We often make friends with stray dogs when we travel, because, well, there are a lot of them in the world. In Panagia, it's cats. Cats on the rooftops, cats in the alleys, cats in the gutters caterwauling at dusk. They're all quite skittish so I took it as a challenge to get one of them to trust me.
I started feeding tiny bits of sausage once a day to a squirlish black and white cat with beautiful green eyes that just stare and stare into mine when I speak to her. The first day I only got her halfway up the steps. The second day she came to the front door and almost ate out of my hand. On the third day she lept to the deck, bolted across the floor and ran into the kitchen, earning herself much yelling and commotion, and the nickname "Houserunner".
Some days Houserunner brings another cat with her who I call "Little Brother" (but is more likely her sister or daughter). This one has the same beautiful eyes and inquisitive stare, and enjoys hiding in the "cat cave" underneath my seat on the deck.
During our first week in Panagia we passed a very pregnant calico, but soon forgot her. Last week she reappeared with three kittens in tow, presumably now 3-4 weeks old. They moved in to a drainage hole in the house across the street, and we had a clear view from our deck of them frolicking in the bushes and clambering around the ruined building next door.
This morning we came out to find only a single black kitten alone in front of their home. He sat there and mewed tiny mournful mews for hours. Where was mom? Where were brother and sister? It was heartbreaking, and made it hard to concentrate. If happiness is a kitten, then sadness is a lost kitten. Eventually there came an answering meow from down the road, and the little guy perked up and scrambled off in that direction.
Several hours later we heard the same mewing and he returned. I brought him a saucer of milk and a nibblet of sausage, mostly to see if he was eating solid food. He went for the sausage, so that answered that. More mewing, then finally came that answering meow again and off he went. What's going on? Is the little kitten just getting lost? Or is mom ditching him on purpose?
Colin doesn't like it when I feed strays. Not because they'll become pests, though that's part of it. He feels bad for how confused and lost they'll be when we stop feeding them. Like they'll get used to free food and forget how to forage for themselves, then after we go they'll pine for that happy full feeling. I'm not sure if Colin's right, but it sure is sad. *sniff*
We love strays but for god's sake people, spay and neuter your pets!
Edit: But wait there's moar! A young spotted mom (The Lynx) just arrived in the ruined house next door with a small army of kittens in tow. Houserunner and Little Bro are there too playing with the kittens. It's a monstrous pile of adorable. How the hell are they going to feed them all??
Edit #2: Lynx and Little Sister (definitely female) seem to be living as a family unit with at least 10 kittens. I didn't know cats did this! They're both nursing and don't seem to know or care whose kittens are whose anymore. Today we watched them move their offspring up onto the hill, which took hours of back and forth and responding to the cries of kittens who got lost along the way (so that's how that happens). Little Sis got fed up by the end and carried the stragglers up by the scruff of their necks.
Every morning we wake to the sound of roosters crowing and the distant tinkle of goat bells, which Colin has dubbed the Thassos Orchestra. We work till midafternoon then go for a hike once the day starts to cool off. Almost from our door we can start on a dirt road that meanders up into the hills, where we might come across the afore-mentioned local musicians, grazing and wandering through the fields of flowers and scree, their bells jangling as they shyly trot under the pines to avoid us. They blend in well with the forest. Sometimes it sounds like the goats are so close, but you can't see them.
As it is with the bees. There must be 100 different kinds of flowers blooming in the hills. Honey is one of the local industries so there are bee boxes lining the roads, and at the height of the day you can hear the constant low drone of bees from our balcony. Last week while we were hiking, we were sure we heard a rushing river just ahead. The sound seemed to get quieter as we approached and the hum of bees got louder, until we reached a clearing filled with ferns and practically vibrating with the sound of bees... although eerily we still couldn't see them. There are chapels all over the hillsides here so we dubbed that spot "Our Lady of the Buzzing Bees". I'm pretty sure the bees imitated the river noise to lure us there, but I'm not sure why...
Yesterday we headed up the network of seemingly unused but well maintained dirt roads to what we call "Spider Mountain". Incredipede artist Thomas Shahan has a real love of jumping spiders, and apparently it's contagious because Colin couldn't take ten steps without bending down to wrangle another scurrying creature while I took photographs for identification.
Thanks to this site we learned that the curious holes we found were burrows of the large wolf spider (also known as a 'true' tarantula) Geolycosa vultuosa. We poked a stick down one and were shocked when the hole's owner grabbed the end and tugged it hard. We couldn't lure him far enough out to get a decent look but dimly saw some large yellow mandibles and gleaning eyes, and I now have a very good reason to never put my finger down any hole in the ground, ever.
We were also disturbed by the antlions which are horrible alien creatures like the sand worm from Return of the Jedi, a mouth with huge pincers waiting at the bottom of a sand funnel for ants to fall in. I fed them some of the fat buzzing flies that kept following us for I don't know what reason. Sometimes nature is like a horror movie if you look close enough.
We finally made it to the beach last Friday when the weather hit 30 degrees. There's a bus that goes three times a day so we had to time our trip carefully. First, we scrambled around the point and swam off the rocks, then lunch at a lovely restaurant ("Gatos", the Greekest-looking one beside the water with ivy growing on the underside of the palapa roof), followed by an hours walk to the other end of the beach, swimming again in the shallows (much warmer than off the rocks), and exploring the towns of Skala Panagia and Skala Potamia. "Skala" (ladder) is a synonym for a harbor controlled by a town further up the mountain. Except that today those two towns aren't exactly ports. We did see a collection of tiny two-man fishing boats, but mostly Golden Beach is all about the tourist trade.
There must be enough hotel rooms to fit 2,000 tourists down there, but the place was a ghost town and we saw less than 20 other people. That didn't stop restaurants and bars from setting up all their tables, and the beach was marred with hundreds of empty lawn chairs and umbrellas that I assume somebody had to set up every morning. I think this has as much to do with the time of year as the economy, since we saw the same thing when we were in Turkey a couple years ago. Back then we'd argued with one hotel manager that it was mid-June and 32 degrees, so why was the advertised swimming pool still empty? The manager insisted, "it's the off season, nobody wants to swim until July" (but eventually did fill it for us).
Colin and I are happy to visit places during the off season, even if we get the odd rainstorm or typhoon.
We've been cloistered in our new home on the island of Thassos, Greece, for a couple weeks now. It's so different from Athens we might as well be on the other side of the world. We're living in the little mountain town of Panagia (pronounced Panayhia - it means Virgin/Madonna), which has a population of maybe 400 right now. There are probably more goats and chickens than people.
The streets are so windy and narrow that cars can't make it up to our part of the village, making it very peaceful. A series of canals run beside the roads bringing clear water down from a natural spring. Gardens spill into the streets, and all include grape vines that are starting to show signs of bearing fruit. I wonder if everyone will make their own homebrew wine, or if they combine the grapes from every house together. Wine is one of the exports here along with honey, olive oil, and a shiny white marble they pull out of the big quarry peaking over a nearby hill.
Instead of the iconic Greek red tile roofs, the little white houses in our little Panagia stand out by having slate roofs. Whitewashed stucco covers the traditional stone walls beneath, which looks to me like heaps of rocks and the occasional haphazard wooden board. A surprising number of houses that have been abandoned to the passage of time, including the ruined walls of a neighboring house which we overlook from our ample balcony.
As usual we spend our days on the balcony, reclining with our laptops on two single beds at either end. There's a table between us (the only one in the house), where we eat meals consisting of Greek salad, fresh bread with olive oil & vinegar, and whatever Greek recipe I've tried to implement that day.
There's a bakery and grocery just a few steps down the hill, and trucks come by every morning with loudspeakers announcing fresh vegetables and fish. Further down in the center of town are four restaurant/bars facing eachother, where the men of the town spend their evenings drinking retsina and gossiping. The women sweep homes and putter in their gardens, and have shouted conversations between balconies. The older ladies all wear black blouses and long black skirts. I hear the period of mourning for the death of any family member is 2-5 years, but widows and the especially mournful will wear black for the rest of their lives. It's so common here it almost seems like a fashion statement. Everyone is friendly, although few of them speak English.
They all say "hello" to which we answer "yia sas".
We were warned about staying near Omonia station in the "bad" part of town. Colin was nervous about arriving at midnight and walking through there with all our worldly posessions, so he meticulously planned our route from Syntagma square to the hotel. It took us along two wide roads lined with upscale shops... sort of. Every third or fourth storefront was abandoned, smashed up and/or burnt out. Graffiti covered every available surface. The word that came to my mind was "wounded", like this part of the city had been beaten up, whether by riots or the economy in general.
Omonia didn't look much better in the light of day, and the damage stretched all the way to the old town around the Acropolis. It was hard to tell where the modern ruins ended and the ancient ones began. The grafitti was even further spread, mostly short phrases written with fat black markers on the ubiquitous white marble. We'd desciphered the Greek alphabet earlier using an in-flight magazine, but none of the words were familiar.
We strolled over to Lykavittos hill and took the furnicular to the top (not a thrilling ride, but it was a hot day). From the top we could see Athens stretching out in all directions, uniformly beige 4-8 story buildings packed in tightly by the surrounding hills. No skyscrapers or obvious downtown, but there are several big parks and at least a dozen 2500-year old archeological wonders just plopped around the city.
On our second day we met with a couple of local independent game developers from Flipped Horizons to get their perspective of the city and Greece's local games industry (namely, that there isn't much of one). Their 20-some person studio produces more games every month than we have made in our entire professional careers. It's like they're in a permanent state of game jamming, and it seems to have fostered a strong feeling of camaraderie (not unlike soldiers at war).
We had a late tour of the Parthenon and watched the sun set over a much nicer view of the city bordered by olive groves. We had dinner at an outdoor tapas place (what do they call tapas here?) and ouzo at a very cool little bar called Loop down in Thiseio. One thing we loved about Athens was the amount of outdoor seating. And the Athenians seem like a pretty hip and happy bunch all things considered.
Our flight was delayed until the next evening, but I suspected the posters pasted all over the city with a picture of a fist clenching a wrench and the words "something something MAH 1" were going to put a damper in any plans we tried to make. Sure enough, Athens celebrated May Day with a general strike, closing all the museums, archeological sites and trains to the airport. So instead we wandered towards Syntagma square to see what we could see.
We were immediately caught up in an enormous parade of chanting ralliers which pulled us along for ten or twenty blocks. The side streets were blocked off with hundreds and hundreds of police in riot gear. We'd noticed a huge police presence over the weekend in just about every corner of the city. We saw them in the squares, in the parks, even outside our hotel just hanging out in big groups. I'm not sure if this was normal, or if they came from out of town for this one event.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we did have to head for the airport but are keeping track of the Mayday protests through Twitter. I hope the 30 degree weather will keep tempers down and Athens won't aquire any more bruises or broken bones tonight.
After Tokyo we spent two months in the Philippines with our friends Ron and Arlie, and my god did we have a blast. We stayed in a seaside mansion where we had delicious Filipino food prepared for us nightly, and were visited by friends from across the indie-verse and beyond. We took a lot of pictures, and it seems most of them fit into the categories: sailing, snorkeling... and bugs.
Oh and some photos of me shooting an AK-47 and hiking up to a native Mangyan village with our friend Peter. The expats were super friendly and welcoming, centered around the local yacht club where we had dinner on Friday nights and took a few sailing lessons. The older brits and their young Filipino wives seemed a little colonial at times, but some like Peter were active in the community and helping to promote touristic alternatives to seedy Sabang and boring White Beach.
After the Philippines the two of us spent two weeks in Hong Kong. Unfortunately Colin came down with a mysterious illness and was out of commission for much of it. We stayed in Mong Kok on the Chinese side which has the highest population density in the world, as well as many wonderful markets and whole streets dedicated to aquariums, flowers, and songbirds. Our room was a cozy little breadbasket, bright and quiet and just big enough for a bed and the two of us to stand. We met some eccentric housemates and wrote an iPad game for Colin's mum, which teaches Japanese Katakana using a crossword and photos from our time in Tokyo. We showed it around at an indie game meetup in Hong Kong and people were impressed, so we may release it on the app store eventually.
Christmas with family on Vancouver Island was great as always. It hasn't snowed yet but there's still time before we head down to San Francisco. We'll be there until March or April but haven't decided where to go after that. Europe? Eastern Canada? We'll see...
Yesterday we met up with Naoko's friends Tomo and Chie. Naoko runs a Japanese tea cafe on Vancouver Island we _love_. Whenever we're in the area we drop by for some great tea and sushi. We've become friends and so when she heard we were heading to Tokyo she set us up with Tomo and Chie. We had such a fun day!
Having locals show you around is always the best way to see a place. We started off in Shibuya and we peppered them with questions about fashion and music and how the city works. Shibuya is a centre for fashion conscious kids. Tokyo is very fashion aware and people obviously spend a lot of money on their clothes. We went to the trendiest mall in the trendiest part of Tokyo and it was like a missing puzzle piece. Here was where everyone under 25 in Tokyo was being dressed. The mapping of clothes on the rack to people we'd seen all month on the street was near one-to-one.
From there we headed to Setagaya where Chie had grown up. She knew about this great little bakery. The place was nearly invisible it had some writing on the windowless wall but no distinct bakery feel. Apparently it had been a sushi place previous which I have no problem believing. They only make Japanese style baked goods so we picked up a variety of dumplings with a variety of stuff in them and then headed to the park for a picnic.
On the way we stopped off at a coffee place to pick up something to drink. This place did all their own roasting and I had an amazing espresso.
The park itself was really nice but their kids area was mind-blowing. It was a lot like you'd imagine Peter Pan and the Lost Boys live. It was a wooded area with kind of haphazardly constructed wooden structures with tarps draped over them as slides. Someone had started a camp fire and kids were lighting branches on fire and swinging them around. Other kids were destroying bits of wood with machetes while other kids climbed around on top of an old full-sized steam engine.
It was chaos and heaven! The sort of place that in North America is becoming more and more scarce. It was especially the opposite parenting philosophy of San Francisco. Here it was the law of the jungle and in SF it's an over coddled padded room. It was refreshing to see.
After that we headed up to a craft bazaar that was happening. Here we found the Moneygami guy! We'd seen his stuff somewhere before but still can't quite place where. He does origami with money. Often giving famous presidents, prime ministers and scholars wicked hip-hop hats. His stuff is great! He was putting on little courses in moneygami and selling his books. I sat down and turned a 1,000 yen note into an awesome little hip-hop Hideyo Noguchi.
While we were there we made up some Hexatubes and passed them around. They went over very well. SInce paper folding is much more common thing in Japan people seemed to get the Hexatube much more quickly here than in Canada or the US.
After that we perused the crafts on display. I got my portrait burning into wood which was pretty cool.
By then it was time for dinner and we retired to a bitching little Izakaya. The food was _so good_. Hilights for me include the avocado and tuna slices as well as the kimchi tofu. We all chatted about life, Japan, Canada, how things differed and how they were the same. It was a great evening. I even tried out some of the better Japanese whisky. It was very smooth. Possibly to a fault.
Dinner was great and the company was even better! One our best days in Japan for sure!
We met Justin Potts at the Tokyo Game Show and agreed to meet up another day. The day we chose happened to be the same day a Typhoon hit Tokyo.
We hadn't been to Akihabara yet this time around and it's close enough to walk to so we started the day walking out to Akihabara. It's about an hour walk and was very pleasant. We picked up some snacks along the way and kind of haphazardly wandered towards Akiba.
Akihabara is nuts. It used to be the centre of Japan's electric component industry. It's still a great place to build robots but since the electrical industry has all wandered over to cheaper countries it's burgeoned as the nerd capital of Tokyo. Giant six story arcades, manga cafes everywhere, and it's Tokyo so shit gets pretty weird.
One of the famous things about Akihabara are the maid cafes. Cafes where your waitress dresses like a French maid and serves your coffee in a very demure manner. There are cafes where girls dress up in old-timely Japanese clothes, as cats, you name it. One of the duties of the maid is to pound the pavement and flag down potential customers. I bet on a pleasant day in summer flagging down nerds on the corner is a fine occupation. In the middle of a Typhoon it is less pleasant. But there they were! The dampness probably only adding to the moe.
As the typhoon got into full swing the umbrellas started to snap. I wore a BC style rain jacket and was impervious to the rain and the wind. In Japan the umbrella is pretty much the beginning and the end of rain protection though and typhoons eat umbrellas for lunch!
There is a certain joy in watching umbrellas flip inside out and the fabric tear off snapping spokes like twigs. I don't know what it is. You would think the waste of materials and money and the knowledge that the owner is now going to get well and truly drenched would make it a sad sight. But it's not. There is something magical about an umbrella being destroyed. Something unfailingly kinetic and dramatic.
Every time we stopped at a corner I'd watch for likely umbrellas and secretly root for the wind to quickly change directions and take their owners from behind. I took such glee in the sudden *poof* of an umbrella exploding followed by the battle weary owner's accusative stare of betrayal at their once trusty umbrella.
I don't know why umbrella exploding is so much fun but the local news even dedicated several minutes to umbrella-exploding montages whenever they could get away with it.
Sarah actually went through four umbrellas herself. Every time she lost an umbrella we would pick up a damaged-but-not-wrecked umbrella that had been discarded. She'd truck it along until it exploded and find another one.
So there was definitely some havoc breaking out but we were still keen for dinner with Justin so we decided to head to the train station a little early just in case. Well turns out that wasn't necessary because the trains were simply not running. The subway was at the moment but there was no guarantee that it would continue to be at the end of the night so it looked like dinner was out.
Too bad! We ended up walking home again which was really fun. The rain and the wind was going like crazy but it was very warm. Neither the rain nor the wind had a chill to it at all so it was a very blustery, wet, but warm walk home. It was fun to watch the city cope with the weather. Clearly typhoons are not an unknown here. There were sandbags outside store's doors the day before and everyone was pretty much getting where they needed to be. There were even people riding bikes while holding umbrellas. I dunno how they managed that one.
One of the reasons we get a place near Ueno is because it's close to Ueno Zoo one of our favorite places in Tokyo. It's probably the best zoo we've ever been to... I'm not sure who it's really competing with on that front. I don't think any other zoos really come close. And at 7$ it's also one of the most affordable things to do in Tokyo.
Right as soon as we got into the Zoo we saw a change. Previously the adorable little Red Pandas had held the position of prominence near the entrance. Now the Red Pandas have been banished to the bowels of the bear section (they aren't really in bowels, it's a very nice area they live in now). They have been roughly displaced by their bigger, showier cousins the _Giant_ Panda.
Pandas are a zoos dream really. Rare, interestingly coloured, interesting history and cultural importance. Plus they are an active, human like, showy creature. So there was quite a crowd around the Pandas but it was still really cool to see them because they are rare, interestingly coloured, have interesting history and cultural importance. Plus they are an active, human like, showy creatures.
Moving on from the Pandas it seems like everything was having babies! There was a baby black bear, a baby kangaroo, baby cats, baby gorilla(!) baby everything! The great thing about youth is it makes you jump around doing stuff and harassing your elders all the time. Which is pretty fun to watch!
I also really like the Marmosets because they're the only animal in the zoo that has any interest in humans. I don't know if it's my facial hair or that I'm always trying to mess with them but they seem to really like me. I could get a little group of them all following me around with their eyes. I like it when animals do this because you can make it difficult for them. You can peek back and forth around a branch or make them swivel their heads back and forth if they are looking behind them. Just some very simple interaction like following your head with their eyes and you can invent an inter-species game. Pretty fun.
I'm incredibly impressed with Ueno Zoo's ability to strip away walls. There's a really big lake filled with giant Lilly leaves. There are some big trees and little islands to one side on the lake which the Ring-Tailed Lemurs get the run of. The Lemurs have no walls, I guess they just don't like to swim. We sat and had some hot chocolate while watching the Lemurs cavort around their domain.
They also have sloths in the trees growing in the middle of the path and Japanese Raccoons in the trees growing inside a high spiraled walkway. They also have Cockatiels outside with no cage. Last time they appeared to have flown away. This time they were present! Actually they don't let the raccoons climb around in the trees anymore. They must have escaped!
The tiger also put on a hell of a show for us. Stalking around its enclosure and right up to the glass eyeing all the gawkers. You could easily imagine catching sight of one in the jungle and shitting yourself in terror.
So, well done Ueno zoo! We might even go back. There was apparently a baby Black Rhino we didn't see!
The main attraction for us in Tokyo is the Tokyo Game Show. Yes because it's a huge famous game expo, but more because I am presenting Incredipede at Sense of Wonder Night!
SOWN is a two hour show at the Tokyo Game Show showcasing odd and wonderful games. It's a bit of a tonic for the main expo hall. The main hall is all big-budget games which tend to be pretty conservative in their design. If you were spending twenty million dollars you'd be conservative too. I was invited to present Incredipede at SOWN so that's why we're spending a month it Tokyo before leaving to meet Ron and Arlie in the Philippines.
The expo floor itself was pretty fun. Like I said, it was mostly dilled with shooters and rythm games and sequels to shooters and rythm games, but there was some good stuff too. A bunch of asian colleges had really nice booths with a half dozen games each. Their games were reliably bizarre and crazy. Not polished at all, but wacky as hell. So we spent most of our time playing those games.
We also played the new Final Fantasy (what? 13? I dun remember) but playing a game that is all plot and menus is pretty hard when you don't speak the language. We did spend a bunch of time playing Soul Calibur 5 because I can apparently spend any arbitrary amount of time playing Soul Calibur. The Playism [playism.jp] booth was pretty damn rad too. They had a bunch of indie games that were really fun. We ended up hanging out with the playism guys as well as the indies showing at their booth.
One of the stand out oddities was BrainKiss. Two people don headbands and clip a thing to their ear and then stare into each other's eyes. The game then tells you if you are interested in each other. One of the guys who works on it was showing it to us and he spoke perfect English. He was noticeably nervous about a couple playing it. I don't think he had high confidence that it would return the verdict we wanted. But we braved the machine and stared longingly into each other's eyes for fifteen seconds. Sarah apparently loves me but I didn't do so well :/ I blame my nervousness about my talk!
The talk itself was really fun and went really well. I've written more about it here.
The day after the talk we met up with Pierre and his girlfriend Chinatsu. Pierre moved to Tokyo to teach English about four years ago. We met up with him last time we were in Tokyo (about four years ago) and haven't seen him since! It was great fun hanging out with them. We started with lunch and then hit up Kinokuniya books. Kinokuniya is my favorite book store in SF. If you visited us in San Francisco then I probably dragged you there. There aren't many of them in the world, a few in Tokyo and then one in Japan Town SF, but their collection of art, design, photography, and architecture books is amazing. The one in Shinjuku we went to did not disappoint. Among the treasures we were flipping through an amazing frog photography book considering art styles for Incredipede.
Chinatsu knew about a Nepalese fair that was going on in Harijuku so we jumped on a train and headed out there. It was really fun. There must be a fair Nepalese population in Tokyo because there were a lot of vendors with only Nepalese characters on their signs. I walked up to one of these and spied some mutton stew that was fantastic. I get bored of Japanese food pretty fast so this was a really nice switch. Also there was wrestling! High flying, pile driving wrestling! So that was pretty fun. We also took a nice walk in the park to cool down from all the choke-holds.
After that we wandered the streets of Tokyo. This is definitely one of my favorite pass times. We walked past lots of interesting places. Including an invite-only jewelry store, a vw micro-bus with a pizza-oven in it (serving lunch at a farmer's market), a giant lit-from-inside paper mache samurai being paraded around the street being followed by three huge Taiko drums plus lots more. Tokyo is an amazing city. We stopped for coffee in a Blenz (Canadian themed!) before heading off for dinner. Pierre and Chinatsu showed us this amazing neuvo hippy,Indonesian curry place called Magic Spice in Shimokitazawa. Here check out their website, it's a pretty accurate representation of the mood they have going: http://www.magicspice.net/
The food was really terrific and it's one of the few places in Tokyo you can actually get things spicy.
After dinner we wandered into an _amazing_ store called Village Vanguard. It blew my mind three separate times. It was kind of like a party nick-nack shop you might find in Canada but instead of having chincy crap it had amazing stuff. Including: the wooden keyboard I've been lusting after for years (mind blown), a Theo Jansen build-your-own-Theo-Jansen-thing model kit (mind blown) and several Japanese copies of "1000 games you have to play before you die" which happens to contain Fantastic Contraption so I got to show Chinatsu and Pierre my game in print (mind blown).
By that time it was 11:00 and after all the roaming around we were pretty tired so we said farewell for now and headed home. That was yesterday. Today we're taking it easy and just writing a lot of emails and blog posts. Tomorrow? God who knows in this city.
We flew in to Haneda airport in midafternoon, but it could have been 2am for all we knew after 30-some hours since our heads had touched pillow. We bought Passmo pay cards which work on all the trains and subways now, and also vending machines and even restaurants around the city. Finally, a kind of debit card for hopelessly cash-driven Tokyo! We ate tempura udon (and paid via vending machine, naturally) and headed for the Sakura House offices in Shinjuku.
I'd been prepared for hot weather but the humidity (32C feels like 36) was hard to take in our travel clothes and backpacks. I noticed women daintily dabbing the sweat from their faces with tiny lace-trimmed towels and stopped to buy one for myself - it's been a lifesaver. We now understand why there are drink vending machines on every second block in this city. These are record high temperatures for September, but August often gets up to a sweltering 35C/95F.
Sakura House dominates the long-term foreiner housing market here, offering reasonably priced rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Most importantly, they don't charge "reikin" which is the standard moving-in fee. Also known as "key money", it's considered a gift to the landlord, equivalent to up to three month's rent. I guess people don't move very often around here!
At their office we signed reams and reams of documents, promising to follow proper garbage separation rules, agreeing not to share files on the local lan, and itemizing everything in the apartment down to the number of spoons - 2. We took the refreshingly air conditioned Yamanote line back to our room in Asakusa Iriya house. Look, they're so organized our room even has a video on Youtube.
It's actually a bit of a dump. Not surprising given the low price, but with all the crap they made us sign you'd have thought we were moving into a palace. The furniture's cheap and mismatched, the windows are a meter from neighboring buildings, the garbage hasn't been taken out in a month (remember the heat...) and the door doesn't lock. Not that we're worried about crime here. However, it's quiet and our room is relatively big with its own kitchen and working aircon, tatami floors and two Japanese style futons that joined together are bigger than a king-sized bed! We have only one ghostly housemate who may not even speak English, and as I mentioned doesn't like to take the garbage out.
I chose this place for the location in Taito-ku, between the bustling street markets and pleasant parks of Ueno to the east, and the traditional temple district of Asakusa to the west. It's an older part of the city with two and three story buildings, and seemingly no local zoning laws. Next door is a tiny slacklining gym, and at the end of the street trucks are loaded with sheets of glass during the day. There are restaurants and combinis dotted around every block, yet it maintains the feel of a quiet residential neighborhood, lined with potted plants and filled with children playing. Our walk to Ueno takes us through the household shrine shopping district, where store after identical store blasts cool air onto the street, inticing people to browse through their shiny wooden cabinets.