expo 2005 photo essays
- weekly report from the World Exposition in Aichi, Japan

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Week one (March 27, 2005)

My trip to Japan develops into a major disaster

My supposedly first week in Japan, preparing for the big event that is the Expo, and getting some preparations for work and life done, turned out quite different. My trip to Japan developed into a major disaster, which could only be resolved by the very kind help of the Korean staff at Incheon International Airport.

On the day of my departure to Japan, I arrive at Munich airport around 14:30h. The last week had been pretty exhausting due to all the farewell partying, some more farewell partying and me moving out of my flat which took me until a few hours before my flight departed. Therefore, I hope for an uneventful and smooth journey. Oh man was I wrong, the fun had only just begun.

Things start to get messy once we reach the Air France counter, which will be the air carrier for the first route to Paris. The Air France staff refuses to transport us without a visa. We explain that we will get a working visa once in Japan, we just need to get into the country on a tourist visa. They say they can't do it and that we need to change the return flight to three months from now, not six. We call the station manager over but no dice, our flight has to get changed. Also, we are told to check the matter immediately once in Japan. As we arrive in Paris, we meet two other colleagues, who say they didn't have any problems when checking in 30 minutes prior to us. I'm feeling lucky already.

· The passport disaster

Anyway, 16 hours later after an unexciting if uncomfortable flight and a few hours of stopover at Incheon airport in Seoul we are ready to board our plane to Nagoya. However, check-in at the boarding gate is not processing smoothly. Well, it is, for everybody but for us. Since we didn't check-in at the transfer desk after arrival in Seoul, our passports have to be checked now. We get the same questions - where is your visa, thank you we get our visa on arrival in Japan, where is your extension... Extension?

Extension for expired passport. It hits me that I forgot to renew my international passport which expired in 2003. Well now, that's pretty smart to have everything sorted out for moving to Japan and then TRAVELLING WITH AN EXPIRED PASSPORT! You gotta be kidding! say the looks of the Korean staff who have to help me out in the resulting crisis. Things start to get really busy since my plane is supposed to leave in 20 minutes.

So my luggage is unloaded and now it's seven in the evening and I have half of the desk staff working for my cause. All the while different personnel drops by and seems to ask "Holy shit, what's going on HERE?" After a short while it becomes clear that they can't let me travel to Japan without a valid passport. At this point, I am totally helpless and dependent on the staff. After all, I am in an Asian country, travelling to another Asian country, without a visa to either and without a valid passport. Two staff girls are constantly asking me questions while they keep making phone calls and sending faxes. They seem to get more and more annoyed as they realize that it was my foolishness that led to my situation. When I start telling the whole story, however, the atmosphere becomes a little more relaxed and sympathetic.

· Background: The working visa mess & The never-ending accreditation debacle

Cut back three weeks: I learn that due to software problems at the Japanese immigration office the German EXPO team cannot get their visas beforehand. The reason is that the program crashes upon inserting the digital photograph, losing all data. This only affects the Germans, however, because all other countries can submit their photographs by regular mail. Therefore, we have to enter Japan on a tourist visa and have everything sorted out once on Japanese soil. No visa: check.

Of course, with the proper visa procedure in place, the expiration of my passport would have been detected months ago and taken care of. Apart from that, Air France staff checked my passport thoroughly enough while looking for my visa to realize its expiration, so they shouldn't have let me board an international flight in the first place. No passport: check.

Now cue back one week: I get an urgent call from my bosses' wife regarding my accreditation procedure. Apparently, the Japanese side has lost the photographs I sent in and now is asking for new ones, to be sent by email. Great, we could have done it this way in the first place. Once my trouble in Seoul starts, however, I learn that my accreditation is canceled once the fact is known that I can't take my flight to Japan. This fact seems to reach the Japanese bureau about 10 minutes after my plane leaves. Yeah, the machine churnes slowly, but it spits you out real quick. No accreditation: check.

· Aftermath and resolution

In the end, I have to stay at Incheon International Airport for two more days. The morning after my disastrous arrival the Korean air staff spends the whole morning dealing with the German embassy and Korean immigration. As it turns out I can get a new passport in Seoul, but Korean immigration denies my leaving the airport since my passport is invalid. So I am in a really tight spot here: I can get a new passport, but not without having one. There seems to be no way around first returning to Europe, which of course means another 24 hours on the plane there and back.

The Korean Air Transfer Desk in Incheon

Cruising around Incheon International Airport

But, says the Korean staff girl, "there is another possibility": the German embassy can send the necessary forms by fax for me to fill out, and she can go to the embassy with my ID card and two photographs (which luckily I am carrying) and pick up the passport for me. However, she says she can't do it today, because she is working at the counter until 7 p.m., so she will do it in the morning. I can pick up my passport in the afternoon, since she starts working at 2 p.m.

So now I am even more embarrassed than I have already been throughout the whole affair. This staff girl goes to great lengths to help me, even going so far as to make the one hour plus journey to the embassy in her free time. When I say that I don't know what to say or how to thank her because it's not even her job she says "No, no, it's a pleasure". Can you imagine this happen in your own country? I certainly can't.

The Air Garden hotel at Incheon airport (source)

Hotel room. I wished to have stayed longer... NOT! (source)

Altogether I am having a pretty good stay. I stay at the Air Garden transit hotel inside the airport and spend the days mostly sleeping or watching Starcraft matches on Korean TV (they really dig that game here). I need to count every penny of my cash but it is all working out. Because of my extra two days I get enough rest to arrive in Japan fresh and full of energy.

· Final remarks

The next day, I finally get my new temporary passport and ticket. I arrive in Nagoya airport at nine in the evening and everything starts to run smoothly. Even though at first I was worried about the entry procedures because I have no more money on me everything turns out well - I have a nice talk with the immigration officer about his old times cruising around Poland. Of course it feels quite good to finally arrive in a country where you know your way around. So I still have some time to find an international ATM, buy something to eat and finally get picked up and taken to my flat.

Well, I guess I was pretty lucky during those two days. From what I heard later, no one from the company I am working for actually believed in me arriving on time. In the end, I managed to arrive 12 hours before the opening of the Expo. However, this was only possible by the enormous help of Mrs. Choi, Mrs. Kim and Mr. Lee (and the rest of the team) of Korean Air in Seoul. If you happen to transfer in Incheon airport, be sure to drop by their counter and say hello and thanks from me.

· Next week: The first week at EXPO