The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Other Kansai Magic
At 24, I finally received my acceptance letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It only cost me ¥6,980 and instead of arriving in a yellowish envelope with emerald lettering, it came in the form of a Studio Pass for Universal Studios Japan, Osaka (USJ). The themed area opened on July 15 of this year, four years after The Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuted at Universal Orlando. I’ve conjured up a guide for you as you embark on your own magical journey.
Under the pretense that the park opens daily at 9 a.m., I arrived to USJ at 8:30 only to find out that the gates had long been opened. My fellow witch and I proceeded to ticket machines, where we were granted a 9:10 a.m. timed entry into The Wizarding World. Rumors were circulating that those who arrived a little later that day were unable to enter the grounds at all, so make sure to get there early. When the time came, we followed the others through a grove of trees where Hedwig’s Theme stirred even more excitement in us. We shared a laugh at Weasley’s light blue Ford Anglia wedged in between a few poor trees before arriving at the gates.
Immediately to our right stood the beautifully crafted Hogwarts Express, where visitors could partake in a photo op. Straight ahead was Hogsmeade, a bustling village lined with snow-topped specialty shops and Butterbeer stands. There is so much from the books and the films—er, I mean history—honored in the park details. A few highlights include the Hogwarts Frog Choir, Hermione Granger’s memorable Yule Ball dress, and Quidditch equipment. Looking up from the clothing and stationery shops, you can spot exhibits of the latest magic wear, sewing stations, and mountains of parcels on the second floor. The Public Conveniences, or restrooms, are accompanied by a Japanese Moaning Myrtle.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which sends you on a thrilling ride above the Hogwarts castle, is the main attraction. A rollercoaster ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, is also available. If you are adamant about getting on these rides, I must warn you that the grounds are full of muggles. Lines and lines of them. I tried to swish and flick my way through them, but perhaps I was doing it all wrong. You can try for yourself for a flat rate of ¥3,500 per wand at Ollivander’s. Or maybe you’re better off with an express pass, which you can purchase in increments of three, five, or seven main attractions to avoid the excruciating waits. However, I did receive an owl informing me that wait times were misconstrued; during peak hours, visitors queuing up for the main attraction expected to wait up to four hours, but were able to get on in only half the estimated time. In the rare case that you do not believe in magic, USJ has plenty of other attractions to offer such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future. Hello Kitty, cat or not, is also one of the park’s main characters.
We couldn’t get our hands on any pumpkin juice, Chocolate Frogs, Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans, or any other delectable treats offered at Honeydukes because the wait time was about two hours to enter. Wait times vary throughout the day, and though queues are expected to shorten by mid-afternoon, there is a possibility of the more popular sweets selling out. We picked up our spirits and headed to the Three Broomsticks for lunch, which in its rustic features and cheerful chatter mirrored its literary description. We picked up a plate of fish and chips (¥1,800) and a cup of bubbly sweet Butterbeer. Though indoor dining was the more popular choice, a member of staff informed us that there would be no wait if we decided to eat outside. Enter in one of our favorite moments. It was there that we soaked in an immaculate reflection of the magical school in the Black Lake—a Japan exclusive feature. In the midst of unspeakable heat and growing crowds, this hideout brought us peace and quiet.
If you are not particularly set on Harry Potter dining, grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants throughout the park. In the New York Area, you can get cocktails at Finnegan’s Bar & Grill or a pie of pizza from Louie’s. Hard Rock Café, Bubba Gump, and other Western options are easily accessible at Universal CityWalk just before the park entrance. However, note that only Annual Pass Holders are granted re-entry into the park after exiting.
Tourist spots such as Osaka Castle for an educational day tour or romantic night out and Umeda Sky Building are both worth a visit. For a rare experience, head to the Museum of Kamigata Comedy and Performing Arts to learn about Osaka’s comic storytelling history or try one of the city’s delicacies, blowfish. My partner and I quickly discovered other spellbound areas beyond Osaka but still within the Kansai area. Each only about an hour away by train, day trips to cultural Kyoto, historic Nara, and romantic port city Kobe can be just as memorable and require very little planning.
If you head out to Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari early enough, you can walk through the legendary Torii gates without the mess of crowds. Nara is known for its roaming deer, but landmark temple Todaiji and its well-preserved wooden Nandaimon gate will envelop you in a profound sense of wonder and newfound appreciation for Japan’s first permanent capital. Kobe’s Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway offers breathtaking views, lavender ice cream, and plenty of opportunities for both tranquility and exercise. Within walking distance is the historical Kitano Ijinkan district, where you can visit a number of foreign residences or dine at one of the dozens of charming restaurants and cafés lining the road leading to Sannomiya Station.
Extending your stay in Osaka to include other parts of the Kansai region is definitely worth the trouble—and you will find that there will be little to no trouble at all. My partner and I were only in the area for four days and experienced plenty. Kansai is much too beautiful to leave unexplored, and I look forward to returning once I’ve gotten all this magic business sorted out. Mischief managed.
Getting there: The most popular and most convenient form of transportation between Tokyo and Osaka is the bullet train (about ¥14,500 each way). Make sure to opt for a reserved seat even if it does cost a bit extra, especially if you are traveling during high season. You don’t want to get stuck without a seat. If you don’t mind multiple forms of transportation, you can save some cash by flying on a low-cost carrier such as Peach (from HND to KIX) or JetStar (from NRT to KIX). Keep in mind that Kansai International Airport is a bit of a way from the main parts of Osaka. We took Japan Airlines for around ¥10,000 per one-way ticket on the Super Sakitoku Advanced Purchase Fare.To get to USJ from Osaka Station, take the Osaka Loop Line and transfer at Nishikujo Station. Take the JR Yumesaki Line to Universal City Station (¥180; 10 to 15 minutes).
Tickets: Studio Passes and Express Passes to USJ are available at select hotels and travel agencies, JR ticket offices, Lawson’s Loppi machines (ask store clerk for assistance if you have trouble), and the official website (Japanese only, requires a Japanese address). Though tickets are available directly at the park, advanced tickets are recommended due to traffic following the opening of The Wizarding World. Prices range from ¥4,880 for a one-day pass for kids to ¥6,980 for adults (seniors are ¥6,270).
Accommodations: We stayed at the APA Villa Osaka Tanimachi Hotel. It was within our budget and only steps away from the Tanimachi Yonchome subway station. However, there were no elevators for our exit and with heavy baggage, it was a bit of a hassle. The service was excellent, but even with our experience with compact hotels, we were surprised at the hotel’s tight space. Other budget stays include the Osaka Hana Hostel and the Richmond Hotel Namba Daikokucho. Mitsui Garden Hotel Osaka Premier is a newly opened and centrally located mid-range hotel. For a splurge, check into the Osaka Hotel Universal Port.