Osaka Weekend Part 1: USJ for the Holidays

I’ll be honest; Osaka wasn’t at the top of my list of places to visit. But this meant that I walked into the weekend with an open mind, and I ended up enjoying myself immensely without getting tangled up in a web of disappointed expectations.

Our Osaka weekend started with an overnight bus — a Knight bus, if you will — directly to Universal Studios Japan (USJ). We arrived early on the morning of November 13th, which just so happened to be the first day of USJ’s Christmas season. Being a good hour early to the park meant nothing, though: we were by no means first in line.

When the gates opened at 9 a.m., a very weird sort of chaos unfolded.

As tickets were processed and entry was granted, everyone ahead of us would grab their buddies and start sprinting. Once my friend (M) and I were in, we followed the path of all the runners, half-jogging, half-walking, and altogether caught in a weird race of frantic excitement.

You see, everyone was making a beeline to the Harry Potter section of the park — including us.

And I don’t care how nerdy it sounds. I can’t even describe how — well, magical — it felt to walk through the forested path with a hundred other Potter geeks, “Hedwig’s Theme” making up the soundtrack for the moment we all arrived in snowy Hogsmeade, with the beloved castle looming the the distance.

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I didn’t have time to take pictures until the end, though. M dragged me through Hogsmeade at break-neck speed, dodging Korean tourists and families posing for pictures — our first goal was “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey,” a 4D adventure ride located inside the replica of Hogwarts Castle. On a typical day, the attraction has a wait time of 3 hours in line, so we were determined to get there early (like everybody else).

Luckily we were able to breeze through the line, winding through a maze of chains that led through the Herbology greenhouses, the dungeons, and up the staircases whose walls were crammed with moving portraits. Even though it made me a slight bit motion sick, the ride itself was well worth it — I think I would have happily waited two hours for it, although I’m glad that wasn’t necessary!

After the ride, it was time for some sweet, hot butterbeer and some pictures in Hogsmeade!

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Admittedly we spent a while in the Harry Potter area of USJ (“I never want to leave”) but eventually, we decided to move on. Next, we headed to Jaws — an attraction where we were placed on a boat traveling through waters where the huge shark is on the loose. Our “boat” had a very enthusiastic Japanese lady as captain, and she was constantly shouting out (whenever the mechanical shark burst out of the water) or firing her “gun” (when the shark shook the boat) or just reassuring all of us that we had escaped the shark (only for it to inevitably reappear). It was one of those instances where I didn’t need to know exactly what she was saying in Japanese — her emotion conveyed everything better than any translation.

Following Jaws was a walk through the Jurassic Park area. We bought these HUGE turkey legs… I thought they were special “Jurassic Park” food because it made me feel like I was a carnivorous dinosaur… but apparently they sell them at Disney Land in Tokyo, too.

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A fun fact about Japan — even in the winter, you can ride the water rides. M and I lined up for the Jurassic Park attraction and everyone else in line had plastic ponchos down to their knees, which probably should have been my first warning. The whole thing is like a log flume with dinosaurs, and at the end, the log-boat plummets down a huge drop (to escape an animatronic T-Rex) and the fall creates a HUGE splash. I was soaked, even with my rain coat!!  It was a pretty chilly day, too…

The rest of the day was spent jumping between attractions (we rode the roller coaster twice despite the long line), eating lots of themed food (like chocolate-banana minion popcorn), hardcore people-watching (I learned that a lot of young Japanese couples will wear matching outfits for dates at USJ) and enjoying the Christmas music.

As it grew dark, the park was illuminated into a Christmas wonderland. Despite the rain, USJ still lit the giant Christmas tree (heralded as the World’s Most Illuminated Tree with 374,800 lights). It was still mid-November at this point, but Japan doesn’t have the buffer of Thanksgiving, so as soon as Halloween is packed away, Christmas is unwrapped in full force. And I loved it.

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End of day 1 in Osaka.

Distance walked: 13.4 km (8.34 miles)

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