When we were sitting back in South Africa a year ago, contemplating whether we actually wanted to go to Korea or not, we drew up a list of pros and cons. Amongst the list of pros was the fact that we could (we thought) easily travel around Asia, because we would be so much closer to the region than we would be back in South Africa. One country in particular that we both wanted to visit was Japan. We thought that it would be simple to get to Japan, with it being only a short flight from Korea. We became very excited at the prospect of getting on a plane and an hour or two later being in the country that is the heart of so many geek cultural icons. Nintendo, Pokemon, anime, manga: all of these things come from that small island. We dreamed of seeing their roots with our own eyes. Had we known how difficult and frustrating the process of getting into Japan would be, our dreams would be much more faded and greyscale.
Our most deluded thought was that we would simply be able to walk into Japan without a visa. Reading on forums online, we were spun tales of flights of fancy for a weekend with no more than an hour’s planning at an airport. We thought that we could be able to do that as well. One factor we didn’t take into account is that the people who penned those tales of whirlwind weekend trips were from the United States of America, and held USA passports. The USA passport was recently ranked the fifth most powerful passport in terms of accessing countries without a Visa (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/11552784/The-worlds-most-powerful-passports.html). The South African passport sat in a distinctly lackluster forty-second place. Crucially for our purposes, Japan is not on the list of countries that South Africans can travel to without a visa. Maybe next time we’ll travel to Belize, or even visit the dictatorland that is Zimbabwe.
Once we realized this, we began the process of applying for a visa. We booked our accomodation via airbnb.com, bought our plane tickets, and submitted what we thought to be the necessary documents, including our Alien Registration cards (essentially a dompas that allows us to work as a foreigner in Korea), passports, and the statement from our joint bank account. We were told that we would receive an email the following day notifying us if there were any additional documents that we would need. Two agonizing weeks later, we sent the Embassy an email asking for follow-up, hoping that they had simply forgotten to let us know that we could collect our visas. If only. The weak light of our dream began to fade – the visa could take two weeks to print after an accepted application, and our time window was closing.
As it turns out, there were two major problems with our application – our accommodation did not appear to be licensed by the Japanese government, and there was no bank statement for my application (our bank account is in Kristen’s name). The first problem was fixed relatively quickly by booking at a hotel that is properly licensed for the duration of our stay, and submitting that booking to the Embassy for application purposes. No, we have no intention of staying there, and we will cancel the booking the moment that we hear that our application has been accepted. Apparently this is a common practice amongst travellers to Japan, and is the easiest way to get governmental approval. It is understandable that accommodation from airbnb will not be licensed, as it is essentially people renting rooms from their homes online. Nevertheless, once we submitted the illusory hotel booking, it was accepted. That left only the banking details still to fix.
This problem would remain unresolved for far longer. The first representative from the Embassy that we spoke to simply could not comprehend that I simply did not have a bank account. We engaged in a frustrating exchange of emails trying to explain this to them, but the concept simply would not dawn on them. We tried to set up an account for me, but there apparently needed to be three months’ worth of transactions to show financial stability. We even debated forging my name and account number of my account onto one of Kristen’s bank statements. Luckily, about a week of constant back and forth later, another Embassy employee began to talk to us, and seemed to understand our situation. He saw that the account was stable, and had enough money to provide for our stay. All we need to do now is provide an official document from our employer stating that my salary gets paid into Kristen’s account each month. With this insurgence of logic into the conversation, the light of our dream began to grow bright once more.
Today, our journey towards a visa may be drawing to a close. Our employer should provide us with the necessary document at some point today, which we will happily send off to the Embassy. Hopefully, by this weekend, we will hear whether it has finally been accepted. We are beginning to see the bright colours of our childhood characters surrounding us with nostalgia and happiness. In about four weeks’ time, we’ll see them with our own eyes, and not just our imaginations. And that will make all of the hassle worthwhile.