Thanksgiving 2016: Food, Friends, USJ

oliver
Oliver is pictured at USJ with one of the many mascots.

I had a delightful Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. For the first time in many years, we didn’t have school as our fall break coincided with Thanksgiving. We have 6 luxurious days off, including the Wednesday before and the Monday after. Just what the doctor ordered after a busy fall trimester. Wednesday November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day here in Japan and a national holiday. It was established after World War II as a day to commemorate human rights and honor rights of workers. It also dates back 2,500 – 1,500 years ago in Japan to the various harvest festivals under different emperors. A mental note to have the kids make drawings next year to give as gifts to the local koban (police box) as is the tradition here. We celebrated the day with a big thanksgiving dinner with friends (photo below).

dinner with friends

It is “peak” autumn foliage color right now in Osaka. My bike ride up to Katsuoji temple in the Minoh Hills National Park was stunning. Although it is cold in the mornings, it quickly warms up to make it comfortable biking weather.

bike ride to Katsuoji

On thanksgiving day itself, which is not a holiday in Japan, we organized winter clothes and closets and did some long overdue projects around the house. With both Nadia and I working and the kids being quite active after school, we needed a day or two concentrating on the house. I hope to finish today (Saturday) with putting up the Christmas stuff and continuing improving our home.

selfie
The ubiquitous “selfie” at USJ

Because this is not a holiday here, we took the kids to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which is one of the four Universal Studios (Orlando, Los Angeles, Singapore, Osaka) theme parks.  During holidays, the park is absolutely swamped with people causing long waiting times for rides, but during the off season and during the week, it is reasonably crowded. I think our longest wait time was an hour and most attractions were 15-30 minutes. Seeing the popularity of the Osaka USJ, which averages 8 million visitors per year, the owners, NBC Universal, are opening parks in Beijing (2019), Seoul (2020) and Moscow (2022). The Japanese especially love cartoon characters, Harry Potter and other universal movies, and so even with other parks opening in east Asia, I think USJ will be fine.

ocean

As you might know from previous blog posts, amusement parks are not my “cup of tea” and I loathe the crowds, consumerism and artificiality of it all. However, riding roller coasters is one of the things kids need to experience so I am glad I went yesterday. I loved watching their reactions to the rides and spending the day with them. It was a good way to spend “Black Friday” and we saw other Osaka International School families taking advantage of our school holidays being different than the local schools. It was a full day as we finished off our USJ experience with a decadent meal at the Hard Rock Cafe. We are planning a trip to Tokyo Disney before we leave Japan to round out our amusement park experiences.

Reflecting upon Thanksgiving, I have so many blessings. Healthy children, a beautiful wife I enjoy being with, even after almost 20 years together, an interesting career that allows me to follow my passion of teaching and travel, what more could a guy ask for. I am truly grateful for all of it!

Universal Studios Japan: Inside the Beehive

On our last day of spring break we took the kids to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which is located near the waterfront here in Osaka. I am not a fan of the big, themed amusement parks. I find them artificial, expensive and crowded and USJ lived up to my expectations. I would rather spend my family’s free time out in nature or doing something spiritually uplifting or engaging with the mind rather than lining up for “attractions”.  However, I was convinced by my lovely wife to give our children the experience, and she is right. It is one of the activities everyone should do at least once.

We did chose a bad day to go as it is during the local schools spring break as well. In speaking with a friendly parking attendant on the way out to our car, he gave us the figure of 51,000 visitors that day. He said the day before the park welcomed 60,000. On a bad day, they usually get round 30,000. The demographics were overwhelmingly Asian, with mostly Japanese, but with significant populations from the Philippines, China and other Asian countries.

I felt overwhelmed at the number of people as you can see in the photos in this post. All of the rides were between 90 minutes to 2 hours waiting time. There were even longish lines for getting food. My worst nightmare!

USJ was built in 2001 and the park has been highly successful throughout its history. It is the only non-Disney theme park to crack the top ten world wide in revenue and number of visitors. They are another one of those money-making machines, with for example, 9 dollar plastic souvenir mugs of “butter beer” for sale in the Harry Potter exact replica of Hogsmeade. Note that I am not a Harry Potter fan and I couldn’t get through the first book in the series. I don’t understand the universal appeal of the story, especially with adults.  Everywhere we went, came the opportunity to spend more money.

The best thing about the day was that we spent a lot of time together. There were some bright moments. There was an exciting Waterworld action theatre performance, complete with explosions, drama and getting the crowd wet. The roller coaster in the Jurassic Park was also priceless. It was the first time on a roller coaster for the kids.

I am glad I went and got it over with. How can a family with three young children who lives in Osaka, not go to USJ? However, it would have been better on a less crowded day.