OSAKA – “Cool Japan Heats Up” declares a sign welcoming visitors to an area of Universal Studios Japan (USJ) devoted to the country’s hottest pop culture exports.
Now in its second year, USJ’s “Universal Cool Japan” event features special attractions that run until June 26. It promises to deliver “the finest of Japanese entertainment to the world” — assuming everyone who wants to receive it can fly to Osaka.
It’s easy to be cynical about the whole concept. The entirety of the government’s Cool Japan push thus far has seemed like a billion-yen sinkhole — especially compared to the more successful soft-power push of South Korea.
To its credit, though, Universal Cool Japan works better than other chest-puffing ventures here, a fact made clear minutes before the gates open one recent sunny morning: The majority of people entering speak either Korean or Chinese. Japan’s tourism boom has really benefitted Kansai, and USJ is reaping the spoils, too.
Day passes are ¥7,200, and Universal Cool Japan 2016 brings back four attractions from last year’s initial run: “Evangelion” and “Attack On Titan” 4-D experiences, a “Monster Hunter” exhibition and a “Biohazard” zombie survival game (requiring an additional fee of over ¥3,000 — soft power isn’t cheap). Lines for most rides are at least 100-minutes long throughout the day, but none is as packed as this year’s newest addition: the Kyary Pamyu Pamyu XR Ride. Starring the titular J-pop performer — who has made inroads abroad, even though here she’s more of a representative for Harajuku’s kawaii (cute) culture than anything else — the wait for the ride reached 230 minutes by noon.
It’s at a more manageable 140 minutes when I line up at 10 a.m. Kyary’s most popular songs play on a loop for the next two hours, prompting many punters to replicate her choreography in an effort to stay warm. After a long wait, a chipper attendee snaps my photo and I venture into “Kyary’s Factory,” presumably where kawaii gets manufactured.
The ride itself is the world’s first “XR” roller coaster, an added bit of bait for tourists who don’t care about Harajuku. Riders wear “Kyary Goggles” that project a 360-degree virtual reality sticking close to Kyary’s Technicolor brand, made unnerving by the presence of dead-eyed, dancing cosmetics. My car twists, turns and drops through it all, though whenever the goggles slip off I realize I’m actually in a far scarier warehouse. Like anything you have to wait more than 30 minutes for, the end result fails to justify the time wasted standing around, but it’s good enough and the VR element is novel. The Korean tourist assigned to sit next to me said: “It was very, very fun.”
Universal Cool Japan is a pretty good effort to promote the country’s culture as plenty of tourists giddily lined up for these attractions. Yet walking around USJ, I’m reminded of how far Cool Japan has to go — this is, after all, a theme park celebrating the ultimate soft power machine: Hollywood. Worlds at USJ are devoted to “Harry Potter” and “Minions.” Cool Japan is fun, but it’s tough to sell yourself when you can’t even expand beyond your borders.