One of the coolest things about Japan might be right below your feet. All across the country, manhole covers are custom made for individual towns and cities. Even though it might seem like a mundane topic, the variety and beauty of these manhole covers is undeniable.
What’s the story behind this ubiquitous art? In the 80s, Japan wanted to standardize their sewer systems. Different municipalities hemmed and hawed, hesitant to replace existing infrastructure.
But then there was a breakthrough: what if each municipality got their own, customized sewer covers? As small concession, but an important one. The towns all agreed and the sewer system was overhauled.
These custom manhole covers were so important to these cities and towns because they were a chance for them to turn a normally boring part of a town into something that shows off local attractions, festivals, or crafts.
As I’m learning more and more, Japanese cities and towns are great at marketing and branding themselves (as the numerous town mascots prove), so this kind of thing makes perfect sense.
But one of the most interesting parts about all of this is how they’re made. All of Japan’s custom manhole covers are forged in Nagashima Foundry, where carved wooden masters lead to the creation of these beautiful covers. All of the covers are saved in an enormous central library.
These unique manholes have gathered a bit of a following since their inception. People from all over the world have come to love them and treat them less as barriers to endless tunnels of poo and more like tourist attractions.
A Flickr group of pictures of these manhole covers taken by tourists seems to go on for days; and there’s also a website (in Japanese) dedicated to locating and cataloging these covers across the country, making it easy for you to plan your trip around scenic sewer covers.
But perhaps the Holy Bible of Japanese manhole covers is a book called Drainspotting, an English book published a few years back detailing the history of these manholes, and collecting pictures of some of the best designs.
But unfortunately, these manhole covers might be turning into an endangered species. In these times of budgets cuts and belt-tightening, there’s less and less room in the budget for artsy manholes.
Even if there aren’t going to be any new manhole covers in the foreseeable future, the old ones will remain as makers of local pride and tourist attractions.
Saturday Timewaster is a weekly post that features Japanese videos, music, images, or games that will certainly waste your time (some weeks more than others). We hope you enjoy!