A few weeks before our trip, I kept tweaking our itinerary and budget. As I revised my excel sheet for the nth time, it became clear to me that the largest “experience” expense we would have would be Universal Studios Japan (USJ). Max would get in for free, but our ticket would’ve been Y7,900 each (Php 3,814.00 or USD 72.00 each).
Two weeks before our trip, I was ready to forgo USJ. It felt selfish to go because it was just for me. The only attraction I was really excited about was the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Mikey was barely a fan (he finished the first three books and refers to the fourth book as the boring one with the intrams) and Max had no idea who Harry Potter was.
When I told Mikey that I thought we should remove it from our itinerary, he disagreed. He knew that I was a huge fan and that I really wanted to go for a long time. He said that it would be a waste not to go and that we didn’t know when we would be back. Dramatically, he said: “why are we even going to Osaka if you won’t be able to see Hogwarts?” I appreciated his heart, but I wasn’t convinced, so he spent a few days trying to change my mind.
I knew Osaka would be pretty hot and I couldn’t imagine dragging Mikey and Max to an amusement park just so I could geek out. Thankfully, we talked to our friends who visited Osaka earlier this year (HI RAM AND DARM!) and they changed my mind. They said that they absolutely LOVED USJ and spent the whole day there. And more importantly, they said that Max would love it too! They told us that there was a Minions and Sesame Street area. And while Max wasn’t exactly a huge fan of either, I knew he would definitely have something to do there! So, I changed my mind and USJ was back on our must-do list!
Our friends also told us that USJ is usually packed from Friday-Monday, so we decided to go on Tuesday. We were also told to try to get to the park before it opened. Since it was summer, the park was scheduled to open at 7:30 AM that day.
One way to keep sane while traveling with a toddler is to learn to manage your expectations. For me, that meant not letting myself get excited (it made letting go easier if Max didn’t cooperate). But I couldn’t help it. I WAS SO EXCITED. I was so excited that I was up at 5:00 AM. I hurried through my bath and bought breakfast while Mikey and Max slept soundly in bed. I think I returned to the room at around 6:00 AM and just in time for Max to wake up.
We were on the train by 7:00 AM and we arrived at Universal City Station a few minutes past 8:00 AM. When we arrived, the line for tickets wasn’t too long. I got our tickets after a few minutes. The park didn’t seem so crowded, but it was much bigger than I expected! Max didn’t mind sitting in his stroller while we figured out where we were in the park. Mikey and I were looking through our maps trying to figure out how to get the Hogwarts when a USJ employee approached us and asked us if we needed help. I asked him if we needed a timed entry ticket to get into Harry Potter (our friends said that this might be needed) and he said that the park wasn’t crowded that day so we could just walk in. Hooray!
It was so hot, but I didn’t really notice yet. I was so excited! We walked across the park and got to the huge replica of the shark from Jaws. We were a little confused at first because the map said that we should have hit Harry Potter before Jaws. Right next to Jaws, there were three huge stones and path way surrounded by trees. Mikey asked me if there are three stones in any of the Harry Potter books. Honestly, I didn’t think there were, but there was nowhere else to go so we decided to take our chances. After a few minutes, I knew we were heading to the right direction because I could hear the Harry Potter music. Before we even hit the main entrance, I spotted a blue Ford Anglia! YUP! We were definitely at the right place!
We walked through the huge gates and we were magically transported to Hogsmeade! The first thing I saw was the Hogwarts Express and then all the little shops. I wanted to go in each shop and explore, but Max wasn’t having any of it. He sat in his stroller for too long and he wanted to explore too. So we let Max down and Mikey chased after him while I took the stroller and looked around. It was amazing! I felt like I stepped into the movies. It was pretty hot and Mikey was thirsty, so I offered to get him a Butterbeer. I was standing in a really long line when I noticed a lady waving at me on the other side of the stall (it was as big as a trailer). They had just opened up another window to take orders. I was so excited! I ran to her before anyone noticed and I ordered my Butterbeer. In my excitement, I pointed to a silver medieval beer mug. She asked me to make sure: “premium?”, she said. I didn’t know what that meant, but I nodded and said “yes! One Butterbeer please!” When I got to the cashier she asked for almost Y4,000.00 (Php 1,933.00 or USD 37.00) and I was so shocked. Then it dawned on me that this is what my friends warned me about. They said that you could get Butterbeer in a paper cup, in a plastic mug, or in a premium metal mug that was really expensive. I remember telling them that I would totally go for the paper cup.
I walked back to Mikey in shame. I told him what happened and he laughed. He said that that explains the text message he got from Citibank alerting him that I had just purchased something for Y3,900++. Mikey drank the Butterbeer in our expensive cup (which now sits proudly on our shelf) and I took over chasing Max around. Max was wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt that I got for him last Christmas and he was going up and down a low cobblestone stage where the house banners were showcased. I couldn’t believe I was at Hogwarts with my little boy.
I looked around the different shops. It was kind of clear that neither of us would get to try any of the rides because the lines were at least 45-minutes long. But we were lucky enough to do the walking tour of Hogwarts. Max didn’t really like it because it was dark, so he hugged me almost the entire time. Mikey encouraged me to pick out a souvenir from one of the shops, but everything was so expensive and I was still feeling guilty about the whole Butterbeer mistake. It was getting hotter and hotter, so I suggested that we check out other (hopefully air conditioned) attractions.
We decided to head to Universal Wonderland which had all sorts of toddler friendly activities. The first area was the Hello Kitty one. As we were walking by, Max saw a twirling cupcake ride and he really wanted to go on it. We asked the attendants and they said that Max could go on the ride and there was barely even a line! Max was really excited when we were choosing a cupcake to ride in and he was really excited when we got in, but as soon as Mikey and I sat down with him, all he wanted to do was breastfeed! So he was under my shirt the whole time! I think he thought the ride would be longer because he kind of cried when we were walking away.
The next area we went to was Snoopy Land. There was another ride there and Max really wanted to try, but he was too short to go on the ride. It would’ve been heart breaking, but he quickly forgot about it because there was an indoor play area. And hallelujah, it was air conditioned! We let him run around for a while. There was a small playground and replica of Charlie Brown’s house. He was so happy! After an hour or so in Snoopy Land, we took him to Sesame Street world. That’s where Max really went wild! It was like Kidzooona on steroids. There was a huge ball pit with a slide where giant Bert and Ernie were taking a bath, there was an area where kids could throw around giant balloons, there was a building area with large foam pieces that you could put together, and a sort of jungle gym area made out of rope and foam where you could climb and crawl. Max was so happy and it really tired him out because he didn’t even want to get out of his stroller to meet Elmo on our way to lunch.
We walked across the park to have lunch at a pizza parlor. It was so hot, so we didn’t really stop to check things out. Mikey and I had pizza and Max happily ate his risotto balls while watching a video. After lunch, we were thinking of exploring Minion Land with Max, but it was so hot. And even though Max seemed ok, Mikey and I were melting. It was getting difficult with Max because he wanted to run after the confetti on the floor and we would’ve totally let him, except the sun was so unforgiving and we were worried that he might get a sun burn. We walked around to try to find a shaded area, and we eventually spent some time in the carnival area. Mikey then played one of the ball tossing games and won a large Snoopy stuffed toy on his first try. But after that, it became clear that we were just killing time and that it might make more sense to leave USJ.
I was okay with leaving USJ after spending the morning and the afternoon there. Except, I really wanted to visit Hogsmeade one more time before leaving. When we got there, Max and Mikey had some ice cream. After that, Max wanted to breastfeed, so I actually breastfed him while he was sitting on his stroller. He eventually fell asleep and that was the perfect time for me to go around one more time by myself while Mikey took a break and looked after Max. I went around the different shops and returned to Mikey several times to let him know that I couldn’t find anything. I toyed with the idea of getting a wand (it was just a little bit more expensive than the Butterbeer), but I thought it would just spend most of its time in a drawer. I thought about getting Max a shirt, but it was so expensive and he would grow out of it so quickly. I tried getting Mikey a shirt, but they didn’t have anything in his size. I settled on the cheapest shirt in the shop—a red Hogwarts Express shirt with a 9 ¾ logo on it. I recently Marie Kondo’ed my closet and I remembered that I didn’t have any red shirts left. We need red outfits for certain Chinese occasions (i.e. birthdays and new year). I was so glad that I finally had a red shirt that I would actually enjoy wearing (I’m wearing it as I type this right now!).
With Max soundly asleep in his stroller, I said my last goodbyes to Hogwarts and Hogsmeade with my best friend by my side. He gave me a moment to take it all in again and we even walk towards Hogwarts so that we could take one last photo together. I can’t believe I almost talked myself out of experiencing all of that.
Max was still asleep when we were exiting the park and it turned out to be the right decision because a Minion water parade was just about to start as we walked out and we knew that if Max woke up, he would want to join the fun and his parents were already pooped (and didn’t have extra clothes). The train station was nice and almost empty on our way out. We decided that we would go back to the hotel to freshen up and re-group.
Walking back to our hotel in Shinshaibashi, I saw a small restaurant in one of the side roads that looked interesting. I’m not sure if it was the heat or the day’s activities, but even after a full lunch, I was famished. So, we had another full rice meal at the restaurant. Mikey had ramen, I had a beef rice bowl, and Max had gyoza.
After eating, we walked back to our hotel and Max was happy to be reunited with all of his toys (most of them from those egg vending machines all over Osaka) while Mikey was comfortably lounging in bed. When I realized that they would be that way for a while, I decided to make most out of the day (and my energy) and try to find the Daiso near our hotel. I shopped for about an hour when Mikey said that they were ready to go again. I walked back to the hotel with my shopping bags (it turns out, the Daiso was located in the street behind our hotel—again, we love our hotel’s location!) and we headed for another shopping excursion—this time to the nearby department store: Tokyu Hands. We spent about an hour and a half there picking out all sorts of things. Mikey went nuts with their Hario coffee equipment, and I bought a bunch of stickers, make-up, and cooling pillow cases. Max was pretty cooperative for the first thirty minutes or so. He watched a little bit of Monsters Inc. and then some ABC Kids TV on YouTube. When Max got tired of the iPad, Mikey and I took turns running around with Max.
We weren’t sure where we were going to have dinner, but we figured we’d find a restaurant on our way home. Walking back, we saw a restaurant that caught Mikey’s eye. It was called Enzo and the sign on the store was a familiar giant black bear logo. Mikey recognized the bear and thought that it was the same restaurant as the yakiniku place he wanted to try in Dohtoburi. When we went inside, the place was still pretty empty, but we were welcomed by very nice waiters. They led us to a private room upstairs and they were very nice to Max. Honestly, I don’t know very much about meats. In Manila, when Mikey tells me that we’re eating really good meat, I can’t really tell the difference. But I could definitely tell this time. The meat was so light and flavorful at the same time. It was perfectly marbled—the fat wasn’t concentrated in just one area so it wasn’t overwhelming. So each bite was perfect. It was the best meat I’ve ever had. Mikey says it was the meal of his life. And Max really liked it too. In fact, I had to order an extra bowl of rice because he ate most of mine!
We walked back to the hotel with happy hearts and full stomachs. We had to fight the sadness that came with the realization that we were already halfway through this trip. We still had three days left but we already missed Osaka.