The weather forecast for our tenth day in Japan was not promising, with heavy rain predicted for much of the country. Bruno and Anita had been rained off at Hiruzen Kogen Center previously and suggested that we should look into alternative plans for the day, but a brief glance at the web site for the Japan Meteorological Agency indicated that the only area showing as clear for the day was Tokyo, some three and a half hours by train from our overnight hotel. As we had a confirmed rental car booking it seemed like the least poor option was to stick with our existing plan and hope for the best. It was pretty wet for much of the drive, but about fifteen minutes before arrival we passed through a kilometre-long tunnel under a mountain that brought us out into a (mostly) clear sky.
The parking lot was almost completely deserted when we arrived, but the ticket desk was open and there was no mention of the coaster on the sign indicating attractions out of service. This immediately improved the day significantly, and though there was a subsequent moment of consternation on discovery of a sign in front of the ride entrance Google Translate revealed it to be opening hours, which today were 11:00-16:00. We had a little over twenty minutes to kill before the appointed time, and made the most of it with a ride on the enormous Ferris Wheel. Though the position was a little closer to the coaster than I'd have preferred there were still plenty of opportunities for aerial photography.
Hiruzen Coaster (#2375) is a fairly generic product of Japanese coaster design, with a layout consisting of a twisting drop, two airtime hills, and a descending helix. Most of the course is eminently forgettable, not least the helix which is negotiated at little more than walking pace, but the ride is worth the effort for the second hill, which delivers a substantial pop of airtime that is as dramatic as it is unexpected. The design has a clearance envelope that would not meet modern standards, notably at the start of the chain lift where anyone sitting in the left hand side of the train can touch a portion of the track. We rode three times, twice in the front and once in the back for comparison, and all of us agreed that the front delivered the better overall experience.
The park has a very unusual walkthrough that combines several different styles of ride into one. Mystery House starts out with a scene featuring happy children playing in a forest, then continues into a room with an animatronic mouse and a supine female with exposed nipple. A hall of mirrors and assorted horror scenes follow, concluding with a mannequin that looks remarkably like Hitler. It felt almost as if park management had bought little pieces of other rides and assembled them into one incoherent whole, and though the mix was utterly disjointed I certainly enjoyed it. We exited out of the building into a torrential downpour, which we took as our signal to return to our rental car.
12th September 2017
The inclement weather resulted in us arriving back at Okayama Station a little over two hours earlier than anticipated. To our astonishment the staff at Toyota Rent-a-car insisted on refunding us a portion of the money that we'd paid that morning, a reminder that Japan can be a truly amazing place. Soon afterwards we caught a train to Shin-Osaka, checked into our hotel to drop off luggage, then headed back out towards Universal Studios Japan.
Universal Studios Japan
12th September 2017
In the planning stages of this trip I decided to schedule two half days at Universal Studios Japan rather than one full day, as I couldn't find any other way to shoehorn both Hiruzen Kogen Center and Ikoma Skyland into the itinerary. The split gave us a combined eleven hours split across two days which I figured would be enough to enjoy all five coasters and a few secondary attractions. Nevertheless, in the interests of being completely certain I decided to splurge on express passes. This decision was definitely the right one, as the queues for both days of our visit exceeded ninety minutes on all the major rides; though we'd have managed the coasters either way it is unlikely we'd have been able to get on anything else.
The park has a variety of different express passes available for those with more money than sense. At the top of the pile is a Royal Studio Pass, priced at the equivalent of a monthly mortgage repayment, that gives unlimited access to dedicated queues on eight of the major rides, but only one use of four of the five coasters rendering it of limited value to enthusiasts. Most readers will likely prefer the standard passes, which cover one use of between three and seven named attractions. Despite extortionate prices these typically sell out several weeks in advance, meaning that the only way for foreign visitors to buy them is via the park web site. This is a somewhat challenging process for foreigners, as the English language ticketing system only offers admission; everything else has to be run through the Japanese site, which requires registering an account and filling in a lot of personal information in Kanji. To add to the fun, the site doesn't work correctly when accessed through Google Translate, meaning that the only way to use it effectively is to use a separate translation service.
For our first day we purchased a three ride ticket covering two of the coasters and a choice between three smaller attractions. This worked out at roughly €13 per person per ride on top of park admission. Our first port of call was Space Fantasy with Dreams Come True, a temporary re-theme of the highly regarded Mack spinning coaster starring a popular local blues band celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. The biggest change to the overall experience is a specially-written song blasted out by the speakers embedded in the ride train. The lyrics may well have a deep meaning for those with a command of the local patois, but most will just appreciate what is a particularly cheery piece of J-Pop. The park has already announced another re-theme to the Final Fantasy series when the current promotion ends, which will likely tie in with the rumoured Super Nintendo World that is coming to the park in the future.
Stop two was a timed access to Flying Dinosaur (#2376), a custom layout flying coaster with five inversions that opened to rave reviews last year. Despite a dual loading station and multiple trains the queue was seen to exceed twelve hours on several occasions during the first few weeks of operation, and it was common practice to close the standby entrance for the day as soon as twenty minutes after park opening. Since then the interest has eased somewhat, but four hour waits still occur on a regular basis and anything below ninety minutes is essentially unheard of. The wait when we approached was shown as two hours, making our express passes invaluable. Unlike many parks the queue is generally caused by by demand rather than inefficiency, as the ride is operated with a number of policies designed to keep things moving. All guests are handed a laminated card at the express pass merge point with ride rules that they are expected to read. Soon after that staff members speak to groups individually about loose objects and hand them small baskets for things like phones. Once at the station groups are assigned to specific rows which have their own dedicated storage bins that are just large enough to hold the offered baskets. The resultant efficiency was as good as anything I've seen in my travels, giving throughput that was several orders of magnitude better than the norm for a Japanese park.
The forty metre high lift hill passes over a pedestrian walkway, allowing those on board to wave with ebullience at those on the ground. This type of behaviour can be seen on a small scale across the world, but in Japan it has been elevated to what might almost be considered a national sport; just about everyone participates with enthusiasm, and we decided to join in, enjoying the fact that people we've never met (and never will meet) were responding to us as if we were long lost relatives. The apex of the ride is above water, and leads to steep drop followed by a gentle left banking turn into a 540° roll and a wickedly intense half loop. This is followed in short order by a pretzel loop through a tunnel that is if anything even more forceful. The rest of the course is gentle in comparison to the beginning though still powerful, with around twenty seconds of flying punctuated by two more inversions that round out the experience nicely.
The ride is, in a word, brilliant; it has all the key features of a top coaster, including superb visuals, strong forces, and a superb sense of pacing. One question that has come up in discussion since is how the experience compares to other flying coasters, and in particular the magnificent Chinese installations at Happy Valley Beijing and World Joyland. As much as I'd love to say something here, the reality is that I've travelled to far too many coasters over the years to do anything other than sort rides into broad groups. What I can say is that Flying Dinosaur comfortably takes a spot in the list of coasters that I'd look to acquire for my garden if I ever won the lottery, and it's also worth noting that our group decided to sacrifice nearly two hours of our lives waiting for a second ride.
The Universal Studios Florida version of Jaws may have closed in 2012, but a locally-produced version of the original lives on in Japan complete with ridiculously exuberant ride hosts. I don't speak Japanese and I've never seen the original movie, but neither were really necessary to enjoy the experience, which consisted of a boat journey chased by a mechanical shark with fire effects and explosions accompanied by increasingly excited imprecations from our "skipper". The ride was definitely dated, but fun nonetheless, and it'd be a shame for it to disappear in favour of more Harry Potter rides, a definite possibility given that it occupies a huge plot of land right next to the Hogsmeade section of the park. The recent loss of Dragon Challenge is testament to the fact that Universal corporate is not afraid of retiring classic attractions for the latest franchise.
We made our way to that area in the hope of enjoying the Forbidden Journey dark ride, but the queue had been closed for the night. That left us with the consolation prize of the three year old Flight of the Hippogriff (#2377), a standard model roller skater with a train resembling a collection of wicker baskets. The ride felt somewhat smoother than other examples of the genre, implying that it may well have benefitted from the improved track fabrication technology Vekoma has developed in recent years, though it was not something we felt the need to repeat despite an empty queue. With just fifteen minutes left before closing we decided instead to power walk over to Snoopy's Great Race in the hope that it would still be open. Luck was on our side; we were just in time to shoehorn in a quick lap.