinner at Saizeriya and then biked back to their house, which wasn't very far away. On the way we bumped into Derek from Sum 41 as they were playing a show in Osaka that night. When we got back, the girls had some washing to do, so they collected their dirty clothes, stuffed them into the basket on the front of their bikes and we rode off to the coin laundry. On the way though, the wind picked up and blew some of the clothes out of the basket, resulting in these two girls' underwear being strewn across a busy road in Osaka, and us playing Frogger to collect it all back up. In the end we made it to the laundry, washed the clothes, then rode back home, unpacked the futons and went to bed.

The next day I'd planned to meet up with some different friends I'd made whilst studying in Kobe. These guys had been part of the English Speaking Society at Kobe Uni and a few of the international students had helped out at the society quite a bit. We'd go to their events and parties and help them learn English, and they were a great bunch of people. I met with up with three of them and we went and ate okonomiyaki for lunch. After that we wandered round Osaka, visiting the Apple Store, playing games at the arcade and taking purikura, amongst other things. In the evening we went to an izakaya and met up with one more friend. This guy had been the leader of the ESS Conversation Section, but he had now graduated and was working for a company in Osaka. It was the first time in a while for the Japanese people to see him as well, and they said he'd changed and was too adult-like now that he was working.

The next day was my final full day in Osaka, and the two friends I was staying with took the day off work and we all went to Universal Studios. This was somewhere I'd wanted to go while I'd been in Kobe, but back then I'd been a poor student and couldn't afford a ticket. It was a popular date spot, especially around Christmas time and I'd had friends who went and said it was great. Now I could afford the entrance price, and we went after 3 o'clock, which meant the price was even cheaper than normal.

As you enter, the park does a great job of making you feel like you're in a movie. There's dramatic music playing over the speakers and an impressive-looking canopy that welcomes you in. To be honest though, when we started looking around there weren't as many attractions as I'd expected there to be, and unfortunately, the E.T. ride had recently been replaced by something called Space Fantasy: The Ride, which didn't seem to be based on any Universal franchise at all.

The first attraction we went on was The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man - The Ride. The whole attraction was inside a big building which was designed to look just like the offices of the Daily Bugle, so walking from the front door to where you boarded the ride was great. There were desks with half-typed stories sprawled across them, and TVs playing new reports in the cartoon style of The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. But one strange thing was that all the audio was in Japanese, and watching a Spider-Man cartoon in Japanese didn't seem right. Everything written down was in English though. For example, all the posters on the walls and the reports on the desks were in English. And it wasn't just this attraction – throughout the park, everything written was in English, while all the audio was in Japanese. Japanese people would surely miss out on much of the fun of being at Universal Studios, as hardly any of them would be able to understand the written English.

The ride itself was really good as well. You sit in a car and wear 3D glasses and the car moves along tracks, being attacked by various Spider-Man villains. In the end, Spidey shows up and deals with the bad guys, but the best part was experiencing the attacks. Smoke, fire, movement and the 3D images and audio all combined to make it a great ride. As we left, one of my friends commented that when she came once before she waited six hours for this ride. No way is it worth queuing that long for, but it was one of the better ones we went on that day. 4 out of 5 stars.

With my friends outside the Spider-Man ride

Next up we headed over to Jaws, and on the way there, the heavens opened and it started to rain. We didn't have umbrellas, and the rain didn't stop for the rest of the day. If anything it meant there were less people around though, and we didn't have to queue long for rides. The longest we waited for anything was probably about 20 minutes.

I'm a big Jaws fan, and like the Spider-Man ride, the surroundings here were a lot of fun. While we waited to board you could watch local tourism videos for Amity Island on the TV, and outside the attraction there was a big shark tied up and hanging down on a piece of rope for you to have your picture with. The ride itself involved going on a boat tour of the island, with an inevitable attack by Jaws which was eventually dealt with by the tour guide. The cool aspect of this ride was that the tour guide was an actual actor and you were on an actual boat, riding round on the water. He did a great job of trying to get on with the tour while Jaws made passes at the boat, and it felt much more real than the other rides. Rather than trying to scare you though, the actor was quite camp, and everyone ended up laughing rather than screaming. 4 out of 5 stars.

Continuing with the water theme, we headed over to Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular. My friends were really looking forward to this one, and it wasn't a ride, but a theatrical performance played out on a big set in front of an audience. It was all in Japanese, lasted for about 20 minutes and some of the stunts and theatrics were great. 3 out of 5 stars.

Next we went on Back to the Future: The Ride, which I feel was a missed opportunity. This is one of the most loved films of all time, and I feel the ride is a bit of a letdown. The original was unveiled at Universal Studios Florida in 1991, so I'm sure it was limited by the technology available back then. But while the Florida version was replaced with another ride in 2007, the same ride came to Universal Studios Japan in 2001 and is still going. You sit in a DeLorean, but unlike the Spider-Man ride, the car isn't on tracks – it just rocks and vibrates while you watch a big screen in front of you, and it's hard to escape the feeling of staticity. It was cool to see the video of Doc Brown and Biff which explained the storyline of the ride while we were queuing, but the story itself ended up pretty weak. Instead of having you travel to more modern eras and periods in history, the ride just tried to wow you with epic-looking scenes. For example, you visit the ice age and cretaceous period which gives you the chance to see vast icey landscapes and some dinosaurs, but none of it really feels like BTTF. Going back to the 50s would have been better. 2 out of 5 stars.

Next up was Space Fantasy: The Ride, which only opened last year. Like I said, it wasn't linked to any film, but tried to push a story where you depart from earth to save the sun, which is dying. And rather than being serious and dramatic, everything is painted as cute and bouncy, and I didn't think it was all that great. You sit in a circular car that runs around on tracks and rotates, and it all goes quite fast, but the interior of the ride looked really cheap in parts and just felt like an up-market ghost train at times. I think the E.T. ride would have been much better, although E.T. does make a small appearance towards the end of this ride. 2 out of 5 stars.

Next we went to T2 3-D: Battle Across Time, which is based on Terminator 2. The idea of this ride is that you're visiting the headquarters of Cyberdyne Systems to view the company's newest creation – T-70 Terminators. You go into the main hall and a member of staff comes out to welcome you all and tell you a bit about the company. You then see a promotional video, but it's interrupted by a transmission from Sarah and John Connor, telling you to leave the building as they are about to blow it up to prevent Cyberdyne from fulfilling their sinister plans. Again, all the audio is in Japanese, and while this is obviously necessary at a Japanese theme park, the original film is in English, so the experience is a bit strange. But on the whole, the surroundings and the whole vibe is great, and it's all pretty close to what you see in the films. With films like Terminator and BTTF which were produced in the 80s and 90s, these rides do a good job of replicating the aesthetic and feel of that time.

Back to the show: after the video ends the staff member comes back on stage and tells everyone to ignore the transmission, then ushers you all into the auditorium to watch the demonstration. There's a big screen at the front, and the T-70 Terminators rise up around the sides of the room. Everyone puts on their 3D glasses and the demonstration begins, but it's interrupted by actors playing Sarah and John Connor who appear on the stage at the front. Arnie appears as well, although the Arnie actor is tiny compared to real-life Arnie. But the action doesn't just play out between the actors on the stage. These actors literally 'step in and out' of the film that's playing on the big screen. For example, a door opens up on the stage and Arnie and John disappear into it, then reappear in the video on the screen. There's a cool video sequence which lasts about five minutes and shows Arnie and John being chased on a motorbike, and the 3D effect works to make the film feel more real. After this is over, the actors 'step back out' of the screen and return to the stage, where there is now also T-1000 trying to kill Arnie, but it all ends with Arnie succeeding and blowing up Skynet. The whole show has a good concept, but at times it seems overcomplicated and the transition between stage and screen was a bit jarring, especially as the actor playing Arnie doesn't look much like the real Arnie. In fact, in a similar way to the BTTF ride but to a lesser extent, the story seemed a bit forced and was over too quickly, but all in all it was a fun experience. You exit through the gift shop, and it's the perfect time to buy souvenirs of the show you just saw. 3 out of 5.

By now it was getting dark, and most of the rides were starting to close down. We were planning to finish off the day on the one rollercoaster at the park, Hollywood Dream: The Ride, but possibly because of the rain they weren't allowing anyone on, so we decided to finish off the day at Jurassic Park: The Ride. This was another water based ride, but this time the car was on tracks. There was little background or story involved, as you just took a tour of Jurassic Park, by water. At first everything is very slow and tame, and I wasn't that impressed by the animatronic dinosaurs to be honest. But as you progress, you realise that something isn't quite right. There are dinosaurs running free and destroying the facilities, and this all climaxes when a huge T-Rex appears and tries to eat the passengers in the car. At this point the car drops from high up down a steep ramp and splashes into the water. And with that the ride is suddenly over. The gift shop for Jurassic Park was really big and sold some great dinosaur themed toys and goods. 3 out of 5 stars.

All in all, Universal Studios was a fun day out, and I'm sure it'd be even better if we hadn't been soaked through for the whole day by the rain. If you're gonna go, you should go after 3 o'clock when the ticket price drops, and that still leaves you with enough time to hit all the big rides, providing it's not that busy. A lot of the fun comes from seeing your favourite films fleshed out into actual physical locations, and the Spider-Man, Jaws, Jurassic Park and Terminator rides were good at this. As for the number of rides, it seems USJ just imports rides from the Universal Studios parks in Orlando and Hollywood, but I think they could increase the number of big rides, and increase the quality of rides like BTTF and Space Fantasy. Also, a couple more rollercoasters would be a good addition – one isn't enough. So USJ was good, but not the best theme park I've ever been to.

The next day my two friends went back to work and I caught the Shinkansen back to Aomori, arriving home around midnight. It was great to be back in Kansai for a short while, seeing some old friends and hearing the Kansai dialect.

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