Day eleven of our trip began with a multi-stage journey to Ikoma Skyland from our start point at Shin-Ōsaka Station. The routing required a short hop on the subway, a somewhat longer stretch on a private railway, a five minute walk, and two connecting cable car routes that eventually terminated at Ikoma-Sanjō Station at the park entrance. In times past this trek was made regularly by enthusiasts seeking to access four unique roller coasters, including a 1979 Jet Coaster, a 1980 Shuttle Loop, a Mad Mouse of similar vintage, and a Togo Ultra Twister. Sadly all of these rides reached the end of their service life and were retired between 2005 and 2012, leaving the park with no coasters at all. Our visit was triggered by the addition of a figure eight spinning coaster, though the place is well worth a visit even for those who don't believe in credit whoring, as it has both an interesting collection of flat rides and a spectacular view of downtown Osaka.
We began our visit with the Cycle Monorail at the edge of the park. There was a lift hill mechanism at the start of the course raising the car approximately ten feet, though anyone who believes that makes it a coaster should promptly defenestrate themselves; it is only there to reduce the amount of effort required to pedal. Out of sheer curiosity we decided to see how far momentum would carry us, and I can confirm that we made it almost five feet before coming to an unceremonious halt. Following this we pedalled slowly around the rest of the course, stopping every few seconds to take photographs. Our vantage point allowed us to see a black-coloured steel structure that looked at first glance like it might actually be a coaster, but our excitement was short-lived; it turned out to be the Tokotoko Tentomushi, a 160 metre long ladybird-themed monorail leading to the nearby car park.
Our second stop was at the brand new Spinning Coaster (#2378), the first ride of its type in Japan. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that the train hadn't been fitted with seat belts to supplement the standard lap bars, though even still the load and check process for four adults still managed to take almost two minutes. In due course we were dispatched for two laps of the course lasting no more than thirty seconds, the shortest cycle I've come across on a figure eight spinning coaster. On the plus side, there was plenty of spinning to be had, though that could easily have been triggered by the fact that we only loaded two people in each car. On the negative side, a longer programme would have made the ¥400 (~€3) ticket price seem like better value for money.
One of the more interesting attractions in the park is an elaborate haunted house located in the south-eastern corner of the park. Hell's Gate has been constructed inside a unassuming rectangular building, though the only portion visible without the aid of Google Earth features an elaborate facade with slanted clay roof tiles and a string of akachōchin suspended from the second floor. Photographs were not permitted inside unfortunately, limiting what I can say about the experience, but it was along the same lines as the traditional walkthroughs at Nagashima Spa Land and Toshimaen.
We made our way back to the centre of the park and and Pukapuka Panda, a suspended monorail ride with an oval shaped layout that enclosed the coaster, the Swinging Bears, the Hot Air Flight balloon ride, and a cup and saucer attraction labelled as Tea Cups on the map but Coffee Cup on the ride signage. The riding position was pretty much ideal for would be photographers, and a comparatively low speed gave us plenty of chances to capture our targets. With that done we headed to the Flying Tower, a locally built thirty metre high version of the classic plane ride found at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Legendia. The four planes were considerably more elaborate than the European versions, with biplane wings and propellers, but this was countered by a weaker ride experience limited by horizontal cables which greatly restricted swinging.
Our final port of call was at the Ikoma White House, a crooked house attraction themed (rather appropriately) after 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The entrance room featured a mock American flag, a crest on the wall, several portraits, and a small placard listing it as having been built in 1986. The subsequent rooms were more generic, though there were some interesting scenes in the mix, including a realistic moving subway car effect that I've not come across elsewhere. The route also included a rotating barrel, a hall of mirrors, and a few token haunted house and dark ride elements thrown in for good measure.
Universal Studios Japan
13th September 2017
It was just before lunch time when we arrived for our second day at Universal Studios Japan. Crowds were in evidence even as we left the train station, and it was scarcely a surprise when the real time display board revealed wait times in excess of two hours on all the major attractions. Our pre-purchased express tickets proved to be an essential element of an enjoyable day, if an expensive one; our six hour visit worked out at around €180 apiece, an insane amount of money even by local standards and shockingly poor value for a total of seven rides. In an ideal world we'd have stood in line for a repeat ride on Flying Dinosaur, but it just wasn't possible to do that without missing the final train of the night to Nagoya.
Our first stop was at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an upgraded version of the dark ride of the same name in Florida with higher definition projections and 3D glasses that provide extra visual depth at the cost of some brightness. The technology behind the ride was impressive, though as with the original I found the storyline to be more than a little disjointed; I'd have liked it better if it had concentrated on a smaller portion of the magical world. My favourite part of the experience was the standalone walking route through Hogwarts Castle allowing guests to admire the theming at their own pace; this feature apparently exists in the American version too, but is often unavailable when the park is busy because it is too easy for guests to use it to short-circuit the main queue.
We used our passes for a quick lap on Flight of the Hippogriff before heading back across the park towards The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, still considered one of the finest dark rides in the world. The version here was upgraded with 4K projections in 2013 at considerable expense, and the imagery was certainly razor sharp, though ot be blunt it seems unlikely that most of us would be able to tell the difference without looking at the old and new versions side by side. (As a fun aside, Spider-Man has been owned by the Walt Disney company since 2009, though fortunately for us all Universal has a perpetual license to the property.)
In 2013, the park announced that they would turn around one of the trains on Hollywood Dream: The Ride for a promotional period of four months. The trial proved unexpectedly popular, as it was extended for three further months, then subsequently made indefinite thanks to overwhelmingly positive guest feedback. The coaster is now operated with four trains, dispatching about once per minute; three standard units and a fourth, painted red, which has been specially modified to run backwards. The official web site describes the changed on board experience in delightfully colourful terms, which I feel compelled to reproduce for posterity:
"The ultimate thrill of being unable to see where you're going or predict what will come next. A shock that makes you want to grab onto something. Gust of wind blowing from the back of your head will tell you how fast you're going. An unknown experience of plunging headlong will result in an ultimate thrill."
My own impression of Backdrop was slightly more down-to-earth, and not something I'd feel compelled to bestow "ultimate" status on. That being said, the out of control sensation inherent to any coaster was amplified considerably by the inability to see what was next, and trademark B&M smoothness coupled with the on-board music made the ride both exciting and fun in equal measure, though it would be remiss of me not to record that it did cause me slight motion sickness. We subsequently went back for a forward facing circuit that was also good fun, though it was definitely a milder experience than the reverse version.
The newest addition in the park at present is Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a simulator that opened in April in the building once used for Back to the Future: The Ride. The general premise of the ride is that guests will be converted temporarily to Minions, a process explained through several pre-shows which (fortunately) are subtitled in English. The first tells guests what to expect during their time as Minions; the second explains how conversion will take place; the third is a safety video that apparently only exists in the Japanese version of the experience. The main show features a slightly berserk journey through the Minion Training Grounds experienced from a motion base that no longer resembles a DeLorean but is otherwise very similar to what existed in times past.
At the exit we ran into a large group of German enthusiasts who were on a much more sensible tour of Japan than we were, concentrating on major parks rather than tiny family coasters. We spent a bit of time chatting about our respective tours before the group agreed to finish the night with Jaws.