We have grown accustomed to planning trips in advance. Disney World urges guests to plan their trip at least 6 months out. By the time the trip actually rolls around, the anticipation is off the charts. So, when we decided to go to Japan we did everything early. We booked flights long before we needed to, we booked most of our stays long in advance, and we started planning itineraries so early that people forgot them a couple of times before we arrived.
Most of this mega-planning was because of me. Japan had been a dream destination for me over the last five years and I wanted to make sure that we hit all of those destinations I’ve so often read about. This was also a mechanism to calm my nerves. Traveling to Japan was the biggest trip I’ve ever taken and being the one who planned it all made me nervous, so I tried to talk everything out with our group that consisted of my wife and our best friends, Darin and Mackenzie.
Our trip crept closer and our plans were finalized. I ended up very happy with all of the planning we did, confident in our plans. Our itinerary focused heavily on Kyoto and Disney, with Tokyo and places to eat taking somewhat of a backseat. We cut costs where we could while still hoping to make this a trip of a lifetime. One of the ways to make the cost cheaper was on flights.
We live in Seattle but flying out of Vancouver BC saved us about $500 per person. This also entailed a long layover in Beijing both directions, sleeping in the airport. This wouldn’t always be the case but traveling to Japan during cherry blossom (Sakura) season was a priority for me and that made the cost of direct flights quite a bit higher. The flights went well and we even got a decent night’s sleep on our layover in Beijing. Still, I would recommend a direct flight if the cost isn’t too high. It will give you an extra day or two in Japan and make the travel more enjoyable.
We arrived at Kansai International Airport around 12:45 PM and passed through immigration with relative ease. Likewise, we picked up our pocket mifi (essentially a wireless hotspot to connect your phone to the internet) and caught the airport bus to our hotel with no issues. Our first stop was Universal Resort in Osaka. We stayed at the Keihan Universal Tower Hotel, which was very close to the park itself. Our travel to Japan and to the hotel all went off without a hitch. As was the case through all of our trip, the language barrier was no issue. People were incredibly helpful and the signage was easy to follow.
We were quite hungry by the time we arrived at the hotel so, after check-in, we headed out for the first of many ramen meals. Like the Universal Parks stateside, there was a prominent City Walk full of restaurants and shops. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal and were surprised at how cheap the cost was. In total, food in Japan is cheaper than America and we knew this coming in. Still, getting a full meal for 2 at $15, steps outside of a theme park was a bit of a shock to the system. A pleasant shock, but still a shock.
After dinner and a quick trip back to the room, we went across the street to a little inlet on the water. While there wasn’t much to see, being that close to the ocean was peaceful and a nice way to recover from 30 hours of traveling.
We eventually went back to the City Walk and enjoyed a few crepes before a true highlight of the trip happened – our first encounter with a convenience store. Convenience stores in Japan are far superior to their American counterparts. The hot food is actually decent and there are plenty of options. The snack choices are incredible and there’s so many of them. Seeing my friend Darin, an incredible bad-food connoisseur, inside of his first Japanese convenience store was unforgettable. He wandered the aisles with gusto, giggling and bright-eyed, that I’ve never seen from him before. I’m only half-kidding about this being a true highlight of the trip.
Our hotel was nice, with the best thing about it being the location. The room had 5 beds packed in pretty tight but it did the job. Most rooms in Japan only have twin beds and this was no exception. The cost wasn’t too high though and the place was convenient for our plans. I’d recommend this place for a group of 4 or a family who’s planning on spending a day in Universal Studios Japan. We headed to bed fairly early, being tired from our travel and wanting to get to the park before opening the next day.
The morning saw us up fairly early for what we thought was park opening Universal Studios Japan. We lined up over a half an hour before what we thought was the park opening time but instead saw that everyone was just walking in. I’m still not sure what the deal was, opening 45 minutes early seems odd. I have since read that USJ opens their gates before scheduled times quite regularly but that morning still seems especially early. I won’t complain though as having extra park time was fun. We immediately rushed to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and enjoyed the attraction there. This was one of the busier weeks for Universal Studios Japan so we were prepared for long lines. Our first wait was under an hour and we considered that a success.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is such an excellent attraction that it really transcends the dialogue. This version, unsurprisingly, was in Japanese. Melissa and I had experienced this attraction in English but our friends hadn’t. Nothing was lost on them though as the visuals tell the wild and fun story. USJ’s Forbidden Journey was an exact replica of those stateside and was well maintained.
We perused through Hogsmeade before heading back into the rest of the park. Unlike Orlando and California, Hogsmeade feels completely separated from the rest of Universal Studios Japan because of a long wooded path that leads into the land. I thoroughly enjoyed this as it built up anticipation and was quite beautiful. Upon exiting, we found that the park was using reserved ticketing to get back into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We planned to go back in the evening, before close, but were out of luck as there were no more spots at that time. Instead we ended up with entry tickets around lunch time. The reservation process was simple as you just go up to the machines near the Jaws attractions and select what time you want to go back. Employees are eager to help you find the area. All things considered, we were lucky to get into the land twice.
After that we headed to Amity Island to explore the Jaws mini-land. The Jaws attraction is no modern marvel but was right up my alley. A slow boat ride, an entertaining skipper and a shark that is trying to kill you makes for an excellent attraction. Likewise, I thought the little land surrounding it was full of great detail and one that I would return to throughout the day because of how much I enjoyed it.
We meandered the park for a little while after this. Happening upon Charlie Brown in his Easter best was glorious.
The Peanuts and Sesame Street had an area of the park with a bunch of rides for children. Some of this area looked okay but I wasn’t very impressed. The space felt crowded and unthemed, other than some character faces painted on the walls or entrances of buildings.
Where this area did excel was in colors. I imagine this is already a colorful area, maybe to a fault, with its purple pavement. The Easter festivities really sent it over the top with the bright flowers all around. I’m not saying I liked it but if you’re going to have an unthemed little kid area then you might as well make it as bright as possible, right?..
Shortly after, we headed back to Hogsmeade for our reservation time. We ended up having lunch there at Three Broomsticks. As far as our whole trip goes, the meals we had were cheaper than typical. This was one of the few exceptions. Three Broomsticks has decent food, with British pub fare. The atmosphere is great and I would probably recommend it but it was overpriced compared to everywhere else we ate on our trip to Japan. I thought the Shepherd’s Pie was good and the Ribs and Chicken Combo was pretty average. Melissa and I both liked the Butterbeer Ice Cream.
After lunch we soaked in the beautiful Hogwarts views. Unlike the other Universal Resorts, this Hogsmeade has a beautiful lake that looms outside of the castle. The view from the outside seating of Three Broomsticks is magnificent, especially on the beautiful day we had. Reflections off the water were gorgeous. I wish this was a feature at all of the Wizarding World’s. I think that feature elevates it above Orlando’s version (although Orlando has Diagon Alley so it scores points elsewhere). Another photo of the lake for good measure.
Melissa got tons of compliments on her Honeydukes shirt from employees. It was a fun way to interact with people even with a language barrier.
The rest of the Wizarding World was very familiar but no less spectacular. Every corner was impeccable, with great detail and tremendous upkeep. A great deal of care is given to both this park and the Disney parks by the people who work in them. It is noticeable and appreciated.
After shopping through Hogsmeade, the rest of the group went off to ride the most terrifying and belligerent roller coaster I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s called the Flying Dinosaur and takes guests, riding on their stomachs, through crazy loops and turns at very high speeds. I wouldn’t be caught dead on it but if I did ride it I would be found dead from several heart attacks. They rode via the single rider line and I sat around and took photos, a pleasant afternoon compared to the raucous they experienced. Quick tip: Use the single-rider line at USJ. It will save you hours of waiting in line.
As I said, I was drawn to the Jaws area. Those crazy block letters in the background of this photo really pop. They offer an interesting contrast to the somewhat realistic area.
There’s the horrifying Flying Dinosaur. I’d rather be skinny-dipping with Jaws himself than be on that thing.
One of the more interesting aspects of the park is how little it tried to hide the outside city. In a way, the park tried to use it as part of the scenery. In the above photo you can see one of the busier bridges in Osaka. If this was the main park I went to, I think the city views within the park would wear on me. But for one day I thought the views were an interesting paradox to the incredibly immersive lands that are so en vogue right now in theme parks. Here’s a view of the other side of the park, albeit later in the day, with hotels and sky scrapers on the horizon.
About an hour later, the others were off the coaster. I went on Jurassic Park River Adventure (essentially a copy of the attraction stateside) while Melissa took the camera. I came back to about a hundred photos of the Minion area.
It’s hard to describe how infatuated the locals are with the Minions. This was the busiest area in the parks and seemingly everyone was either dressed like a Minion or had a shirt with one on it. While I certainly have affection for these crazy critters, the fandom I observed was shocking. I loved it. The area was pretty fun too.
Shortly after, we stopped for a snack. I separated from the others to take a few more photos when disaster struck. As I was gathering up my camera gear I left my phone sitting on the sidewalk. If you ever wondered if losing your phone on the first day of a foreign vacation is a good idea I can certainly confirm that is, in fact, a terrible idea. I rushed back to where I left it, wandering in circles like a dog for a few minutes before I saw an employee. I told him that I’d lost my phone and he went back to look for it. After a few minutes, this very kind man came out holding my phone. They looked as relieved as I did when I entered my pass-code and they saw it was mine. This goes for all of Japan, the customer service was incredible. People talk about the ‘Disney difference’ and how everyone is so helpful and friendly when going to a Disney Park. It’s far more prudent in Japan and not just in their theme parks. Anyway, I found my phone. Disaster averted.
The group of us met back up and then we ate this:
It was not very good. This was though:
Mainly I was a fan of this restaurant, Happiness Cafe, because they had fountain drinks and free refills, a rarity in Japan. It was a hot day and I drank more Coke than I care to share. My short review for the food at the restaurant was that the entrees weren’t very good and the desserts were. I liked the decor, as it was over the top much like the Minion Park right outside.
The sunset was fairly pretty that night so I took a few photos after dinner.
The rest of the evening was spent wandering around the park and riding attractions with short wait times. Crowds were pretty high throughout the day so it was nice to walk around once some people left.
Universal Studios Japan is probably my favorite Universal Park. I thought the transitions between lands were much smoother and the details were a bit more immersive. The attraction roster is largely the same as California and Orlando, give or take a few. As I touched on, the customer service was wonderful and that takes it to the top. Here’s a few more photos from the rest of the night.
All in all, I enjoyed our day at Universal Studios Japan but probably wouldn’t do it again unless I was in Japan for at least a month. That’s no fault of the park, as I said I really enjoyed it even though I’m fairly cynical when it comes to Universal Parks. There is simply too much to do in Japan for me to recommend going. The Tokyo Disney Parks are far superior to this one and I’d recommend an extra day there or in one of the many cities you could visit over this. If you are a theme park junkie though, go for it!
We headed back to the hotel shortly after the park closed and went to bed after watching a few seemingly strange Japanese shows on TV.
The next morning saw us up and about fairly early on our way to Osaka Castle en route to Kyoto. We planned to get lockers for our luggage at the station near Osaka Castle but they were all taken so we were those annoying tourists dragging multiple bags behind us. Thankfully, we saw several people doing the same thing so we didn’t feel too out-of-place. The walk from the station to Osaka Castle was quite beautiful and included a flower market, river and lovely cherry blossoms.
Since we had our luggage and were a little low on time we elected to just walk around the castle instead of go inside. The castle itself was beautiful and worth a trip to see if you are in Osaka. While there are other castles I’d rather see in Japan, this was the most convenient to our location. It was fairly crowded but not overly so. Next time we’re in Japan we definitely plan to make the trek to Himeji Castle though. Here are some photos of the castle and grounds.
My last thought on Osaka is that I’m not sure that I would stay there again. Frankly, Kyoto has far more intrigue and even if I wanted to visit Osaka, the trip from Kyoto is a very easy and quick one. Osaka’s aquarium, nightlife, Universal Studios, and castle are all worth exploring but would be fairly low on my priority list of things to do in Japan. Staying in Kyoto gives you a little more flexibility on if you want to explore the area or not.
Shortly after we left the castle we were on our way to Kyoto and that’s where we’ll pick up our next installment of the trip report.
To continue on to part 2, click here.
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Categories: Trip Reports